Football has made a number of significant contributions to the nomenclature of the English language. The word irony is the most pertinent example of this. Thanks to the work of generations of commentators we are now entitled to name any sort of coincidental occurrence (Italy’s World Cup success coming THE VERY SAME summer as its calciopoli shame, for example) as ‘ironic’. It is not, of course. The phrase ‘Ashley Cole seems like a decent bloke’ is ironic; the phrase ‘Ashley Cole scores against Arsenal/replaces Chezza on X-Factor’, should either ever happen, would not be.
Commentators have a difficult job; their editors/producers/directors demand they talk a lot. This isn’t an I’d-do-a-better-job-than-those-jokers style rant designed to show my superiority over Tyldsley, Mowbray et al, I have no idea of what kind of bollocks would issue forth should a microphone ever be thrust in front of my gob for 90 minutes. The contributions these men have made to the lexis are unwitting, and anyway it would be dreadful if Socrates (he invented irony, by the way) was the BBC’s lead commentator – all those questions! Lawro would be tearing his mouser out hair by hair.
Also responsible, however, for a flagrant abuse of language are the suits in charge of European Football. From their base at Nyon, the Union of European Football Associations has masterminded a number of syntactical and grammatical affronts.
Better known by their acronym (which is smart given that otherwise they would be known in Bulgaria as Съюза на европейските футболни асоциации), UEFA have created a tournament in the Champions League which transcends national boundaries. This transcendence has been achieved, in part, linguistically.
As the above translation from the български език (pronounced, if you’re interested, ˈbɤ̞ɫɡɐrski ɛˈzik) suggests, this acronym allows UEFA to universalize their brand; this global synonymy, in turn, ensures their worldwide marketability. It is no coincidence that the world’s most profitable sporting brands, the NFL, the NBA, the EPL (as the Premiership is known internationally, to the likely chagrin of the major bank indirectly paying relegated managers to speak of the pleasure of competing in England’s foremost league) and the IPL, are similarly monikered – perhaps a principal reason for the comparative failure of La Liga to tap into the international market is a lack of such a basic signifier?
This is reasonable so far, after all the strength of UEFA relies on its synergy. Although it utilizes English words the acronym is not itself, of course, an English word and in that way it represents the strength that resides in unity. It transcends national identities and even languages.
Except, perhaps it doesn’t, or maybe it transcends it too far.
The front page of fr.uefa.com refers to the Champions League and the Women’s Champions League. These are English words too. It is only when we penetrate deeper into the tournament’s levels that we find the French language: phase de groups; phase a elimination directe and finale.
Is this really necessary?
As I said before ‘UEFA’ signifies a brand greater than the sum of its parts. It is a sort of international no-language, which reflects and strengthens this. The same is not true of the ubiquitous use of English. Perhaps UEFA would claim that they are simply reflecting the ‘international language of football’, but they aren’t.
The language of football is not an actual language. The phrase is figurative and therefore (like ironic utterances) does not have literal meaning – or at least, the meaning is not literally contained within the phrase.
This is the international language of football (mute your speakers before playing):
In English we call it a nutmeg. In the Netherlands it is known as a panna. In Brazil, they call it dar uma caneta (where ‘caneta’ means pen and stands for the defender’s legs). In Argentina and Spain hacer un caño (to make a pipe) is used. The French say faire un petit pont (to make a little bridge). In Italy they call it a tunnel (which means tunnel).
The language of football is spoken on the pitch, off the pitch where UEFA do their work actual languages are spoken and they would do well to remember the plurality of these. After all, the strength of their unity lies in their diversity.