The Language of the Game.

As I wrote here, I got David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer to accompany the World Cup, and I’m finding it riveting; it’s almost certainly the best history of any sport I’ve read, brilliantly combining sporting and social history. Surprisingly (to me), it starts with Chinese cuju and continues with the ball game both popular and culturally central in ancient Mexico and Central America, immortalized in the Popol Vuh (in which the sun and moon are the bodies of the hero twins who lost a game of ball to the gods), but neither are ancestral to the modern game, and he soon turns to the “large-scale and often riotous” ball games of the Celtic world which probably gave rise to the medieval English pastime so often, and fruitlessly, banned by the authorities. Having survived royal prohibition, it nearly succumbed to modernity, and in 1801 Joseph Strutt could write, “The game was formerly much in vogue among the common people, though of late years it seems to have fallen into disrepute and is but little practiced.”

But football, as we know, survived. It did so because it was preserved and nurtured in institutions that were beyond the cultural reach of Methodists, industrialists and artisans. Britain’s public schools were the ludic zoos of the age. They provided refuge for the wild and endangered games of rural Georgian Britain where they were bred and developed before being released into the new sporting and social ecology of industrial Victorian Britain.

If you find that as delightful as I do, you may want to read the book. At any rate, in the chapter on the first expansion of the game to the wider world around the turn of the twentieth century, I found a passage of clear LH relevance:

The English language itself was considered the mark of modernity and an essential device for excluding any would-be players from the lower classes. In its inaugural statutes the early Parisian club White Rovers stated, ‘Football being an essentially English game, all players must use the English language exclusively when playing together.’ This homage to the power of English remains in the Anglicized club names of the Netherlands, like Go Ahead Eagles and Be Quick Denver, and of Italy, where it is AC Milan not Milano, and Genoa not Genova. In Switzerland Grasshoppers and Young Boys remain among the leading clubs, while in Latin America Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Lawn Tennis, Corinthians and The Strongest still play in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia respectively.

He goes on to talk about “Dr James Spensley, the leading force and player at Genoa Cricket,” who “was described in his obituary as having ‘widespread interest[s] in philosophical studies, Greek language, Egyptian Papyrus, football, boxing and popular university. He even initiated an evening school in Genoa.'” Talk about your Renaissance man!

Addendum. And now I know why the Italians call it calcio; on p. 154 Goldblatt, writing about the rise of Italian nationalism, says:

This flicker of Italian nationalism in football was inflamed even further when in 1908 representatives of the gymnastic movement acquired a majority on the Italian Football Federation’s governing council. The cabal immediately began to agitate over the power and role of foreigners in Italian football, and Milan, Genoa and Torino — all of whom insisted on fielding foreigners — were excluded from that year’s national competition. In a strained compromise, indicative of the fundamental weakness of Italian ultra-nationalism, the ban on foreigners was rescinded in return for the official adoption of calcio as the name of the game rather than football: a symbolic victory based on an invented history.


  1. des von bladet says

    This homage to the power of English remains in the Anglicized club names of the Netherlands, like Go Ahead Eagles and Be Quick Denver, and of Italy, where it is AC Milan not Milano, and Genoa not Genova.

    Humbly report:

    1. No Denver in the Netherlands. Perhaps Deventer, where Go Ahead Eagles started as Be Quick. Alternatively, consider Colorado.

    2. Even better, it is Genoa Cricket and Foopball Club. This is why I support them.

  2. The oldest soccer club in Vienna is “First Vienna FC 1894”, founded by British expats in the 19th century. Unfortunately, after many decades of success they have been toiling away in basement leagues for a while now.

    The fact that the best team in Austria also has an English name – “Red Bull Salzburg” – has nothing to do with English being an exclusive language in the late 19th century, and is simply corporate sponsorship. But it demonstrates that English is still considered the “mark of modernity”.

  3. Then there is FC Rànger’s of Andorra. I surmise the founders added the accent to indicate the stress, then worried it no longer looked English enough, so added some ostentatiously English punctuation to even things up. Jolly good show!

  4. That’s hilarious!

  5. J. W. Brewer says

    Indeed, it strikes me that you might call soccer the ESL of sports. If, say, Ecuador and Switzerland, or Brazil and Cameroon, want to interact on a playing field they have no other common means of doing so, and thus use something borrowed from 19th century England rather than something indigenous to either of the countries involved.

    It is even more striking that the broad dialect continuum of non-soccer variants of football, by contrast, exists primarily-to-exclusively in Anglophone countries. The U.S., Canada, Australia, and Ireland each have a unique local dialect (the Canadian admittedly rather close to the U.S.) which is more popular (maybe even in Ireland) than soccer. The rugby dialects are more widespread, and notably more popular than soccer in some Anglophone locales (Wales, New Zealand, South Africa at least among some subsets of the population, probably second place in Australia to soccer’s third place) and I believe no non-Anglophone nation has ever won a world championship in either major rugby dialect (although France has come close). Why soccer should have traveled so much better to non-Anglophone lands is not immediately clear to me. I guess one could argue either a positive (inherent superiority/universality) spin or a negative (bland lowest-common-denominator for countries ashamed of their own indigenous sports) one.

  6. Garrigus Carraig says

    My favorite of the English-named teams in non-English-speaking countries is Club Atlético Newell’s Old Boys of Argentina.

  7. American and Canadian football are also rugby dialects, as are Gaelic rules, Australian rules, and their hybrid, international rules.

  8. J. W. Brewer says

    Taxonomies may differ and there are always lumping/splitting issues, but granting the point the issue is then why there should be such a wider range of dialect diversity (over a narrower geographical range) among the rugby dialects. Maybe soccer has the inherent structural simplicity/primitivism attributed by some theorists to pidgins and contact languages?

  9. Nothing to do with language (that I know of), but does the book go into why soccer/football didn’t catch on in India? Cricket certainly did, and soccer/football did in the other British colonies.

  10. Actually, it turns out I’m wrong: the resemblance of Gaelic and Australian football to standardized rugby is a matter of shared primitive characters rather than inherited ones. What is more, rugby union rules, though descended from the original Rugby School rules, also have a fair admixture of Football Association (now FIFA) features; in turn, the association game has three predecessors, one of which is Rugby School rugby. Here’s a family tree from Wikipedia.

    Uppingham School did refer to its rules, which were very close to (and later assimilated to) FIFA rules, as “the simplest game”, so you may be right about pidginization.

  11. does the book go into why soccer/football didn’t catch on in India?

    It does indeed; that’s the kind of question that really interests Goldblatt, and he has a longish section on the early history of the game in India (pp. 105-11). It was actually quite popular in Calcutta, and 60,000 people showed up to watch Mohun Bagan defeat East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 on July 29, 1911 (“Mohun Bagan came back from 1-0 down, scoring twice in the last five minutes. ‘When the referee blew the long whistle, shirts, hats, handkerchiefs, sticks and umbrellas started flying in the air.'”). But:

    In a nation that remained riven by the hierarchies of the caste system, cricket proved more accommodating of distinctions than the universalism of football. In any case football had already become deeply entwined with the communal identities and conflicts of the subcontinent; football was too polarized and too contentious to assume the mantle of the nation’s favourite sporting metaphor – an argument borne out by the fierce communal and regional rivalries that dominated Indian football in the 1950s and ’60s. While after independence the Indian national football team continued to play well, its opposition – such as South Korea and Indonesia – lacked the post-colonial edge of the Test cricket circuit. For some time to come India preferred to represent itself and test itself against perfidious Albion at cricket rather than the upstarts and minnows which the world of Asian football offered.

  12. There’s no doubt, however, that the Canadian game and its larger offshoot the U.S. game (which then heavily influenced its Canadian parent) are direct descendants of rugby union. In fact, it was not until the 1930s that the Canadian Rugby Football Union dropped the word “rugby” from its name, though it had probably long been interpreted as “(Canadian Rugby) Football” rather than “Canadian (Rugby Football)”.

    That said, the development of the forward pass and the down system, which allows the offense to retain possession the ball for N tackles (where N = 3 in Canada and N = 4 in the U.S.), radically transformed the gridiron games, a sterling example of how close relatives can look far more different from each other than one of them does from a more distant relative. For example (since this isn’t actually Footballhat), the split between Swedish and Norwegian is older than the split between Norwegian and Icelandic, but the first two look far more like one another than either looks like Icelandic.

    Canadian high school teams play against American ones, generally using home-court rules (the Canadian playing field is the size of a rugby pitch, the American one is shorter).

  13. So soccer is simple, but it is the simplicity of sophistication, not of primitivity.

  14. Young Boys’ stadium name amuses young boys throughout the anglosphere.

  15. Oh man. Oh maaaaaaaan.

  16. Oh my.

  17. Lions and tigers and bears!

  18. David Marjanović says

    So soccer is simple, but it is the simplicity of sophistication, not of primitivity.

    “The ball is round, a game has 90 minutes!”

  19. Except when it has 120. And goddam penalty kicks.

  20. If they’d only do the penalties at the beginning they could have the whole thing over in five minutes.

  21. As it was, Greece-Costa Rica felt like the Isner–Mahut match.

  22. Stefan Holm says

    David: The ball is round, a game has 90 minutes!

    Are you perhaps alluding to the exhausted words by England’s legendary player Gary Lineker and known by every soccer fan around the globe:

    Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.

    (The German football machine has reached at least the quarter final in every World Cup since 1954).

  23. David Marjanović says

    Are you perhaps alluding to

    Nope. Der Ball ist rund, ein Spiel hat neunzig Minuten are the eternal truths uttered by some player or coach when, I think, he was asked what he could tell in advance about the next game or something.

  24. des von bladet says
  25. Stefan Holm says

    It may be that ’Sepp’ Herberger contributed well to the language of the game but noone, absolutely noone, compares to Bill Shankly, the Scottish born manager of Liverpool FC between 1959 and 1974. What about these samples:

    At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.

    Of course I didn’t take my wife to see Rochdale as an anniversary present. It was her birthday. Would I have got married in the football season? Anyway, it was Rochdale reserves.

    Take that bandage off. And what do you mean about YOUR knee? It’s Liverpool’s knee!

    The trouble with referees is that they know the rules, but they do not know the game.

    A football team is like a piano. You need eight men to carry it and three who can play the damn thing.

    The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.

    On the funeral of William ‘Dixie’ Dean (1907-1980), who played for the much hated local rival in Liverpool, Everton FC:
    I know this is a sad occasion but I think that Dixie would be amazed to know that even in death he could draw a bigger crowd than Everton can on a Saturday Afternoon

    Just one year later Shankly himself passed away. But – about Brian Clough, his colleague in Nottingham Forest:
    He’s worse than the rain in Manchester. At least the rain in Manchester stops occasionally.

    Clough himself was however a worthy verbal competitor. What about this passage:
    It’s a cup tie, 10 minutes to go, Forest are down 1 – 0 and they’ve used all their subs.For once in his life Stuart “Psycho” Pearce comes off second best in a tackle. The physio shouts out to Manager Clough … He cant go back on, he’s taken a knock to the head, he doesn’t know who he is. Cloughie replies ….Tell him he’s f**king Pele and put him up front!

    The World Cup in football is the most popular event on earth, even more popular than the Olympic Games according to the media. Let’s hope that after the admittedly good performance of the US team in Brazil this summer, even their fellow countrymen finally will join in.

    Or, as in the most famous of Shankly’s words:
    Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

  26. Tell him he’s f**king Pele and put him up front!

    Thanks, that gave me a good laugh. (Incidentally, if anyone wants to see Pelé as the teenager who first astonished the football world, here’s Brasil x Suécia – Final da Copa de 1958 – Completo. The announcing is in Portuguese except when the radio feed is missing for most of the first half and it’s in Swedish, but who cares? You can hear the names and see the amazing action.)

  27. I think he was the first soccer player I ever heard of.

  28. I put it to you that Johan Cruyff (né Cruijff) has his own dialect of Dutch; his status is comparable to that of Yogi Berra Of The Hated Yankees as a provider of possibly inadvertent proverbs.

  29. even their fellow countrymen finally will join in

    My fellow countrywomen have been playing world-class soccer for more than two decades now (World Cup champions twice, never less than third place), without the slightest perceptible effect on U.S. public interest.

    much more important than that

    The great pianist and wit Artur Schnabel, when asked whether he believed in God, replied “Oh no. What I believe in is something much greater than that.”

    Johan Cruyff

    Amazing stuff, from what I can gather of it. I don’t see how anybody could hate Yogi Berra, no matter how Yankeephobic they might be.

  30. I don’t see how anybody could hate Yogi Berra, no matter how Yankeephobic they might be.

    I am confirming evidence of this; I yield to no one in my Yankeephobia, but I have only fondness for Yogi.

  31. Stefan Holm says

    Every time I see a Dutch text I’m surprised by how much of it I understand without ever having studied the language. I suppose it’s due to the vast medieval Low German influence on Swedish (well, having studied German during my school days of course helps). This goes even for the Cryuffean idiolect. Funny guy!

    But now it’s time for France-Germany on TV. So long for at least two hours!

  32. @John Cowan: I see people interested in women’s soccer. There’s not a major cultural interest in it, but it seems to be far more prominent than it was when I was a teenager a quarter century ago. I certainly see more interest in women’s soccer than women’s basketball, for instance, even though basketball is a quintessentially American sport. (Of course, basketball is a sport where the roughly six-inch different in heights between men and women has a big effect on the appearance of the game when it’s played at the highest levels, so there are understandable reasons why professional women’s basketball is not very popular.)

  33. Stefan Holm says

    Since modern organized women’s football started in Sweden I’ve been following it ever since and am very impressed by the US national team and players like Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm and Christen Press.

    Still, it may be politically incorrect but I claim that women’s and men’s football are two different games – depending on physiology. A co-worker of mine has for 20 years been engaged in women’s football and his experience is, that a senior women’s team can play an equal game against boys 15 or 16 years old. But once the boys reach the age of 17 or 18 the women don’t stand a chance anymore. The former simply jump higher and run faster (but are not necessarily more technically skilled).

    So, I insist that it is up to the male yankee doodle dandy to win the hearts and souls of the Americans, without ever forgetting to with the girls be handy.

  34. Well, consider men’s and women’s races. It doesn’t make sense for men to compete directly against women in such events, but they are the “same game”, in the sense that the same things are done by both sexes. And as time goes on, women move into the formerly all-male performance space.

    The most dramatic case I know of is the 1500m freestyle swim and Arne Borg (who, as he is Swedish, you have probably heard of). In 1927 he set a world record which stood for 11 years, just one of his 32 world records in different events: he is probably the greatest swimmer who ever lived. Well, if (with the help of a convenient time machine) he were to reproduce that record against Katie Ledecky of the U.S., the current women’s record holder, she would arrive at the finish line in 15m32.23s, and then there would be a looooong pause of 3m32.97s while Borg finished his final five and a half laps. By contrast, the current men’s record holder, Grant Hackett of Australia, would beat Ledecky by only 1m24.13s, less than three of her laps.

    Granted, this can’t go on forever: eventually there will be a right wall of physiological limitations. The four-minute mile went down, as did the 10s 100-meter dash, but the two-minute mile and the 5s dash will probably remain impossible for unmodified human beings. But we haven’t reached those walls yet.

    (1500m freestyle record progressions. Note also that standardized conditions weren’t achieved until 1924.)

  35. David Marjanović says
  36. One day when the game wasn’t so simple: from Futility Closet, the strangest soccer match ever.

  37. Stefan Holm says

    As a teenager I once watched a game where one player got absolutely free in front of the opponent’s goal. He laid down on the field and with a header let the ball pass the goal line. The referee disallowed it and sent the player off (red cards weren’t yet invented). In those days there was a (flexible) rule against “derision of the game”. It’s no longer there – I checked the FIFA game rules. And of course, since then the sport has changed into a multi billion gladiatorial where the audience shouldn’t be deprived of such spectacular performances.

    Then, anno dazumal, even a curse on the field, e.g. a player crying f**k! after missing the goal, was enough for being sent off without mercy. O tempora, o mores!

  38. the strangest soccer match ever.

    OK, that’s pretty strange, but I think this one beats it.

  39. Now that’s just overdoing it. I mean, 100 own goals would have made the point just as well.

    The longest professional baseball game: 33 innings over more than two months, thus demonstrating that baseball does not know the clock.

  40. The most one-sided American football game ever was in 1927 between two Kansas high schools, Haven over Sylvia 256-0. Even in a game in which a single goal may score up to 7 points (at the time; up to 8 now) depending on how it is done, that is an unprecedented blowout. In college football, it’s Georgia Tech over Cumberland College (who they?) 222-0 in 1983. Even in the NFL with professionals on both sides, the Bears beat the Redskins 73-0 for the 1940 league championship.

  41. I don’t suppose anyone else is following the Women’s World Cup, but I have to report my deep pleasure in the fact that the universally ignored Argentina team (there’s no professional league in Argentina, and the Argentine Football Association takes no interest whatever in the women’s game) held the highly ranked Japan team (which won the Cup in 2011 and came in second last time) to a 0-0 tie, thereby acheiving their first-ever point in a World Cup. I hope that puts a little fear into England and Scotland, who have to play the albiceleste next!

  42. In German media it’s a big thing, and you actually would have to actively avoid German online publications if you wanted to stay ignorant of the Women’s World Cup.

  43. Stu Clayton says

    I find it easy to remain ignorant, without actively avoiding anything. Lack of interest serves me just fine. I learned this from observing the masses.

  44. Rodger C says

    You can learn a lot from observing them asses.

  45. John Cowan says

    Especially when equidistant between two identical bales of hay.

  46. I have no trouble avoiding German internet, but Google is everywhere and it promotes the competition in a manner most difficult to ignore.

  47. Stu Clayton says

    The chanteuse Cher is reported to have said recently, à l’intention de Biden: “Women are the future. Don’t f**k with us”. This must be an alarming prophecy for men. In the meantime, they can watch soccer.

  48. Stu Clayton says

    To clarify: I can’t remember seeing, before now, a double-bind parse prophecy. The threatening ambiguity inherent in double-binds is here provided by a parse option: “don’t (fuck with) us” or “don’t fuck (with us)”.


  1. […] Hat looks at the languages used in […]

Speak Your Mind