How We Speak Sports

By | April 18th, 2016 | No Comments

eepa_11477Image: Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.

Cross-posted from The Allrounder

[First published on November 13, 2014]

We don’t just watch sports – we speak and hear sports. To find out how language shapes our lives as fans, we asked some of our writers to tell us about the ways that people talk sports in English and their native languages. Kay Schiller hails from Munich, fellow historian Gemma Mcdonald grew up in Rome, media scholar Markus Stauff lives in the Netherlands, and sociologist Pablo Alabarces teaches at the University of Buenos Aires. Together, they offer a Rosetta Stone of sports talk.

You’ve all lived for a time in English-speaking countries. Did anything in particular strike you – say, the first times you went to a stadium or watched a match on television – about the ways that native speakers of English talk about their sports?

Kay Schiller: I have lived in the UK since 1997. One of the things that struck me as a non-native speaker when going to see Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool, ManU, or, more recently, Blackburn Rovers was that I had a tremendously hard time understanding the terrace chants, despite being quite fluent in English. I suppose that this is similar to what English fans experience when they attend a Bundesliga match.

Thankfully, there are now websites that explain what you hear in the stadium. You can learn that Blackburn Rovers fans at Ewood Park have several profane chants for Burnley, such as “Burnley are s**t s**t s**t , they always gonna be s**t.” One major difference with Germany is that while this kind of folklore can be found in the supporters’ curves of stadia, you wouldn’t hear otherwise respectable-looking people participating in chants like these – or middle-aged ladies calling the referee a c***.

I’m not sure what this suggests about the different football cultures of England and Germany, or culture more generally, but I find it worthy of note. Perhaps it’s reassuring that even with all-seater stadia and the continuous jacking-up of gate prices in English football, some things do not change.

Gemma Mcdonald: At venerable Fenway Park in Boston, sitting in the bleachers with my dad (obstinately wearing a Yankees cap), the usual chant we heard was: “Yankees suck!” At New Haven Coliseum, where my older brother and I followed minor league ice hockey, it was: “Shoot the puck!” At basketball and American football games, giant electronic scoreboards demanded chants of “Deeeeee-fe-nse!”

This was a world away from the Italian football stadiums and basketball arenas I grew up with.

What first struck me in the U.S. was a lack of spontaneity in the language of fans at the grounds. The PA announcer, the scoreboard, and recorded music directed the orality of the crowd. Maybe this was because of the corporate nature of American sports, with its top-down manufactured stadium experience that transforms fans into consumers. It’s also hard to chant and sing when spending so much time, money, and energy eating and drinking during games. In any case, the second thing that hit me about the U.S. context was the lack of creativity in the language. Much of the spoken word among fans, chants and commentary alike, seemed very direct and not terribly imaginative, a bit like the English language!

In Italy, our oral culture at the stadium was far more creative. I remember sitting in the stands listening to self-appointed bards who would rise to recite absorbing monologues in the vernacular (dialects are hugely important and richly diverse in Italy). These men (rarely were they women) explained the causes of our striker’s inexplicable impotence or the reasons for the referee’s situational ethics. The language was often metaphorical, indirect. The best insults were the ones delivered with a perfect balance of grit, humor, and linguistic dexterity. Even my intellectual Roman mother, with a PhD in Italian literature, relished such vulgar poetic performances (“vulgus” in Latin means ordinary people, after all). This creative genius came through in the songs we sang. Fans developed an art of crafting lyrics and combining them with a dizzying range of musical sources: classical (Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was a favorite); operatic (Verdi, of course); patriotic compositions (“La Marseillaise”); marches (John Philip Sousa!); folk/traditional (“La Società dei Magnaccioni,” “O Sole Mio,” and “Auld Lang Syne”); partisan resistance (“Bella Ciao”), and loads of pop (from “Yellow Submarine” to Antonello Venditti’s “Roma, Roma, Roma”).

Eventually, I came to appreciate the comfort and safety of U.S. stadiums and arenas. But to this day, their canned and often lifeless aural culture makes me nostalgic of home.

Click here to read on.

Johan Cruyff, Football Genius, Dies at 68

By | March 24th, 2016 | 7 Comments



Johan Cruyff, the Dutch football genius, has died of cancer at the age of 68.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, growing up in Rome, my older brother Danny dragged me to a run-down movie theater to watch “Il Profeta del Gol”—a mesmerizing documentary film about Cruyff narrated by the legendary Sandro Ciotti, whose raspy voice (along with that of Enrico Ameri), provided the soundtrack of our every Sunday afternoon.

Watching Cruyff ignited my lifelong love and passion for football. After moving to the United States in the mid-1980s, I wore his number 14 on my high school, club, and college teams.

He seemed both extraordinary and ordinary. His creative use of space, technical excellence, and speed were inseparable from his scrawny physique, tempestuous nature, non-comformist cigarette smoking, and consistent dislike for fitness training. I will go to my grave with Cruyff’s “Impossible Goal” against Atletico Madrid.

Cruyff’s interpretation of football as a competitive art taught me to see alternative ways to play, move, think, and be. Ajax’s “Total Football,” which Cruyff exported to Barcelona, first as a player then as a coach, was so radically different from the way Serie A teams played in the 1970s and early 1980s. “Everyone attacked and everyone defended,” Eduardo Galeano wrote, “deploying and retreating in a vertiginous fan.”

His stunning decision to boycott the Generals’ World Cup in Argentina in 1978, the first I followed religiously on television, endeared the Dutchman to me even more. An anti-fascist superstar who practiced what he preached!

Frits Barend, the Dutch tv commentator whom I met in South Africa in 1998, referred to Cruyff as an “obstinate maestro.”

David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange, arguably the best book written in English about Dutch football and society, described him as “essentially Dutch.” A poem by Toon Hermans, Winner writes, “captures the feeling that there was something sublime about Cruyff”:

En Vincent zag het koren
En EInstein het getal
En Zeppelin de Zeppelin
En Johan zag de bal

(And Vincent saw the corn
And Einstein the number
And Zeppelin the Zeppelin
And Johan saw the ball)

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Big Night at Soccer City

By | July 10th, 2010 | No Comments



The Ukhamba (calabash in Zulu) at Soccer City. The center of attention for 3 billion people — half of humankind — on Sunday. A magnificent temple of football. A massive 95,000 seats and yet so intimate, near-perfect sight lines. What a stage for Netherlands-Spain! Click here to read the New York Times on who South Africans are supporting.

Top Ten: Uruguay v Netherlands

By | July 6th, 2010 | No Comments



Top 10 Reasons to Support Uruguay:

10. The population of Uruguay is 3.3 million people, about the size of Greater Cape Town.

9. The first black international in either the World Cup or the Olympics was Uruguay’s José Leandro Andrade.

8. Uruguay claims four world titles — two World Cups (1930, 1950) and two Olympic golds (1924, 1928).

7. Estadio Centenario in Montevideo was the first monumental stadium built outside Britain (capacity 100,000). It was finished just in time to host the first World Cup final in 1930.

6. The United States won third place in Uruguay in 1930 — its best ever World Cup result.

5. When Uruguay defeated Brazil in front of 200,000 people at Rio’s Maracanã stadium in 1950, ‘there was sadness so great, so profound,’ Pelé said, ‘that it seemed like the end of a war with Brazil the loser and many people dead.’

4. Hungary’s ‘Golden Team’ defeated Uruguay 4-2 (aet) at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland — a match remembered for its compelling drama and bone-crunching violence.

3. I don’t remember the 1970 World Cup, the last time Uruguay reached the semis.

2. Led by Forlan and Suarez, heirs of Schiaffino and Ghiggia, Uruguay 2010 bends, curls, tackles, and handles every obstacle in its way!

1. Eduardo Galeano, born and raised in Montevideo, penned my favorite football book of all time: Soccer in Sun and Shadow.

Top 10 Reasons to Support the Netherlands

10. The Dutch East India Company is dead.

9. Brilliant Orange by David Winner — a must-read about Dutch football and society.

8. Spending a lay-over on the way to South Africa at the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House, a transformative experience.

7. Van Basten, Rijkaard, Gullit — the Holy Trinity of post-Cruyff era.

6. The 1978 World Cup final between Argentina and the Netherlands (3-1, aet) was the first final I watched on TV.

5. The idea of Ajax, if not the reality of Total Football.

4. Van Basten’s goal against USSR in the 1988 European Championship final

3. The most consistently inspired and successful player of the year, at national team and club level: Wesley Sneijder.

2. The Netherlands have never won the World Cup.

1. Johann Cruyff — when I saw him in the film Il Profeta del gol I had the first of my ongoing revelations about the living cult of football. In his honor, I played with jersey number 14.

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