‘The ball is round and the game lasts 90 minutes’: this piece of footballing wisdom espoused by Sepp Herberger, a former German national team coach, is a popular quotation. Although not entirely accurate, this quote will probably also be widely used at this year’s World Cup in Russia between 14th June and 15th July. Just as popular nowadays is a special football jargon, which is not only used by the players, but also by fans and the media. In fact, the people’s number one sport not only has its own rules, but has also developed its own language. But which patterns of speech are concealed within this language of football?
The three most important semantic principles of the language of football are the rhetorical stylistic devices of metonymy, metaphor and a simplified form of abstraction. Metonymy (from the Greek ‘metonymia’, meaning ‘a change of name’) replaces the intended word with another one that is closely associated with it in terms of time, space or causation. Relevant examples in German include “er tritt den Elfer” (‘he takes the penalty’, using “Elfer” rather than “Elfmeter”) or “er tritt die Ecke” (‘he takes the corner’ with “Ecke” rather than “Eckball”). A metaphor (from the Greek ‘metaphorá’ meaning ‘carrying over’) is a stylistic device whereby a word is transferred from its original meaning and applied to another one. Examples in German include “der Bomber der Nation” (Gerd Müller’s nickname, meaning ‘the nation’s bomber’), “Fliegenfänger” (‘flycatcher’, an ironic term for a poor goalkeeper), “Bananenflanke” (lit. ‘banana cross’, meaning a sideways curling pass in front of the opposition goal), “Fummelpapst” (a player who doesn’t like to pass the ball, i.e. a ball hog) or “Minuskulisse” (a poorly attended game). Derived from the Latin ‘abstractus’ (‘abstract’) abstractions involve the replacement of specific terms with words that have a more abstract meaning, for example “den Sack zumachen” (lit. to close the bag, meaning to ‘wrap up the game’), or “das Ding reinmachen” (lit. to put the thing away, meaning to ‘put/tuck it away’, i.e. score a goal).
These examples highlight one thing above all, namely that the most striking feature of the language of football is its creativity. For philologist Professor Armin Burkhardt, this creativity manifests itself primarily through metonymy and metaphors.
War metaphors in football
Another component of the language of football is the use of war imagery. When the “deutschen Panzer” (‘German tanks’) are rolling across the pitch once again, or when teams are battling to progress to the next round in the ‘group of death’ (“kämpfen in der Todesgruppe”), or when Blitzkrieg metaphors are rampant, the war-like and figurative nature of the language of football is clear to see. Right up to the 1960s, football matches between nations were called “Länderkämpfe”, a formulation that dates to a time when games of football were still exploited by authoritative regimes to demonstrate their power. “Länderkampf” has now become “Länderspiel”, but the war-like metaphors have been retained. We can therefore still wonder whether the “elf Maschinen, die irgendwie nicht totzukriegen sind” (Christoph Metzelder), or ‘eleven indestructible machines’, will be among the “Favoritensterben” (‘big-name casualties’) in Russia.
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