Do You Speak Football? – Tom Williams

The lexicon of football is indeed richly varied. Words and expressions are routinely coined and rarely arbitrary. Each coinage is reflective of the culture from which it originates, and carried a collective feeling, a shared history, a regrettable moment, or a glorious victory. Well known terms such as joga bonito, diski, and morbo all evoke certain ideas about football, and how it should be played. Each part of the football lexicon is personal, subjective, and shifting in meaning over time—therefore, any attempt to categorise such a lexicon would prove to be a difficult task.

Tom Williams has, however, tackled this task meritoriously in his extensive glossary Do You Speak Football? In this book, the respective lexicon of eighty-nine footballing nations over seven regions is detailed in varying degrees, with ‘heavyweight’ nations commanding the most entries. Amidst this eclectic compendium—where there are at least twenty ways to describe a nutmeg and no less than fourteen creative ways to say in the top corner—Williams also cannily delves into the history of more specific expressions and teases out some glorious, seldom-told anecdotes from footballing history that even the most knowledgeable football anorak may be unaware of.

“One of the most evocative words in World Cup History, Maracanazo was the name given to Brazil’s sensational defeat by Uruguay in the deciding match of the 1950 tournament…Nelson Rodrigues, Brazil’s greatest playwright, described it as ‘our Hiroshima’. The calamity was evoked again during the 2014 World Cup when Brazil, again the hosts, collapsed to an unbelievable 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals at Belo Horizonte’s Estádio Mineirão. It was quickly dubbed the Mineirazo.

The meaning of Maracanazo (pg. 28)

The entries are brilliant and conjure up vivid mental images. Onde dorme a coruja (‘where the owl sleeps’), fare la gavetta (‘to do the mess tin’), and pihkatappi (‘faecal plug’) are good examples of this. Panenka, timsaha yatmak (‘doing a crocodile’), and poteaux carrés (‘square posts’) all reflect moments in football history that still ripple in the present; and tuya, Héctor (‘yours, Hector’) and en rigtig Jesper Olsen (a real Jesper Olsen) are footballing expressions that have entered everyday life. There are hundreds of equally fascinating entries each accompanied by Williams’ punchy and clever explanations.

Do You Speak Football? does not have to be linearly read. Readers can dip in and out at will, though it is certainly worth reading from front to back to get full value. A concise appendix of each entry is lacking, making the book difficult to reference quickly. Where there are crossover entries—nutmeg and in the top corner, for example—there are no specific page references for similar entries. Although no entry is forced, some countries are overrepresented, while others are underrepresented.

“When a bear hibernates, a large mass of hardened matter called a faecal plug forms in its colon… In football terms, [pihkatappi] is 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.”

The meaning of pihkatappi (pg. 92)

Do You Speak Football? can also be compared to Adam Hurrey’s 2014 book Football Clichés. Both are glossaries of footballing parlance, but are very different in tone. Football Clichés is a humorous and light stocking stuffer, whereas Do You Speak Football? eschews the pithy humour to take a more erudite and meaningful look at footballing language. As such, it reflects upon how culture affects language.

The success of Do You Speak Football? is a testament to Williams’ research, and his ability to compose a fascinating anecdote. His work will appeal to all football fans, and will especially please those who appreciate esoteric football trivia. Readers of Do You Speak Football? will also gain a clearer insight into the beauty of a lexicon that is often watered down by clichés and platitudes.


“Unimpressed by the performances of 18-year-old playmaker Gianni Rivera at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, [Gianni] Brera dubbed him l’Abatino, meaning ‘the Young Priest’, in mocking reference to Rivera’s slight physique and lack of defensive endeavour. The term became used to describe any thoughtful, willowy midfielder whose excellent vision and passing ability were not matched by his work-rate. Another term was euclideo (‘Euclidean’), after the Ancient Greek mathematician Euclid, which he used to describe a player who read the game well and moved in logical patterns.” (pg. 122-123).

A couple of Gianni Brera’s classic coinages (pg. 122-123)

STARS: 4/5

UNDER 20: A fascinating study of football lexicon and culture that is punctuated with wonderful asides, historical anecdotes and trivia.

FULL-TIME SCORE: The l’Abatino plays a Streltsov pass to the ponta de lança, who puts some chanfle to put the la bendita into the jep’s nest for a glorious final mark on a colourful and creative 3-1 win.  

RELATED READING: Football Clichés by Adam Hurrey (2014).

Find Do You Speak Football? on Amazon

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