IT'S A FUNNY OLD GAME...

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - WORLD CUP - ADAM HURREY

I DON’T KNOW how many words the Eski­mos have for snow, but there are, by my count, at least 73 ways to score a goal in soc­cer. Whether you have banged, blasted, ripped, curled, poked, fizzed, chipped, squibbed, lobbed, glanced, danced or dinked one into the net, more than a century of scor­ing has en­sured that the ap­pro­pri­ate verb is avail­able.

Scor­ing is soc­cer’s fun­da­men­tal act, and the ex­is­tence of so many words to de­scribe it re­flects our de­sire to in­dex ev­ery as­pect of the game. The 90 min­utes of a match are dwarfed by the hours we spend pre­view­ing and then dis­sect­ing it, pick­ing over the trans­fer ru­mours, dis­ci­plinary con­tro­ver­sies, cog­ni­tive-be­havioural di­ag­noses, sta­tis­ti­cal break­downs and tac­ti­cal mi­cro-analy­ses. We’ve been flirt­ing with the sat­u­ra­tion point for years, yet we keep find­ing new ways to think about, look at and make fun of Mario Balotelli’s cam­ou­flage Bent­ley.

The foot­ball cliché has be­come my per­sonal ob­ses­sion. I find some in­fu­ri­at­ing, oth­ers charm­ing. It is this com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with the lan­guage of the sport that led me to start a blog called Foot­ball Clichés seven years ago. You will hear them pretty much any­where a ball is be­ing kicked and a mouth is be­ing opened, but it is most of­ten the tele­vi­sion com­men­ta­tor and his colour man who are guilty of in­flict­ing soc­cer stereo­types upon us.

They are symp­to­matic of the medi­ocrity of mod­ern soc­cer cov­er­age, but not all these clichés be­tray a lack of orig­i­nal thought. In a century and a half, noth­ing has en­cap­su­lated the un­pre­dictable swings of a soc­cer match more suc­cinctly than “a game of two halves,” and it has be­come a cliché to de­nounce it as a cliché.

Other well-worn words and phrases con­tain some truth, but that doesn’t mean they won’t make your ears bleed.

The brink of half­time is ha­bit­u­ally de­clared “a good time to score,” an in­dis­putable bit of wis­dom that raises the ques­tion: When isn’t? Foot­ball play­ers would rather make passes and tack­les than talk about them, and foot­ball clichés give them some­thing safe to say be­fore re­turn­ing to the sanc­tu­ary of their Beats by Dre head­phones (them­selves a cliché). Scor­ing is “al­ways nice.” The win was “good for the team.” In these cases, ac­cepted wis­dom is a com­fort.

Some foot­ball clichés are con­spic­u­ous for their soar­ing id­iocy. A shot that, de­spite its im­pres­sive power, flies straight into the (usu­ally “grate­ful”) hands of the goal­keeper is said to have been “hit al­most too well”. The cu­ri­ously pre­cise “open­ing 20 min­utes” has be­come uni­ver­sally ac­cepted as the win­dow dur­ing which an un­der­dog should aim to “keep it tight”. Any skil­ful player over six feet tall risks the pa­tro­n­is­ing la­bel of hav­ing “a good touch for a big man.”

The game possesses a sur­pris­ing num­ber of ob­so­lete words that orig­i­nated else­where but still flour­ish here. Most fans would per­haps never use “stal­wart,” “prof­li­gate”, “ad­judged”, “diminu­tive” or “ri­fle” (as a verb) if those words hadn’t been kept alive in a sports con­text. Nor would they ever de­scribe some­thing be­ing done with “aplomb” or be able to iden­tify a re­al­life slide rule. Soc­cer cor­rupts old adages, too – play­ers re­turn­ing to their for­mer clubs with a point to prove are said to be “chomp­ing” (rather than the tra­di­tional champ­ing) at the bit to per­form well on their old “stomp­ing” (stamp­ing) ground.

As the dis­cus­sion of soc­cer pro­lif­er­ates in the 21st century, the churn of clichés has ac­cel­er­ated. It is only re­cently that Stoke usurped Rochdale as the cold­est, wettest place to play on a Tues­day night. The per­ilous “cor­ri­dor of un­cer­tainty” ar­rived on loan from the cricket world some­time in the 1990s and has since made a per­ma­nent trans­fer, while “tak­ing on flu­ids” be­came the new drink­ing in 1994, as pitch-level tem­per­a­tures soared at the World Cup in the United States.

Most re­cently, the 140-char­ac­ter con­fines of Twit­ter have be­come fer­tile ground for tire­some tropes. Snappy ways of ex­press­ing your ap­proval for a mo­ment of foot­balling de­cency, such as #nice­touch or #classy, are on the rise.

Foot­ballers are trend­set­ters, and the mo­ment they hash­tag some­thing, it’s giftwrappe­d for their fol­low­ing mil­lions.

Ash­ley Cole’s glo­ri­ous #BUNCHOFTWA­TS at­tack on the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion in­stantly en­tered the lex­i­con, mainly for pur­poses of lam­poon­ery. Twit­ter gags, GIFs, and Pho­to­shop jobs are now the lingua franca of the mod­ern fan, with pa­gan trib­al­ism driv­ing the ridicule of ri­val play­ers long af­ter the joke has gone limp.

As the cov­er­age of soc­cer reaches un­crit­i­cal mass, it is per­haps right to em­brace the cliché and recog­nise its place on the land­scape. Right feet will never be cul­tured, and small men will never be lauded for their good touch, but just as it seems soc­cer might be run­ning out of ways to de­scribe it­self, the soc­cer cliché, that petty crim­i­nal, may have earned a stay of ex­e­cu­tion.

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