More football. Don’t worry, I’m not going to write something about football every day for the next month. I’m really not that interested in it. But I was struck today by the use of an adjective that’s often used in sport: .
Brave, courageous, or determined, especially in the face of adversity.
A pretty positive adjective, on the surface.
I heard it used today by a commentator on the Mexico – Germany match in the World Cup (congratulations, Mexico!)
It seems OK, doesn’t it? Germany were the favourites, so Mexico faced adversity to win, and they showed determination in doing so. Didn’t they?
Well, not really. Mexico won because they played better than Germany. They didn’t have to face adversity, because they were the better team.
But if that’s the case, why would the commentator call them plucky?
A lot of is because plucky doesn’t usually simply mean what its dictionary definition suggests. Generally when people use it, it’s frankly quite patronizing. There’s always the sense that the plucky individual or group has some disadvantage and is overcoming it. They’re the little guy, getting a rare win against the big guy. And sometimes that’s appropriate. But how were Mexico the little guy in this situation?
Sure, Germany are the current world champions, and are ranked first in the world. But Mexico are ranked 15th (out of 206), ahead of nations like Italy and the Netherlands. That’s pretty good, and do you think if either of those countries had qualified for the World Cup and beaten Germany, they’d be described as plucky? Why are Mexico then, who are a pretty good team, described as plucky?
Frankly, I think it’s because of a inherent Eurocentrism in English. Even if Mexico are, on paper, better than many European teams, we’re still surprised if they beat one of the traditionally strong European teams. Sure, we might be surprised if a team like England (ranked 12th) beat Germany, but would we describe them as plucky? I don’t think so. But Mexico, even though they’re a good team who played well, are plucky, because we still see them as the “little guy.”
It can happen within Europe too of course, as I’ve often noticed that whenever a win or good performance by the Irish football team was reported in the British media, the team would be described as plucky. Now we’ve not always had a very good football team, but sometimes the win was a deserved one, where we played better than the other team. Being described as plucky then was incredibly frustrating and patronizing.
It’s not surprising though, because we live in a post-colonial word where we’re still reminded of the old power systems by which some countries controlled others. Sure, Ireland and Mexico might be independent republics, but the way we use language still reveals the old colonial attitudes, which make us impressed that these countries who we think would probably still be better off being controlled by their old colonial masters managed to win a football game against a real country like Germany.
Not that I think that anyone using the word plucky is being intentionally racist, or believes that we should return to the old colonial system. Rather it shows how we find it hard to move on from established systems. Colonialism (which, whatever its apologists might think, was primarily based on racism and the sense that the “superior” races and nations should control the “inferior” ones for their own good) determined international politics for most of modern history, and its effects are still felt today. Much modern instability and conflict is a result of (de)colonisation, and much of the prejudiced language of colonialism lingers on.
I see that in football too when commentators and analysts take about “football intelligence” (something that I’ve never heard properly defined, but I think basically means tactical ability). Invariably, they praise African teams for their physicality, but lack of “football intelligence” (or call them “tactically naïve”). Now it might be the case that some African teams might be poorer than some European ones, and that might mean they don’t have the resources for the level of training other countries might have. Still, the repeated use of the word intelligence is revealing. To hear people talk about black African men’s physical strength and lack of (a specific type of) intelligence is uncomfortably similar to traditionally racist, colonial views of Africa, the “dark continent.”
And just as you’ll never hear England or the United States described as plucky, you’ll never hear a European country described as lacking “football intelligence” (I want to keep putting the term in quotation marks because I don’t think it actually exists). Even though many European teams, who generally have strong teams, demonstrate questionable tactics, analysts will usually talk about poor tactical decisions, but not “football intelligence.”
The sad thing is that there’s not a lot we can really do about this. Language is very hard to change, and it’s had a few hundred years to get stuck in our heads. I’m optimistic enough though, that as we move farther beyond the colonial age, our language will shift and lose some of its old biases. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the football, and try to be a little conscious of the language we use.