Monday, 17 May 2010

The world cup, football-speak and national identity

NTU linguist Dean Hardman reflects on the status of 'football talk' in anticipation of this years World Cup.

When the football world cup comes around once every four years, it seems like the nation is gripped by World Cup Fever. Not only is there wall-to-wall coverage of the actual matches; extra television programmes devoted to talking about the matches are aired, while football permeates every other televisual and media genre. Football, already the advertising vehicle of choice for a whole range of brands and products, is used to promote everything from soft drinks to washing powder, from credit cards to chocolate. There doesn’t seem to be a product or service whose brand managers don’t see the world cup as a prime opportunity to increase brand awareness.

Clearly these advertisers are drawing upon the high level of interest that the world cup generates among otherwise casual viewers of the game. Everyone during a World Cup, especially but not exclusively when a home nation is involved, has an opinion on football. These range from the team and game-specific: “Rooney’s injury holds the key, they’ve got to play 4-4-2”, to the more general: “England have got no chance”, and from the positive: “I’m so excited about tonight’s game”, to the negative: “I can’t believe they’ve cancelled Eastenders for this.” Whether the speaker or writer has any specialist knowledge or not, or whether their opinion or comment is positive or negative doesn’t really matter: all this shared focus on football and talking about the world cup helps to reinforce social identities and helps us to construct a shared sense of group identity. Ultimately this might be a shared sense of Englishness that talking about the England team creates. However, it might just as easily be a shared sense of Scottishness when talking about a strong desire to see England fail, or a shared anti-football agenda.

Casual viewers also begin to draw upon the footballing lexicon for the first time in four years. “Beating the offside trap” is inserted awkwardly into sentences, alongside the notion of “hitting a barn door with a banjo” or “making an impression early doors” as “squeaky bum time approaches”. The Ivory coast might need to “shut up shop”, while everyone wants to know who will survive the “group of death”. Again, having a shared national footballing lexicon to delve into also helps to oil the wheels of communication and reinforces a sense of national togetherness and cohesion.

Whatever one’s feelings are towards the world cup, it is absolutely unavoidable. It is going to be all but impossible to spend the month of June in the UK without being bombarded with images of footballers selling ice-creams, or hearing colleagues speak, sometimes inarticulately, about events in South Africa. At the same time, though, for one month only, talking about football becomes a key way in which vast swathes of the population signify membership of a whole range of social groupings and identities. For a limited time only you need never be stuck for something to say, it’s the event that we can all feel part of.

(Image: mrfrogger; permissions)

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