Pass Perfect

Are you watching the football?

Many of you living in Europe will hear some variation of this over the next few weeks. Actually, now that I think of it, those of you in the Americas will probably be asked that too, with the Copa América on, but perhaps not so often in the USA!

Football does tend to take people’s lives over during major tournaments. I’ve lost a lot of interest in football in recent years, mainly due to my perception that roughly 99% of professional footballers are arrogant, petulant manchildren, but I do love the atmosphere of major international tournaments.

Partly it’s because they signify summer to me, and partly it’s because I’m lucky to have some great formative memories of football tournaments. My first ever sporting memory is of Ireland beating England at Euro ’88 thanks to Ray Houghton’s legendary header. I had no idea what it meant, but I knew it was good!

Luckily I was 6 when Ireland qualified for their first World Cup in 1990, and I better remember the magical atmosphere as the whole nation seemed to follow the team’s path to the quarter final, only to be finally undone by the toe of Toto Schillachi.

Never mind that we didn’t actually win a match: it was a matter of national pride for a lot of people that the eyes of (most of) the world were on this little country with a tiny population. Except for the match against Egypt: no-one was proud of that.

Italia ’90 was also my introduction to the strange world of football vocabulary. For some years afterwards I assumed that Olé Olé Olé, the common Irish football-fan chant, was our own creation and not, as I was to learn, Spanish. In fairness, we use accents on vowels too!

Football does have a rich, if at times strange lexicon. In what other context can someone have a cultured left foot? Nutmegging someone sounds painful, but it just means kicking the ball between your opponent’s legs. What that has to do with nutmeg I have no idea. The international nature of football means that armchair experts also like to borrow idioms from other languages to sound cultured:

They need to have more of a tiki-tata style, keep hold of the ball.

I reckon he’s better as more of a libero.

It’s all part of the Joga Bonito!

The digital age has also influenced football vocabulary. The traditional Irish cheer of Come on you boys in green can now be shortened to #COYBIG and pronounced as it looks.

For anyone looking to improve their English grammar, post-match Premier-League interviews are a great source of the present perfect simple, which footballers are curiously fond of.

Obviously, Jonesy’s gone down the left there, and I’ve put me hand up and shouted to ‘I’m, and he’s just popped it up there right on me head and I’ve just put it in the net.

The most curious thing about football is that even within the English language, we can’t agree on what to call it.

Many will be aware of the basic distinction between Americans calling it soccer (and why not, they have their own football, which I quite like even if it can be too long for me), and every other English-speaking country calling it football.

It can be a little more complex than that though. Here in Ireland, for example, football can mean one of two things depending on who you’re talking to. There are four popular sports in Ireland: football, rugby (especially in the last 10 – 15 years), and the two Gaelic sports, Gaelic football and hurling (Gaelic football is like a cross between rubgy and basketball, and hurling is, to quote Jason Statham, hockey mixed with murder).

Gaelic football and hurling have tended to be more popular in rural areas, and football more popular in large towns and cities. Which is why for some people in small villages, Gaelic football or hurling are a huge part of their life, and they would therefore call Gaelic football football as it’s the only football they care about, and football soccer. There’s also often a lot of patriotism, or at times nationalism, involved in that choice. Before Irish independence, Gaelic sports were revived as part of a cultural-nationalism movement, and nationalists would try to persuade young Irish people to play them and not British sports like football and rugby (often called garrison games as they were played by British soldiers stationed in garrisons in Ireland).

Nowadays anti-English sentiment is very hard to find in Ireland (except when England play in major tournaments sometimes!) but Gaelic-football fans will still always refer to soccer when talking about the beautiful game. If you visit Ireland and are invited to a football match, double check which one it is!

But whether you call it football, soccer, futebol, calcio, foot, fútbol or even peil, enjoy the Euros, and as it’s currently Ireland 1 – 1 Sweden, #COYBIG!



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