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Too clever by half time

June is not just about South African English. It’s a little bit about football too. In his guest post, Andrew Delahunty, a freelance author and lexicographer, discusses football lingo. Among Andrew’s many books is Talking Balls: Getting to grips with the language of sport published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.


At last, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa has begun and the next few weeks will see the world’s best players in action: Messi, Ronaldo, Drogba, Rooney, Kaká … I’ve been relishing the build-up. Here’s a recent description of Brazil’s Kaká, predicted to be one of the players of the tournament:

Even when marked, the Brazilian has such clever feet that he can twist away from an opponent in a twinkling.

One aspect of football lingo that delights me – and there are many – is this curious habit football journalists and commentators have of ascribing human attributes to parts of the body. Kaká has clever feet. In other words, he can make them move with speed and guile and perform all sorts of trickery with them.

Having clever feet, however, should not be confused with having, say, an educated left foot. This approvingly suggests a high level of technical expertise and a thoughtful awareness of where to pass the ball. And then there is a cultured left foot (and it does seem to be left rather than right feet that tend to be so described):

Like Messi, Di María has fast feet, a cultured left foot, vision, and scores beautiful goals.

Despite conjuring up visions of a bunch of toes discussing the European novel and visiting the theatre, cultured here is intended, like educated, to convey a high degree of skill, but combined with such qualities as subtlety, discrimination, elegance, and unhurried finesse.

By the way, this linguistic oddity is not restricted to feet. You find the phrase despairing hands cropping up fairly regularly. They inevitably belong to a goalkeeper at full stretch and just failing to make a save:

He managed to curl the ball around the Belgian wall and past the despairing hands of Michel Preud’homme.

So, feet (plural) can be clever and a foot (singular) can be educated or cultured. Neither, though, can be described as intelligent. Unlike, surprisingly, a ball:

An intelligent ball lifted over the Austrian back line by Lampard nearly allows Crouch to hammer a volley goalwards.

Ball here means ‘pass’ or ‘cross’, and it is when the word is used in this sense that it acquires all sorts of unexpected modifiers that can baffle the uninitiated. An intelligent ball is a pass or cross that is precisely placed, showing great awareness of the movement of one’s teammates. Balls can also be described as dangerous, tempting, cunning, and ambitious. Then there is a killer ball, nothing ball, long ball, and (my personal favourite) the square ball. This is a pass laterally across the pitch, neither forwards nor backwards, but it never sounds to me as though it would roll very far.

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Andrew Delahunty


  • Wonderful blog, Andrew. ‘Despairing hands’ pretty much suits poor Robert Green (hapless England goalkeeper) but you may have noticed the UK tabloids have been even crueller. One massive headline read: ‘HAND OF CLOD’ – which readers will recognise as an allusion to Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ incident, many years back.

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