x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Football should be shown a red card for foul play on words

Now the football season has finished, the English language is given a break from the battering it receives from August to May.

In a year with no World Cup or European championships, the end of the normal football season brings, as well as joy and pain to winners and losers, widespread relief. Players and managers depart on summer holidays, long-suffering families reclaim members who devote too much time and money to supporting their teams and the English language is given a break from the battering it receives from August to May.

Even those of us who follow the game with passion accept that we cannot include enrichment of the spoken word among its benefits. With cheating commonplace and the vilification of referees a matter for growing concern, it may be of little significance that people in football have inadequate powers of expression. But I do grimace when I hear "early doors", to mean no more than soon after kick-off, or of someone feeling as "sick as a parrot". At a website for fans of the English club Crystal Palace, a supporter makes the interesting point that the "back of the net" is, in fact, the front of the net. He would probably share my inability to see why it should be the "beauty of the game" that an entirely logical consequence of defeat is to make relegation more likely or honours less so.

Ron Atkinson's transition from player and manager to pundit has created a bumper collection of gibberish, or "Ronglish" as a site of that name mischievously calls it. This could take up several columns, so I offer only two examples: "He could have done a lot better there, but full marks to the lad" and "if the Cameroons get a goal back here they're literally gonna catch on fire". It should surprise no one that Atkinson is also credited with introducing those "early doors".

But he is hardly a lone culprit. It is so rare to encounter an articulate manager or player that we are astonished when it happens, not least because in many cases English is not even the speaker's native tongue. The measured eloquence of Arsene Wenger, the French manager of Arsenal for the past 13 years, is so striking that some of us regard his absurdly selective recall of contentious incidents as a fair price for listening to him at all. Another Frenchman, who flourished under his stewardship, has proved a good pupil. Thierry Henry has not only been a great success wherever he has played, he also appears comfortable when interviewed in the language of each host nation.

A third Arsenal connection that springs to mind concerns an Englishman. During the Euro 2000 finals held in Holland and Belgium, I sat in the press box with Alan Smith, who had moved on from a commendable playing career to work impressively as an analyst. One piece of trivia known to attentive students of English football is that Smith is a linguist. Yet he told me he did not feel school certificates in French and German quite justified the description. Perhaps he was being modest. If not, his reputation will have been a symptom of the tendency, when discussing footballers, to elevate respectable but unexceptional educational attributes to serious academic status.

If linguistic inadequacy were the only negative aspect of English football, however, we might be grateful. Hooliganism, now in decline but far from conquered, has naturally been a far greater source of disquiet. Of course, the average hooligan combines loutishness with poor communication skills. During that same 2000 tournament, I heard England supporters explaining appalling behaviour with the mantra: "We was provoked."

Without commenting on the wayward grammar, a police intelligence official noted: "To them, provocation may be no more than a person speaking his own language in his own country." Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae