Football/Soccer – one game divided by a common language

Borrowing the famous phrase by George Bernard Shaw, America and Britain are “two nations divided by a common language.”  While the Brits like to get aggresively punctilious about misuse of the Queen’s English by their special allies across the pond, it is often over quite sensible adaptations the Yanks have made to the language that has Blighty’s denizens spitting out their Earl Grey.  

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t create difficulty for the Englishman over here. Aside from the unfortunate diverging meanings between phrases like “fanny pack”, the terms used in soccer (or football) can also be confusing. I’m trying to get by playing and watching soccer over here without having to resort to a pocket phrasebook, so I thought I’d showcase some common misunderstandings.

Centre Half – Even in England, a centre half is an anachronistic throwback to the period in and around the war, where the fashionable formation seemed to resemble a migrating flock of geese and positions such as “inside forward” existed.  But it persists today and, in the UK, it is is used interchangeably with centre back.  A center half (note altered spelling) in the U.S. is apparently a central midfielder! This caused a fair amount of confusion when my coach recently told me to play center half and couldn’t understand why I was unwilling to cross too far over the half way line. 

Stopper/Sweeper – Europeans will know all about the sweeper position made most famous by the likes of Franz “The Kaizer” Beckenbauer.  But how many will be acutely aware of the stopper/sweeper system?   The British Isles is resolutely proud of the flat back four – organized, not flashy, in unison… almost like the sporting embodiment of the stiff upper lip… “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more…with our flat back four!”

In the Land of the Free, such rigid constraint could never stand, so they play the stopper/sweeper system. This basically means three at the back (two full backs and the “stopper” in the middle) with the sweeper both dropping deeper than the three to cover but also stepping forward to play the ball in midfield. I’m not used to it yet but I’m seeing the advantages of when you have possession of the ball.  At the same time, it makes it impossible to play offsides, so it is taking some getting used to for a full back that is a seasoned/brainwashed adherent to the flat 4!

Cleats – Back home we call them Footy Boots.  There is something rugged and manly about “boots”, even warrior like. You would strap on boots to march into battle against the enemy of all that’s good and true.  Cleats, on the other hand, sounds like something you would wear to do a Dutch country folk dance. I’m going to stick with boots.

Soccer itself – This one is for the U.S of A (God bless America!!!)… yes, that’s right, my oft rained upon brothers in Britain look on you Americans with disdain for using the word soccer, as if it indicates that you made up  the word because you wanted to call your cross between sumo wrestling and rugby, football. 

When an American says soccer, it brings out the most arrogant of sneers from many a U.K. based fan.  Since starting this blog I have received no end of flak from my countrymen for using the much loathed term.  What they fail to grasp is that soccer was actually a word popularized in England in the late 19th century.  Much debate exists about where it came from. One popular tale is that Alfred Lord Kinnaird (yes, he, the pioneer of association football) was asked which kind of football (rugby or association) he was off to play and he responded “soccer”. 

In summary, the British can harldy blame the Americans for using a word popularized by the British themselves! It made logical sense in the 19th century to differentiate from rugby football (long before that game became known as simply Rugby).  It makes sense today to differentiate from American Football as well.

Nasty – In common U.S. soccer parlance this means someone is very good. In England, it would only be said on a soccer field (translation – football pitch) by a six year-old to another boy who just did something mean.  It reminds me of when Michael Jackson’s Bad came out in the 80s and my brother had to explain why being bad was actually good. MJ really upset the moral equilibrium.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Football/Soccer – one game divided by a common language

  1. Tommaso

    Ehm, the sweeper (or libero) was also popular in Italy and furthermore Guardiola now employs midfielders as centre-backs, making them something similar to the old libero. Flat back four is the past!

  2. Absolutely, but the word “stopper” for a center back was not one I’d come across before (only heard it as an occasionally used epithet for a defender in general)

    I noticed that Mascherano has been playing center back for some time, but I thought this was mainly because Pique and Puyol are injured. They didn’t defend the corner against Milan so well!

  3. Tommaso

    He employs Mascherano there because he has an untopian vision: a team without strikers, wingers, number tens, or defenders. Only midfielders.
    The corner was purely defended. And also, on Pato’s acceleration, a good defender would have taken the yellow card and prevented the goal.

    PS: In italy we did use the word ‘stopper’ but to refer to the normal centre-back. Nobody uses this word now though, it’s an older generation’s term.

  4. Tommaso

    poorly defended.

  5. Bees1935

    As usual Dom a very creative blog. By the way, far the best sweeper I ever saw was Franco Baresi of AC Milan! I think he played until he was about 85 but he wAas great at bringing the ball out of defence. Also that guy Ciaran Weeks who plays for Village FC in Birmingham is a “bad” sweeper.
    Keep up the good work!
    Bees1935

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