I was also the soccer captain. And, yes, we do use the word "soccer" in England, too. (If you don't believe me, see what the Oxford Dictionary of English has to say) Indeed, the word "soccer" is a short form of Association Football, the game that the English claim to have invented, even if they - I mean, we - haven't won anything since 1966 when we beat you know who in the World Cup final at Wembley.
Anyway, I thanked the headmaster for his praise and tried to think of something to say that wouldn't sound too banal. I failed. This was all I could think of: "Yeah, Sir, I, er, thought we, um, played, you know, some, er, you know, good stuff out there." I was sounding more and more like the typical professional footballer in England, giving a vacuous post-match interview. "We were, you know, knocking it around the park pretty well, especially, um, in the second half, when we, you know, played them off the park."
The headmaster looked at me as though I was speaking a foreign language. Then he answered in his deep Oxford-English voice: "Yes, I thought that our team's general capacity for movement was somewhat superior to that of the opposition."
Our "general capacity for movement"? Our what? OK, I knew what he meant. There was nothing wrong, either grammatically or in terms of content, with what he said. It was just that, well, that's not how you talk about football.
The bastards in black wear different colours
Football, like many other areas of life, has its own language - its own words, phrases, meanings and even grammar. This is also the case with many different professions, industries and departments. In applied linguistics, specific groups of people who have their own ways of talking are known as "discourse communities". So, for the headmaster, who was really a rugby man, I was more or less talking a foreign language - the language of those who play, watch or discuss football.
For example, to footballers, the "park" is not a "large public garden or area of land used for recreation" but the football pitch. "To knock it about" simply means to pass the ball a lot. "To play some good stuff" means to play well. And to "play a team off the park" means to completely dominate them.
It's also common to hear footballers say "we was", rather than "we were", as in "we was playing well in the first half" or "we was robbed". This second example - often written "we wuz robbed" - is the classic way of describing a game in which you feel the referee made wrong decisions to your disadvantage. The referee, by the way, has traditionally been called, charmingly, "the bastard in black". But nowadays, the referees often wear different colours.
You will also hear footballers or managers say things like, "Parker done well", rather than "Parker did well". And another common grammatical feature of "football English" is the use of the present perfect ("has scored") rather than the simple past ("scored") when analysing a game, even though the game has finished: "Parker's gone down the left, he's beaten his man and then he's created a chance for Cole." (By the way, to "beat your man" is not violent at all; it simply means that you took the ball past an opponent.)
A matter of life and death? It's much more serious
But who cares about football anyway? Well, lots of people, actually, as evidenced by the interest in the upcoming European Championship. As Bill Shankley, the former manager of Liverpool, once famously said: "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that."
And even people who aren't footballs fans will be confronted with, and often use, expressions and idioms that come from football and others sports. This happens not only in everyday life, but also in the business world.
One example is the idea of "moving the goalposts" (US: also "moving the goalpost"). The Oxford Dictionary of English defines this as to "unfairly alter the conditions or rules of a procedure during its course". For example, a sales manager might say to her husband: "The boss originally said I'd get a bonus if we hit sales of 20,000. Now, he wants 25,000. I can't believe he's moved the goalposts in the middle of the financial year."
Another example is the idea of a "level playing field", meaning that everyone involved in a competition faces the same rules and conditions. So, a government might try to create a level playing field in a particular industry by making sure all firms face the same taxes and regulations.
Kick-offs, the start of a football match, have also entered business life, in the form of kick-off meetings at the beginning of a project. Indeed, the word has been taken over into German. "Foul play", in a non-sporting context, is "criminal or violent behaviour", which could be used to describe corruption in companies.
Germans, always remember Geoff Hurst's hat-trick
Another sporting term is a "hat-trick". In football this means scoring three goals, just as Geoff (pronounced "Jeff") Hurst did against West Germany - sorry, I had to mention it once - at Wembley in 1966. By the way, if you still don't believe that the "Wembley Goal" was really a goal, remember the old joke about the player who shouts at the referee: "Hey ref, that was never a goal!" To which the referee replies: "Really? Look in the newspaper tomorrow. I think you'll find it was." Of course, nowadays the bast , I mean referee, would just say: "Look it up on your iPhone after the game."
But where was I? Oh yes, well, in business life, you could also use the expression "hat-trick" to talk about three achievements: "It's amazing! We won three awards: for product of the year, best marketing strategy and best technical support. What a hat-trick!"
Some more recent expressions used in football (and other sports) include "on the bounce" and "big ask". To win "three games on the bounce" means "three games in a row", while a "big ask" is a very difficult task. So, the boss might say: "We need to get the new model on the market three months earlier than we had originally planned. I know that's a big ask, but I'm sure we can do it."
It is now common to talk about someone who is performing excellently at football, or other sports, as being "in the zone". This term can also be used in business: "Have you seen Susan's recent sales figures? Wow, her department's really in the zone at the moment." Of course, as we have said before, it is important to be careful when using such idiomatic expressions. The people you are speaking to - your "interlocuters", to use a fancy word - may have no idea what you mean. "In the zone? What zone is Susan in? Zone 1? Zone 2? I don't understand your zoning system."
Football's colour scheme can also be used in business life. If somebody is given a warning, for example from their boss, we could say that they have been "shown a yellow card", as in football. If you get fired, that would be a "red card" or an "early bath/shower".
In both football and business, you have to "keep your eye on the ball", meaning to keep your attention on the issue you are dealing with. You also have to "take your chances" when they come. A "political football", on the other hand, is "a topical issue that is the subject of continued argument or controversy".
It's not over till the final whistle
The ultimate football cliché, however, is probably to "take each game as it comes". More generally in life or business, one can talk about "taking one thing at a time". The other cliché is to talk about a football match as being a "game of two halves", meaning that one team was on top in the first half and the other dominated the second. And remember, both in football and business, "it's not over till the final whistle" (football's equivalent of opera's "fat lady" who has to sing before we can all go home).
Indeed, one the most famous bits of football commentary also came in that legendary Wembley game (that's the last mention, I promise). Some spectators ran onto the field thinking that the final whistle had gone. It hadn't, and Geoff Hurst scored his historic third goal just as the commentator said: "Some people are on the pitch. They think it's all over. It is now!" Watch here.
My favourite football comment, however, came in the 1980s after I had watched my team, West Ham United play Arsenal "off the park" (remember that one?). I overheard one West Ham fan saying to another: "Of course, it's never been Arsenal's strength - football." As I started laughing uncontrollably, the same man added: "I mean, football-football."
And naturally, as a member of the football discourse community, I understood perfectly: "football-football" simply meant attractive football - "knocking it around the park well". Or, as my headmaster would no doubt have said of the game: "West Ham's general capacity for movement was somewhat superior to Arsenal's."
Sorry, what was that? You want my prediction for Euro 2012 before I finish. Simple. England to beat Germany in the final - on penalties, naturally. Anyone want a bet?
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