How We Speak Sports

By | April 18th, 2016 | No Comments

eepa_11477Image: Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.

Cross-posted from The Allrounder

[First published on November 13, 2014]

We don’t just watch sports – we speak and hear sports. To find out how language shapes our lives as fans, we asked some of our writers to tell us about the ways that people talk sports in English and their native languages. Kay Schiller hails from Munich, fellow historian Peter Alegi grew up in Rome, media scholar Markus Stauff lives in the Netherlands, and sociologist Pablo Alabarces teaches at the University of Buenos Aires. Together, they offer a Rosetta Stone of sports talk.

You’ve all lived for a time in English-speaking countries. Did anything in particular strike you – say, the first times you went to a stadium or watched a match on television – about the ways that native speakers of English talk about their sports?

Kay Schiller: I have lived in the UK since 1997. One of the things that struck me as a non-native speaker when going to see Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool, ManU, or, more recently, Blackburn Rovers was that I had a tremendously hard time understanding the terrace chants, despite being quite fluent in English. I suppose that this is similar to what English fans experience when they attend a Bundesliga match.

Thankfully, there are now websites that explain what you hear in the stadium. You can learn that Blackburn Rovers fans at Ewood Park have several profane chants for Burnley, such as “Burnley are s**t s**t s**t , they always gonna be s**t.” One major difference with Germany is that while this kind of folklore can be found in the supporters’ curves of stadia, you wouldn’t hear otherwise respectable-looking people participating in chants like these – or middle-aged ladies calling the referee a c***.

I’m not sure what this suggests about the different football cultures of England and Germany, or culture more generally, but I find it worthy of note. Perhaps it’s reassuring that even with all-seater stadia and the continuous jacking-up of gate prices in English football, some things do not change.

Peter Alegi: At venerable Fenway Park in Boston, sitting in the bleachers with my dad (obstinately wearing a Yankees cap), the usual chant we heard was: “Yankees suck!” At New Haven Coliseum, where my older brother and I followed minor league ice hockey, it was: “Shoot the puck!” At basketball and American football games, giant electronic scoreboards demanded chants of “Deeeeee-fe-nse!”

This was a world away from the Italian football stadiums and basketball arenas I grew up with.

What first struck me in the U.S. was a lack of spontaneity in the language of fans at the grounds. The PA announcer, the scoreboard, and recorded music directed the orality of the crowd. Maybe this was because of the corporate nature of American sports, with its top-down manufactured stadium experience that transforms fans into consumers. It’s also hard to chant and sing when spending so much time, money, and energy eating and drinking during games. In any case, the second thing that hit me about the U.S. context was the lack of creativity in the language. Much of the spoken word among fans, chants and commentary alike, seemed very direct and not terribly imaginative, a bit like the English language!

In Italy, our oral culture at the stadium was far more creative. I remember sitting in the stands listening to self-appointed bards who would rise to recite absorbing monologues in the vernacular (dialects are hugely important and richly diverse in Italy). These men (rarely were they women) explained the causes of our striker’s inexplicable impotence or the reasons for the referee’s situational ethics. The language was often metaphorical, indirect. The best insults were the ones delivered with a perfect balance of grit, humor, and linguistic dexterity. Even my intellectual Roman mother, with a PhD in Italian literature, relished such vulgar poetic performances (“vulgus” in Latin means ordinary people, after all). This creative genius came through in the songs we sang. Fans developed an art of crafting lyrics and combining them with a dizzying range of musical sources: classical (Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was a favorite); operatic (Verdi, of course); patriotic compositions (“La Marseillaise”); marches (John Philip Sousa!); folk/traditional (“La Società dei Magnaccioni,” “O Sole Mio,” and “Auld Lang Syne”); partisan resistance (“Bella Ciao”), and loads of pop (from “Yellow Submarine” to Antonello Venditti’s “Roma, Roma, Roma”).

Eventually, I came to appreciate the comfort and safety of U.S. stadiums and arenas. But to this day, their canned and often lifeless aural culture makes me nostalgic of home.

Click here to read on.

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Dreaming of a Sports City

By | November 16th, 2015 | No Comments

Bombonera_constructionThe Football Scholars Forum, the online think tank based at Michigan State University, recently explored fascinating aspects of the long and complex relationship between fútbol and politics in the history of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In its second session of the 2015-16 season, FSF co-founder Alex Galarza, PhD candidate in History at Michigan State, shared a chapter from his dissertation: “Dreaming of Sports City: Consumption, Urban Transformation, and Soccer Clubs in Buenos Aires.” Galarza’s doctoral research has been funded by prestigious national and international grants, including the coveted Fulbright and FIFA Havelange scholarships.

The potential impact of Galarza’s dissertation work beyond the ivory tower of academia can be gleaned from his involvement in an ongoing documentary film project. Working with four young Argentine journalists, Galarza aims to use the format of filmmaking to reveal the “hidden” history of Boca Juniors’ Ciudad Deportiva—a (failed) urban renaissance construction project that sheds new light on the role of professional soccer clubs in city planning and everyday life. (Watch the trailer here.)

The Forum encouraged Galarza to explain how this history of Buenos Aires compares with the experiences of other Latin American cities, and broader processes of modernization and state formation.  The author and participants also discussed constructions of race, whiteness, and gender through fútbol, the politics of club governance, and the ideological projects behind stadium construction.

Listen to or download the audio recording here.

Scholars Discuss New Book on Fútbol in Latin America

By | February 18th, 2015 | No Comments

Futbol_BookCoverHow does football shape national narratives in Latin America? Why is the game so closely tied to masculinity and femininity? How can studying fútbol advance our understanding of Latin American history? These and other questions were part of the Football Scholars Forum recent discussion of Joshua Nadel’s Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America.

The author, an assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at North Carolina Central University, shared his experience of writing a book that the publisher expected to have cross-over appeal.  In addition to tackling questions from the thirteen participants online, Nadel also suggested future directions for research on Latin American fútbol.

An audio recording of the event can be downloaded here.

The next gathering of the Football Scholars Forum will be on March 26 for a paper on Zambian football by Hikabwa Chipande, a PhD candidate in African history at Michigan State University. For more information about this event, please contact Alex Galarza.

Circus Without Bread: Reflections on Brazil 2014

By | July 17th, 2014 | No Comments

Catsam_Nigeria

Guest Post by *Derek Charles Catsam

I recently returned from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It was a remarkable experience in a beautiful country. Everywhere we went people were gracious, joyful hosts. We ate fantastic churrasqueira (the Brazilian barbecue that will fuel my dreams for months) and drank among friends. The games were tremendous, the colorful visiting fans (with special mention to the dancing, chanting, singing, drinking Argentine throngs) made the World Cup the event that it is. The protests were more intermittent than expected. But the issues raised were as valid as ever.

I was based in Porto Alegre in the state of Rio Grande do Sul on Brazil’s southern border with Uruguay and Argentina. I attended four matches in Estadio Beria-Rio, the home of Sports Club Internacional: France-Honduras, Algeria-South Korea, Argentina-Nigeria, and the round of 16 match pitting eventual champions Germany against the Algeria. With 32 teams competing, the first two weeks of the World Cup are an unparalleled Carnival of Nations. Porto Alegre was in the midst of a Brazilian winter, hardly freezing, but occasionally raw and damp. The bikinis and swimming shorts that many of you saw as the regular going-to-commercial interludes on ESPN were many hundreds of miles north.

The tournament, which equaled the most goals (171) ever scored in a World Cup, was spectacularly entertaining and Germany is certainly a worthy champion. But once the confetti cleared, the last drinks were downed, tourists returned home, and Brazilians shook off the shameful way the Seleção flamed out of the tournament (and I do not for one second believe that the presence of Thiago Silva and Neymar against Germany and the Netherlands would have made much difference—Brazil’s problems were systemic) a familiar question looms: Was hosting the World Cup worth it?
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Boca Júniors’ “Fraud of the Century”

By | October 21st, 2013 | 2 Comments



On October 3-4, Alex Galarza spoke at the Rethinking Sports in the Americas conference at Emory University about the history of Club Atlético Boca Júniors’ Ciudad Deportiva (“sports city”), a gargantuan urban project hailed in the 1960s as a harbinger of national progress and modernization that later became known as the “fraud of the century.” Galarza is a doctoral student in history at Michigan State University and co-founder of the Football Scholars Forum. This paper is part of ongoing doctoral research funded by the Fulbright Program and a FIFA Havelange Scholarship.

The scholarly gathering in Atlanta provided ten early career scholars and graduate students with a chance to present new research papers and receive feedback from peers and senior scholars. Participants read and commented on pre-circulated papers, which made for lively and engaging discussions. Chris Brown, an Emory History PhD student studying sport in the Brazilian Amazon, organized the conference with support from Dr. Jeff Lesser of the Emory History Department and Dr. Raanan Rein, Vice President of Tel Aviv University. Several Football Scholars Forum members shared their work and ideas, including keynote speaker, Brenda Elsey, as well as Rwany Sibaja and Ingrid Bolívar.

The video of Alex Galarza’s presentation on the Ciudad Deportiva reveals the intertwining of sport, politics, and society in postwar Buenos Aires. The Ciudad was profoundly shaped by the idea that popular consumption of fútbol and leisure were integral components of citizenship and national progress. This helps explain why Argentina’s national government and Buenos Aires’ municipal authorities subsidized the project and integrated it into the city’s master plan. The general public, not just Boca supporters, invested an impressive amount of money and faith into the undertaking. While the initial success of the Ciudad speaks to the changing ways in which porteños viewed modernity and consumed leisure, the project’s monumental failure in the long run sheds new light on the nature of political and economic change in Argentina after Perón.

Fútbol History in the Digital Age

By | February 21st, 2013 | No Comments



In this video, Alex Galarza and I discuss digital fútbol scholarship at Michigan State University. The conversation ranges from Galarza’s doctoral dissertation entitled “Between Civic Association and Mass Consumption: The Soccer Clubs of Buenos Aires,” to the Football Scholars Forum, the online football think tank.

For more information about Galarza’s research click here.

Alex Galarza Wins FIFA Havelange Scholarship

By | January 18th, 2013 | 1 Comment

Alex Galarza, a PhD student in history at Michigan State University and co-founder of the Football Scholars Forum, has been awarded the João Havelange Research Scholarship. This prestigious award is administered jointly by FIFA and CIES (Centre International d’Etude du Sport), an independent research center created in 1995 by the governing body in collaboration with the University of Neuchâtel, and the City and State of Neuchatel, Switzerland.

Galarza’s project is titled “Between Civic Association and Mass Consumption: The Soccer Clubs of Buenos Aires.” It explores how clubs developed as both centers of mass spectacle and sites of everyday urban sociability. Club members and officials used political connections to secure city space and public subsidies for stadiums and the overall success of their professional teams. While clubs became centers of patronage and spectacle, they were also non-profit civic associations central to social and cultural activities in the city. Clubs provided educational facilities, libraries, leisure space, and political forums for their members.

Galarza’s research examines the tensions within football clubs during the mid-twentieth century, an era when Argentine society entered a period of deep economic and political changes following the ouster of Juan Domingo Perón in 1955. Perón’s project aimed at developing a new kind of citizen and civic culture in which the popular classes would have a greater political voice and heightened access to new forms of mass consumption. Mass political participation and consumption remained critical and unresolved tensions during the democratic and military governments that followed. One powerful example of how soccer clubs gave shape and meaning to civic engagement, popular spectacle, and mass consumption is Boca Juniors’ Ciudad Deportiva (in photo above). This failed project was a mix between a stadium complex and amusement park, built over seven artificial islands on sixty hectares of land filled in the Rio de la Plata.

Click here to read a digital version of Galarza’s preliminary work on the fascinating history of the Ciudad Deportiva.

Check back with us for an interview with Galarza in the coming days.

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