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.


Struggling Italy Robbed at the World Cup

By | June 26th, 2014 | 3 Comments


36 hours have passed since millions of Italians watched the national team get eliminated from the World Cup after a 1-0 loss to Uruguay.

Here in Italy, the media and the pundit class have joined ordinary fans in criticizing the team. First in the line of fire is Cesare Prandelli, the coach, rightly taken to task for dubious roster selection, poor match management, improvised tactical changes, and an inability to bind together a group of “senators” (i.e. veterans) and relatively inexperienced youngsters. His resignation in the aftermath of the Uruguay loss, came not a moment too soon for many Italians.

Balotelli, the only player in the squad with potential to be a game-changer, has also come in for plenty of criticism. Reading the papers, watching endless debates on TV, and talking with fans, it appears that many Italians, including vocal defenders of Super Mario, are disappointed with the star striker’s weak performance. Sadly, some racist Italians have taken to the web and social media to insult Balotelli for his blackness.

But I wouldn’t go so far as saying that Balotelli is being blamed for the World Cup debacle. Honest observers recognize that the failure of Italy’s 2014 World Cup campaign has multiple causes, not least the pathetic 0-1 loss to Costa Rica last week. As historian John Foot explained in an excellent column, there is a structural rot in Italian football that needs to be addressed. From corruption and mismanagement to suffering youth systems, club rivalries, and outdated stadiums; the list of major problems is quite long and vexing.

While this analysis is legitimate, there seems to be a consensus among Italians (and not a few neutrals) that the loss to Uruguay was an outright robbery perpetrated against an ordinary team.

The first half of Tuesday’s match was played evenly, with Italy rarely in trouble. Pirlo had a dangerous free kick saved by Muslera and Verratti distinguished himself as the best player on the pitch, weaving in and out of Uruguay’s workman-like midfield with creativity and dynamism. With a draw enough to see the Azzurri through to the next round, Italy was in control.

Then, a few minutes into the second half, the Mexican referee, Rodriguez Moreno, decided the match. In an inexplicably absurd decision, he sent off Marchisio with a straight red card for a normal tackle that showed no malice and, at best, deserved a yellow. What made this refereeing decision so outrageous is that previous Uruguayan fouls of a similar ilk had not been punished with any cards.

Moreno’s call transformed the match. With nearly the entire second half still to play in the heat of Natal, the Azzurri were a man down, less able to deal with fatigue, and psychologically shaken. Uruguay, on the other hand, seized on the opportunity and began dominating the match. Even so, only two goal-scoring chances came out of this advantage.

Perhaps dissatisfied with the outcome of his earlier outrage, Moreno then took center stage again. Suarez, the recidivist, sunk his fangs into Chiellini’s shoulder and then fell to the ground, theatrically, as if felled by a sniper’s bullet. The referee awarded a free kick to Italy, but did not send Suarez off despite Chiellini showing Suarez’s dental mold chiseled into his shoulder area. Surprisingly, the assistant referee provided no assistance.

Two things happened at this point. Instead of playing the final 12 minutes or so 10 vs 10, the Azzurri had to labor on a man down with players cramping and visibly tiring. Then, 100 seconds after the Suarez bite, the Italians lost their concentration defending the corner kick that produced Godin’s winning goal.

Most Italians recognize the 2014 national team was an ordinary one. Fans and pundits admit that Balotelli, Immobile, Cassano, Thiago Motta, De Sciglio and others put in sub-par performances. But people also know a robbery when they see one. And the culprit was Rodriguez Moreno. Curiously, another referee named Moreno (from Ecuador) also sent the Italians home from the 2002 World Cup. He is currently serving a long prison sentence in the United States for smuggling drugs.

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Addio Grande Joe!

By | March 11th, 2014 | 2 Comments

joe-mcginniss-authorphotoJoe McGinniss had a love affair with soccer.

The award-winning author and journalist died on March 10, 2014, of prostate cancer at the age of 71 (read an obituary here). I got to know Joe pretty well in the late 1990s while he was writing The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, one of the very first commercially viable books written by an American member of the soccerati class.

I was working on my PhD in African history at Boston University at the time and also teaching a course on “Soccer and Imperialism” at Tufts University. My mother had sent me a Corriere della Sera article about Joe chronicling Castel di Sangro’s 1996-97 serie B season for a David-versus-Goliath book about the team from an Apennine town of 5,000 souls competing just one tier below serie A, then the best league in the world.

As a fútbologist born and raised in Rome, I was naturally intrigued. So I wrote him a concise letter introducing myself and suggesting that given our shared love of calcio it would be nice to meet some time in the near future. Next thing I know Joe got in touch and we met at a Legal Seafoods at Boston’s Logan Airport. He was about to fly back to Italy for what would turn out to be an unexpectedly eventful end to his season in Castel di Sangro.

After the usual pleasantries the talk immediately turned to Italy, football, and especially Roberto Baggio. We reminisced about Baggio’s transcendental play at the 1994 World Cup, which we both witnessed in person at Foxboro stadium and at the Meadowlands. The Divine Ponytail—and an interview with Alexi Lalas then at serie A minnows Padova—inspired the football-naive Joe to embark on the project that became Miracle. “I was enthralled,” he explained in the book. “Now my obsession had a focal point, Baggio brought to the game a degree of elegance, a grace, and an aura of magic that I’d not before seen displayed in any sport” (The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, p. 22).

Joe’s Italian was humorously choppy and football knowledge limited, but it was hard not to like his passion for the game, his curiosity, and affable nature. I was impressed by Joe’s unwavering commitment to tell the improbable story of the football club from Castel di Sangro.
As it happened, I spent the following year on a Fulbright scholarship doing my PhD research in South Africa while Joe completed his book manuscript at home in western Massachusetts. We corresponded regularly via email. After a long day in the archives, I remember looking forward to reading Joe’s electronic cocktail of chapter drafts, praises of Baggio’s stellar performances with Bologna (22 goals in 1997-98), and polemics about Gazzetta dello Sport player ratings. I appreciated how an author whose books had graced the New York Times bestseller lists seemed to value both my feedback on his work and my tales of playing football and researching the social and political history of the game in South Africa.

I translated for Joe portions of the Italian edition of Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow. By the time the English edition came out a couple of years later, the Uruguayan author had already taken his place next to Robi Baggio in Joe’s pantheon of football gods. The epigraph in Miracle reflects this conversion and beautifully captures Joe McGinniss’s deep love for the game: “Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”

Michael Bradley’s Debut: Suffering and Joy at AS Roma

By | August 30th, 2012 | No Comments

Guest Post by “Er Prof”

ROME–This past Sunday at the Stadio Olimpico I screamed in honor of Michael Bradley’s first serie A match with “La Magica Roma.” I howled so much during the 2-2 draw with Catania that I’m still hoarse three days later.

I am proud to say that I yelled only encouraging, positive things because I had my two boys, Alberto (age 9) and Luca (age 6), with me in the “Family” section of the Distinti Nord. (Long gone are my days with the Commando Ultrà Curva Sud.) In truth, I was also heeding my wife’s warning that if the kids returned home swearing she’d kick me out of the house.

It was so beautiful to see Luca absolutely mesmerized by the stadium atmosphere and the chaos; Alberto got into it too, especially after we drew level and he started believing in a miraculous victory even more than me.

There are at least two ways to comment on what happened in this strange opening game of the 2012-13 season. The first draws on the “dietrologia” (“behindology”) typical of the frustrated Romanista of the post-Capello era: “there you go, Zeman speaks the truth [about corruption and other ills affecting calcio] and those goddamn refs nail us immediately: Catania’s two goals were ludicrously offsides; we were denied a clear penalty; and Osvaldo was, absurdly, deemed offside on a breakaway that would have, surely, resulted in a goal. Two stolen points to keep those Juve bastards calm and content.”

Somehow I managed not to insult the referee for the entire ninety minutes, despite the time-tested knowledge that when in doubt referees always make important calls against us. It may sound like bullshit, but accepting this disgusting (“schifoso”) state of affairs is a big step forward for us as we move towards a different future, one defined by clean, clear, decisive victories achieved in spite of crooked referees.

The second way to reflect on the game is calmer, the kind possible only after the game; it is more focused on the sporting side of things. In the first half, La Roma played like utter shite. The team seemed confused and also intimidated by Catania’s toughness and fitness (a team with nine Argentineans!). Totti and Lamela were almost invisible; Bradley tactically too horizontal; De Rossi couldn’t deliver a vertical pass; and Piris shanked every cross. In the second half, La Roma started playing more seriously, but only through Florenzi and the 19-year-old Uruguayan Nico Lopez did it become truly dangerous. Shortcomings aside, we deserved to win handily. And we would have had it not been for the five officials: five pairs of eyes that managed to miss amazing offsides on Catania’s goals and an incredible handball in their box.

At halftime a child in our section asked his father why we were losing. The man replied with extraordinary wisdom: “because we were born to suffer” (“perchè semo nati pè soffrì”). That was a damn good answer, but the best line may still be the graffiti etched on a wall in our Eternal City: “VIVA LA PAZZA GIOIA D’ESSE ROMANISTIII” (“Long live the crazy joy of being Romanisti”).

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Afritalians: Past is Prologue

By | June 30th, 2012 | 6 Comments

The Africanization of Italy may have started 2200 years ago as Hannibal of Carthage led his troops and elephants across the Alps on the way to Rome, but Mario Balotelli’s two-goal performance in Italy’s defeat of Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinal may be mainstreaming it.

Italians across the political spectrum are gushing in their praise of the 21-year-old striker. “Pride of Italy!” screamed the web site of La Gazzetta dello Sport, which earlier in the week had printed an insulting cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong by Valerio Marini (see below). (Despite an outpouring of criticism from readers and on social media, the paper could only muster this sad excuse for an apology: “if certain readers found the cartoon offensive, we apologize.”)

Earlier in the tournament Balotelli had won accolades for his acrobatic overhead strike against Ireland and for his impeccable penalty which opened the shootout against England (scored against Man City teammate Joe Hart). Now, on the eve of the final against Spain in Kiev, ordinary Italians and the media are comparing Balotelli to Gigi Riva, Totò Schillaci, and Gianluca Vialli — illustrious Azzurri of the past who transcended the football pitch to become popular icons of national culture. A big and very noticeable difference between Super-Mario and his predecessors, of course, is that Balotelli is black — the Palermo-born son of the Barwuahs from Ghana who was adopted by the Balotellis of Brescia. He is the first Afritalian football superstar.

Super-Mario’s central role in potentially ushering in a new phase in the Africanization of Italy is reflected in Italian media stories highlighting how Mario is like you and me: he loves football, family, pizza, and hanging out with his friends. In a country where mothers are sacred and where the Virgin Mary is venerated almost as much as her more famous son, Mario’s loving embrace of Mamma Silvia in the stands at the Warsaw stadium shot an arrow into the heart of every Italian. “Boastful and ‘mammone’, Balotelli represents the prototype of the Italian,” wrote Il Giornale, a conservative paper owned by Silvio Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo.

And Balotelli is not an isolated case; he’s not even the only Afritalian in the Euro squad. Sitting on the reserves’ bench is 24-year-old Angelo Obinze Ogbonna (at left), a central defender who plays his club football for Torino. Born in Cassino, near Rome, of Nigerian parents, Ogbonna was recruited into the Torino youth academy at age 14 and played his first serie A match at 19. Like Balotelli, Ogbonna speaks Italian without a trace of accent. The experiences of Super-Mario and Ogbonna open up an opportunity to consider the history of Afritalian footballers.

Let’s start with Claudio Gentile. He was born in Tripoli, the son of a Sicilian father and a Tripoli-born mother possibly of Italian background, and grew up playing street football in Libya before moving to Como in 1961 with his family. Nicknamed “il libico,” Gentile had his best years at right back for Juventus and Italy in the 1970s and early 1980s, forming with Dino Zoff, Antonio Cabrini, and Gaetano Scirea one of the stingiest defensive lines of all time. Gentile’s ferociously effective man-to-man marking of Maradona and Zico in the 1982 World Cup, which Italy won, has become the stuff of legend.

We had to wait nearly two decades for the next Afritalians to make an appearance in the national team. In 2001, Fabio Liverani, the Rome-born son of a Somali mother and Italian father, made his international debut in a friendly against South Africa. Despite a solid career as a midfielder with Lazio, Fiorentina, and Palermo, Liverani only played twice more for the Azzurri. Around the same time, Matteo Ferrari, the Algeria-born son of an Italian father and a Guinean mother, played eleven times in the heart of Italy’s defense. Prior to Balotelli’s success, Ferrari had held the record for most international appearances for an Afritalian. (He now plays for the Montreal Impact in MLS.)

There are other players of African blood in Italian football. Among them, Stephan El Shaarawi, Stefano Chuka Okaka, and Fabiano Santacroce (of Afro-Brazilian/Italian parentage) have been capped at junior level. There is also a female Afritalian: left back Sara Gama (at right), who also earned the distinction of becoming the first Afritalian woman to captain the U-19 national team, and leading them to the 2008 European title.

Mauro Valeri, a sociologist and author of La Razza in campo: Per una storia della Rivoluzione Nera nel calcio (EDUP, 2005) wonders if the increasing presence of black players at junior and senior level is “perhaps a sign of a transformation underway, of the affirmation of a Black Revolution [in football] that for more than a decade has been unfolding in Italy.” While structural changes would be necessary for such a shift to be lasting and meaningful, social perceptions of Afritalians may be changing thanks to Balotelli’s sudden popularity. In a grim age of austerity and structural adjustment, Italians seem eager for another taste of Super-Mario-triggered football euphoria.

Germany’s History of Failure vs. Italy Continues

By | June 28th, 2012 | 3 Comments

Super-Mario Balotelli wrote a new page in Germany’s History of Failure against Italy in Warsaw today. He scored two goals, the first a header off a delightful Cassano cross; the second a thunderous strike from outside the box, which he celebrated in inimitable style (photo above). He is Italy’s pride and joy.

Manager Cesare Prandelli did his part as well, completely outcoaching his German counterpart Jogi Loew. Italy now moves on the final against Spain on Sunday in Kiev.

Full Italy-Germany highlights courtesy of here.

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Germany’s History of Failure vs. Italy: Part 3

By | June 27th, 2012 | 3 Comments

After two more draws (1-1 and 0-0) at the 1988 and 1996 Euros, on July 4, 2006, Germany and Italy met again in the semifinals of the World Cup. The venue was the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, an intimidating ground for any visiting team.

In a remarkable affair reminiscent of the 1970 World Cup semifinal at the Azteca (see my previous post here), extra time was needed. The climax defies description. So let’s leave it to Fabio Caressa and Giuseppe Bergomi (1982 World Cup winner at age 18) of Sky Italia to resurrect the memories — spine-tingling ones from an Italian point of view — of that cathartic evening.

Follow me on Twitter during the game tomorrow: @futbolprof

E daje Italiaaaaa!

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