Do You Speak Football?
An A-Z of colourful footballing vocabulary from around the globe
A is for aza na yombo – to have bad luck (Democratic Republic of Congo)
Applied to a player, coach or team against whom fate appears to have conspired. It might be said of a striker who keeps missing chances or a team who are stuck in a rut of bad results. Yombo was the name given to a black hair dye imported to the Democratic Republic of Congo from western Africa in the 19th century. The suggestion is that a footballer who has na yombo has been touched by some kind of dark misfortune.
B is for bakrom – back-room (Norway)
Fifa didn’t publish its first world rankings until August 1993, but by October the list already had a very familiar look to it: 1. Brazil; 2. Norway; 3. Italy; 4. Germ– hang on, sorry, Norway? The Norwegians had gone 55 years without playing at a major tournament, but under the no-nonsense stewardship of Egil Olsen, they were a team transformed. Over the previous 13 months they had beaten England, the Netherlands, Poland and Turkey in World Cup qualifying and seen off the United States in a friendly, and they were weeks away from securing a place at USA 94. Olsen was nicknamed ‘Drillo’ because of his dribbling skills as a player, but as a coach he was an über-pragmatist. Taking his cue from the statistical analysis carried out in England by the statistician Charles Reep and the FA coaching director Charles Hughes, Olsen turned Norway into one of the most direct international teams in the game’s history. His obsession was the bakrom, the space behind the opposition’s defence, which was to be targeted at every available opportunity. His formation of choice was a 4-5-1 in which a midfield of scurriers supported loping lone striker Jostein Flo. The team’s key tactic was the flo-pasning (‘Flo pass’), which involved the full-backs pelting high balls towards Flo, who would isolate himself against a shorter opposition full-back and then nod the ball down for the midfield runners to attack. Olsen demanded that his players be best uten ball (‘the best without the ball’). The phrase was originally used to describe Øyvind Leonhardsen, who played for Rosenborg under Nils Arne Eggen, another coach who favoured direct, attacking football. Leonhardsen became the prototype for a kind of fast-breaking attacking midfielder known in Norway as an indreløper (‘inner runner’) and in 1994 he joined Wimbledon, who were no strangers to putting it in the mixer themselves. To describe his philosophy, Olsen invented the term gjennombruddshissig, an essentially untranslatable word comprising gjennombrudd (‘breakthrough’) and hissig, which usually means ‘aggressive’. Many sneered at Olsen’s approach, but by the time he stepped down in 1998, he had taken Norway to two successive World Cups. They have not been to one since.
C is for cola de vaca – cow’s tail (Spain)
There are 23 minutes on the clock in Barcelona’s home game against Real Madrid in January 1994 and the score is 0-0 when Pep Guardiola collects a pass from Guillermo Amor in the inside-left channel. Loitering in the space between the Madrid centre-back Rafael Alkorta and the right-back Paco Llorente, Romário gestures to Guardiola that he wants a pass into his feet and the future Barça coach obliges. With Alkorta standing off him, Romário takes a touch and then produces an outlandish piece of skill, cradling the ball with his right foot and scooping it past the Basque defender like a hockey player playing a push pass, whirling through 180 degrees as he does so and driving into the box. Alkorta takes one step back towards his own goal, but immediately realises he’s beaten and Romário completes the job by stabbing the ball beneath the advancing Francisco Buyo. The move became known as the cola de vaca or ‘cow’s tail’ because it brought to mind a cow lazily swishing its tail to swat away flies. Romário had been under a bit of pressure going into the game, having gone five matches without finding the net, but his goal set Barcelona up for a historic 5-0 win that proved the catalyst for Johan Cruyff’s team to go on and win a fourth successive La Liga title. Romário finished the season as the top scorer in Spain with 30 goals, the strike against Madrid both the pick of the bunch and one of the highpoints of Barça’s ‘Dream Team’ era.
D is for Dundee United (Nigeria)
If you’re a Dundee United fan and you ever find yourself in Lagos, you might want to keep your club allegiances to yourself. The reason being that in parts of the country where the Yoruba language is spoken, Dundee United is a synonym for ‘idiot’. It’s thought to stem from a disastrous tour of Nigeria that United undertook in 1972, when they won only one of the five games they played and were beaten by teams including Stationery Stores FC and Kaduna Bees. The manager Jim McLean blamed his team’s below-par displays on injuries, poor-quality pitches and, above all, the sapping heat and humidity. An associated theory is that the word Dundee reminded locals of the dundun, a versatile West African drum that can be manipulated to sound like human speech, thereby helping to forge a connection in their minds between people from Dundee and something that makes a loud, insistent noise.
E is for elástico – elastic band (Brazil)
Viewers of the 1998 Uefa Cup final between Internazionale and Lazio were treated to a truly exceptional display of skill by Ronaldo that took several slow-motion replays to decipher. Minutes after putting Inter 3-0 up at Parc des Princes, Ronaldo had the ball headed to his feet by team-mate Javier Zanetti. The Inter number 10 evaded one challenge from Guerino Gottardi by shifting the ball from left foot to right and when the Lazio substitute launched himself into a second tackle, close to Inter’s left-hand touchline, Ronaldo seemed somehow to glue the ball to the toe of his right boot, swishing it one way and then the other before sprinting down the touchline, leaving the incredulous Gottardi sprawled in his wake. It looked like witchcraft, but the replays revealed that Gottardi had in fact succumbed to a piece of skill known in Brazil as an elástico, which the country’s footballers have mastered like nobody else. Also known as a culebrita (‘little snake’), or, in English, a ‘flip-flap’, the move (when performed by a right-footer) involves a player using his toes to tease the ball from left to right, before suddenly snapping it back in the opposite direction, sending the ball quickly one way and then the other, and inevitably leaving the nearest defender clutching at thin air. Popularised in recent years by Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo, the move is most closely connected with Roberto Rivellino, the moustachioed and effortlessly gifted left-winger from Brazil’s 1970 world champions. Rivellino was initially credited as its inventor, but he actually learnt it from a Japanese-Brazilian team-mate called Sergio Echigo, with whom he played at Corinthians in 1964. “I saw him do it once and I said, ‘Hey, Japanese, what’s that trick?’” Rivellino explained. “He said, ‘It’s easy Rive, I’ll teach you it.’ He says now that he invented it, but I perfected it.”
F is for fox in the box (England)
A reasonably direct translation of the French expression renard des surfaces (‘fox of the boxes’), this phrase was introduced to English in 2001 by Thierry Henry. After Arsenal fell to two Michael Owen goals in the FA Cup final against Liverpool, Henry told French journalists at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium that manager Arsène Wenger needed to buy a ‘renard des surfaces’ like Owen to play alongside him. The remark was picked up by the British press and Wenger duly obliged, signing Francis Jeffers from Everton and expressing hope that the 20-year-old Liverpudlian would prove to be “that fox in the box we have been talking about”. Jeffers, sadly, had left his vulpine wiles at Goodison Park and would score just four league goals for Arsenal before leaving three years later. Another French loanword helped across the Channel by Wenger is footballistically (a translation of the equally ungainly French term footballistiquement).
G is for gorchichnik (горчичник) – yellow card (Russia)
Gorchichniki are poultices made from clay or paste and mixed with mustard powder. The process produces yellow, rectangular-shaped plasters resembling slices of cheese that are sold in packets of 10 or 20. A mainstay of Soviet medicine, gorchichnik has come to be used as a synonym for a yellow card.
H is for heid the ba (Scotland)
Also known as a ba-heid, a heid the ba (‘head the ball’) is a fool or someone with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. One of the very earliest football songs, penned in Scotland in the 1880s, explored the negative potential impacts of playing football on someone’s intelligence. It was called “The Dooley Fitba Club” and is thought to have been written by James Currin, a popular Glasgow songwriter. The song became more widely known when it was re-released as “Football Crazy” by the folk duo Robin Hall and Jimmie Macgregor in 1960. Its chirpy chorus – “He’s football crazy, he’s football mad / The football it has robbed him o’ / The wee bit o’ sense he had” – helped to further underscore the links between football and idiocy.
I is for individual brilliance (Australia)
The trademark utterances of well-known pundits are as familiar to football fans as the catchphrases of our nearest and dearest. Alan Hansen’s “diabolical defending”. Andy Townsend’s “not for me”. Andy Gray’s “you just don’t save those, Martin”. Watch a programme featuring the former Australia midfielder turned TV pundit Ned Zelić and you’re highly likely to hear the expression “individual brilliance”, which is Zelić’s term of choice when he’s waxing lyrical about the skill levels within a particular team. He has trotted out the phrase so insistently that it’s become something of a go-to term in Australian football coverage. The well-travelled Zelić, whose former clubs include Borussia Dortmund, QPR, Auxerre, Urawa Red Diamonds, Wacker Tirol and Dinamo Tbilisi, also likes to see teams play with “imagination and fantasy”. His Fox Sports colleague Andy Harper coined the phrase “spawning salmon” to describe a player rising gracefully for a header.
J is for jahfali (جحفلي) – last-minute goal (Saudi Arabia)
Al-Hilal were trailing 1-0 to their Saudi arch-rivals Al-Nassr in stoppage time of extra-time in the 2015 King Cup when a corner from the right was headed back across goal by the substitute Ahmed Sharahili and the centre-back Mohammed Jahfali bravely threw himself between two yellow-shirted opponents to head in an equaliser. Having escaped defeat by the skin of their teeth, Al-Hilal went on to win the cup on penalties and Jahfali’s name has since come to be used colloquially as a synonym for a dramatic late goal.
K is for kukanyaga nyoka – to step on a snake (Kenya)
Kenya is home to 126 species of snake, among them the deadly black mamba, puff adder and four types of cobra, so it’s no surprise that the country’s football dictionary is dotted with serpentine references. To ‘step on a snake’ is a Swahili expression used to describe an air shot, while a piga ngoma kimo cha bafe (‘puff adder shot’) is a low shot that speeds along the ground.
L is for leejeu shijeol (리즈시절) – Leeds season (South Korea)
When people get nostalgic about Leeds United, they invariably hark back to the Don Revie glory years or the time when David O’Leary’s turn-of-the-century tyros briefly fought it out with Europe’s finest in the Champions League. But in South Korea, where the Premier League is followed with forensic devotion, Leeds-related wistfulness has focused on one player. The term leejeu shijeol specifically refers to Alan Smith, the tigerish home-grown striker with the blond curtains who bade a tearful farewell to Elland Road after Leeds were relegated from the top flight in 2004 and went on to become an unexpectedly run-of-the-mill central midfielder with Manchester United, Newcastle, MK Dons and Notts County. Brought into the world on Korean online football forums, the phrase leejeu shijeol migrated into everyday speech as a general metaphor for happier, more hopeful times.
M is for magojastro (মগজাস্ত্) – brain weapon (India)
One of the most enduring creations of the legendary Bengali filmmaker and writer Satyajit Ray was Feluda, a cerebral private detective who appeared in many of Ray’s stories and two of his films. Feluda was renowned for his mental sharpness and analytical ability, which were described in Ray’s writing as his magojastro. When a coach of a Bengali team pulls off a tactical coup or makes a game- changing substitution, he’s credited with having used his magojastro.
N is for nogomet – football (Croatia)
Britain’s role in bringing football to the world means that the vast majority of countries use variations of the words ‘football’ or ‘soccer’ as their names for it, but that’s not the case in Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia, where it’s known as nogomet. A linguist called Slavko Rutzner Radmilović is said to have come up with the term as he watched students kick a ball around in Zagreb’s Mažuranac park in 1893. The word is a portmanteau of noga (‘foot’) and met (‘target’), the target in question being the goal. With Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia all part of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the time, the word was adopted in all three countries, but not in neighbouring Serbia, where the sport would become known as fudbal.
O is for Obrona Częstochowy – The Defence of Częstochowa (Poland)
In the winter of 1655, a Swedish army bolstered by German mercenaries attempted to capture the Jasna Góra monastery in the southern Polish city of Częstochowa, only to be rebuffed by a small band of monks and local volunteers. It was turned into a silent film in 1913 called Obrona Częstochowy and the film’s title is evoked during a football match when all 10 outfield players in a team are desperately defending the edge of their own penalty area.
P is for pihkatappi – faecal plug (Finland)
When a bear hibernates, a large mass of hardened matter called a faecal plug forms in its colon. Made up of faeces, dead intestinal cells and hair, it sits there, gradually increasing in size, until the bear emerges from its lair in the spring and deposits it outside. In Finland, where the forests teem with bears, the word for a faecal plug is pihkatappi. In football terms, it’s used to describe a defensive midfielder who plugs the gap in front of his team’s defence. And you thought left-back was an unglamorous position.
Q is for quechón – catcher (Panama)
Panama’s first professional baseball league was founded in 1946 and there’s evidence that the sport was first played there in the 1850s, when it was introduced to the country by US tradesmen and workers from the Panama Railroad Company. In Panamanian football, a lazy striker who spends all his time waiting for the ball to be played to him is likened to a baseball catcher crouching behind home plate in anticipation of the next pitch.
R is for rovesciata – overhead bicycle kick (Italy)
In Italy, the rovesciata (literally a ‘reverse kick’) is associated not with an attacking player but a defender. Carlo Parola introduced the technique to Italian audiences while playing for Juventus in the 1940s and was credited in his homeland as its inventor. Parola would generally employ the manoeuvre to clear the ball downfield and was so adept at pulling it off that he became known as ‘Signor Rovesciata’. One particular rovesciata, performed during a game against Fiorentina in January 1950, achieved emblematic status. It was captured by photographer Corrado Banchi and ended up being turned into the image that adorns Panini sticker albums in Italy. Parola is shown side-on to the camera, some three feet off the ground, in a textbook scissors kick pose: arms outstretched for balance, left foot hanging beneath him, right foot fully extended, the ball already flying down the pitch as a startled opponent takes evasive action nearby.
S is for soccer mom (United States)
The expression “soccer mom” has acquired negative connotations in recent years, conjuring up images of overbearing mothers bundling reluctant children out of the passenger doors of SUVs and into football matches in which they’d rather not play, but the original soccer moms played a pivotal role in the establishment of football as a major US pastime in the 1980s and 1990s. As David Goldblatt observes in The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, football bucked a trend in the US by becoming a middle-class (rather than a working-class) sport, and it was middle-income working mothers who took the lead by organising the game at grass-roots level. Soccer moms permeated the national consciousness during the build-up to the 1996 US presidential election when they were identified as a key demographic for Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton. Following Clinton’s victory over his Republican rival Bob Dole, “soccer mom” was voted ‘Word of the Year’ by the American Dialect Society.
T is for timsaha yatmak – doing a crocodile (Turkey)
Going into the final round of matches in the 2009-10 Süper Lig season, Fenerbahçe led second-placed Bursaspor by a point and needed only to match their result to claim the title. Fenerbahçe’s 1-1 draw at home to Trabzonspor left things in the balance, but when it was announced over the PA system at Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium that Bursaspor had conceded a late equaliser in their home game against Beşiktaş, Fener’s fans poured onto the pitch in jubilation. Some of them mockingly mimicked Bursa’s ‘crocodile walk’ goal celebration – kneeling down in a line, grasping the ankles of the person in front and marching forwards on their knees. Unfortunately for Fenerbahçe, the announcement was a mistake: Bursa had held on for a 2-1 win, giving them the first league title in their history. Fener’s fans reacted furiously, clashing with police, lighting fires in the stadium and rampaging through the streets outside the ground. The phrase timsaha yatmak has since been adopted by Turkish football fans to describe a situation where someone has got ahead of themselves.
U is for UB40s (Jamaica)
With Jamaica toiling mid-way through the final round of qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, the Brazilian coach René Simões looked to Britain in the hope of injecting his team of talented but callow semi-professional players with some top-level know-how. He drafted in four England-born players with Jamaican roots – the Portsmouth pair Paul Hall and Fitzroy Simpson, Wimbledon’s Robbie Earle and Derby’s Deon Burton – and the results were instant. Goals from Burton earned Jamaica 1-0 victories over Canada and Costa Rica and a 1-1 draw away to the United States, before draws against El Salvador and Mexico carried the ‘Reggae Boyz’ to their first World Cup. The English contingent were dubbed the UB40s after Birmingham-based reggae group UB40 (whose name was a reference to a document – Unemployment Benefit Form 40 – that was issued to people claiming unemployment benefit in the UK). By the time the World Cup rolled around there were seven UB40s, Wimbledon’s Marcus Gayle, Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair and Burton’s Derby team-mate Darryl Powell having joined the ranks. Jamaica were eliminated in the group phase in France after one-sided losses to Croatia and Argentina, but claimed a historic 2-1 win over Japan in their final game.
V is for vrouwen en kinderen eerst – women and children first (Netherlands)
When a team are frantically trying to clear the ball inside their own penalty area, the situation may be amusingly described in the Netherlands as ‘women and children first’. A comparable, nonsensical term, coined by the flamboyant former Willem II, Sparta Rotterdam and Vitesse Arnhem coach Bert Jacobs, is hotseknotsbegoniavoetbal (roughly, ‘hotchpotch begonia football’), which refers to the kind of desperate, long-ball football that’s often witnessed in the latter stages of a tight game.
W is for wayn yeskon shaytan (وين يسكن شيطان) – where Satan lives (Algeria)
In African qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Algeria finished dead-level with hated enemies Egypt at the top of Group C, necessitating a play-off match in November 2009 that took place amid a huge police presence in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The game rekindled memories of the teams’ infamous qualifying play-off before the 1990 tournament, which was nicknamed ‘the Death Match’. The Egypt goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary appeared set to frustrate Algeria, but after keeping them at bay for most of the first half, he was beaten in the 40th minute when centre-back Antar Yahia latched onto Karim Ziani’s lofted pass and powered a shot in off the crossbar from a narrow angle on the right. It was the goal that sent Algeria to their first World Cup in 24 years. In a post-match interview filmed in the changing room against a raucous backdrop of celebrating team-mates, Yahia said: “We hit it on the ground, he [El-Hadary] stopped it. We hit it in the air, he stopped it. [So] we hit it where the devil couldn’t reach.” The beIN Sports commentator Hafid Derradji has since popularised the use of the phrase wayn yeskon shaytan (‘where Satan lives’) to refer to the top corners of the goal.
X is for xia ke (下课) – class dismissed (China)
Chanted by fans who want a coach to be sacked. This term caught on across China after Sichuan Quanxing supporters shouted it at unpopular coach Yu Dongfeng in 1995.
Y is for yalli – nutmeg (Senegal)
The Senegalese term for a nutmeg traces its genesis back to the 1964 final of the Coupe de Sénégal between Club Olympique Thiessois (COT) and third-tier US Ouakam. After a 1-1 draw in their first encounter, the replay also finished 1-1 and went to extra time, during which veteran forward Ibrahima Dione scored the winning goal for Ouakam by driving the ball between the legs of COT’s distinguished goalkeeper, Yalli Ndieguene. A nutmeg has been known as a yalli in Senegal ever since. The word is also used in everyday situations when somebody has been hoodwinked or made to look foolish. An alternative name for a goal scored between the goalkeeper’s legs is butou taate, meaning ‘buttocks goal’.
Z is for Zweikampf – duel (Germany)
Now perceived as something of a linguistic relic from the days before German football’s tactical enlightenment, the Zweikampf has long been an archetypal feature of the German game. Before the zonal marking revolution, a football match was viewed as the sum total of a series of one-on-one duels between direct opponents and while the game has since moved on in Germany, these statistics are still collected and discussed. A player’s Zweikampfstärke (‘duel strength’) is calculated by dividing the number of Zweikämpfe he attempts by the number of Zweikämpfe he wins, leaving you with his Zweikampfquote (‘duel win ratio’). Andreas Christensen, on loan at Borussia Mönchengladbach from Chelsea, was the top Zweikämpfer (‘dueller’) in the 2016-17 season with a Zweikampfquote of 67.1%, while Dario Lezcano of Ingolstadt boasted the best Zweikämpfe pro Spiel (‘duels won per game’) average of 27.8. Bixente Lizarazu was famously reluctant to speak German during his time at Bayern, but a phrase he uttered in English in December 2002 captured the German obsession with man-to-man combat. Bayern’s football in the early weeks of the season was so seductive that chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge described it as Weißes Ballett (‘White Ballet’), in reference to the team’s new all-white strip. But they crashed and burned in the Champions League, limping out in the group phase after failing to win a single game, and Lizarazu said it was time to get back to basics. ‘Forget the culture of playing football,’ said the Frenchman. ‘You have to win Zweikampf.’ Lizarazu’s clunky declaration was immortalised in 2006 when German indie band – and renowned football fans – Sportfreunde Stiller named their fourth album You Have to Win Zweikampf.
This lexicon is drawn from Do You Speak Football? A Glossary of Football Words and Phrases from Around the World by Tom Williams, published by Bloomsbury, out now in hardback