The English Pedant – English 0 – 5 Football

Football’s European Championship starts on Friday, and as the football community  is such a confused and lawless place as regards language, let’s look at some of the linguistic mumbo jumbo that is going to be coming our way.

Take tempo, for instance: what does it mean? Originally it meant the speed at which a piece of music should be played. It then expanded its range of use to mean the rate or speed of motion or activity.

That is roughly what it means in football, but only roughly. Pundits, managers and players speak of playing ‘with tempo’, i.e briskly, or ‘without tempo’, by which they mean too slowly. What they want is a quick, sharp, snappy way of playing that doesn’t give the opposition time to settle, think and play calmly.

If you’re playing with tempo you are, in modern parlance from outside the game, “in their faces”, which is as ugly a sight as it sounds.

Tempo, then, is a noun in need of an adjective, and as such is the latest in a long line that goes back at least as far as my grandmother’s assertion that she had “blood pressure”. What she meant was high blood pressure, and I am tempted to say we all understood what she was trying to convey, but the definition of blood pressure is not a simple one to grasp. What is the blood pressing against? She had a medical problem associated with her blood – that’s as close as we need to get.

That leads us to another football term that can baffle the casual observer: the idea of pressing. What that means in this context is attempting to push the action back towards the opposition’s goal, so the battle is fought there, rather in your own territory. You might think the defensive line (usually four players)  would be way back, a few yards in front of the goalkeeper. In fact that line can be wherever the manager wants it to be, with the proviso that if one of the other guys knocks the ball through or over your line, you’d better be quicker than them to get back and retrieve it.

Traditionally, British football teams had two modes, defence and attack. Note that defence is spelled with a c, not an s. Increasingly, though, the Americanisation  of attack into offense is creeping into the UK.

Again, we all know what it means, but the term offensive means something different to us Brits. If you swear in the presence of the Prime Minister’s wife, she will be offended. She will find it offensive to be spoken to like that. It’s not the same as attacking. We can verbally attack someone, but there is a difference between that and simply offending them.

This is not a subject that is going to take up much time in the England camp as they prepare to do sporting battle for their country. There may be one or two players who would understand what this blog post is about and why someone has bothered to write it, but in the main these are people more likely to be playing football games on electronic devices than discussing semantics. They have their own jargon, but I suspect many don’t even realise it.

The object with which football is played is spherical, but you will hear of people playing a long ball or a short ball, which means passing it a long way or not far. There are footballers with “quick feet”, which may or may not mean they can run fast.

There is the concept of the “footballing centre half”, which means someone who has an unusually high level of skill for a central defender and can play a measured pass rather than hoofing it away to kill the danger. And incidentally, what is the difference between a centre half and the more commonly used centre back? Answer: nothing; they play at the back, not in midfield, and centre half is an old-fashioned term which almost died out in the 1970s but is used (without thinking) to describe the aforementioned more skilful, thoughtful player in that position.

In addition to the jargon there are the garbled spur-of-the-moment pronouncements by commentators, as you see in the boxed quotes. It’s easy to talk nonsense and we all do it sometimes, but when it is recorded on radio or TV, you will never be allowed to forget it.

So if you’re going to be watching some or all of the tournament, never mind what the experts are saying and enjoy the spectacle, the rivalry and, if you will allow there is a such a thing, the beauty of certain moments.

When experts talk about the game, sometimes something just comes out and it’s garbage:

Preki quite literally only has the one foot

And sometimes they know what they’re doing:

I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.

And never forget the words of the late, great Bill Shankly, Liverpool manager and footballing sage, who disagreed with the idea that football is a matter of life and death. “It’s more important than that,” he said. But he was joking.

Will England win the Euros? Shankly again: “The only thing that surprises me is that I can be surprised.”

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