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Poacher turned gamewinner

England’s World Cup is over, following the team’s 4-1 defeat by Germany last Sunday. According to one online report of the match, ‘The first goal was a tribute to striker Miroslav Klose’s strength and poaching skills.’ Only a few days earlier, England fans had been celebrating a 1-0 victory over Slovenia. The scorer, with a sharply taken volley close to Slovenia’s goal, was Jermain Defoe, and ‘Defoe the poacher sends England through’ was the headline of one report.

Why ‘poaching’ and ‘poacher’? Well, in football-speak, a poacher (or goal poacher) is an opportunistic striker who specializes in scoring from close range, usually inside the penalty box. The term derives from the sense of poacher denoting a person who illegally catches or kills an animal, bird, or fish on someone else’s property. So a goal poacher is a striker who is thought of as sneakily ‘stealing’ goals from under the defenders’ noses.

You sometimes find a writer or commentator referring to a striker’s poacher’s instinct. Here’s a recent assessment of Spain’s David Villa in the Guardian newspaper:

Speed, lethal finishing and a poacher’s instinct have seen him bag a hatful of goals in the last couple of seasons.

Note also that word bag. One meaning of this verb is ‘to catch or kill an animal that you are hunting’, and the hunting image is sometimes extended with the phrase bag a brace. In general use this refers to the shooting of a pair of game birds, like grouse or pheasant, but in football parlance it means ‘to score two goals’:

Ronaldinho bagged a brace as Milan crushed Juventus 3-0.

There is a rich seam of metaphor for goal-scoring drawn from the vocabulary of hunting and theft. A striker can be described as a predator. On a good day he might plunder a hat-trick. Goal-scoring chances are taken, goals can netted as well as poached. Winners are snatched. To nick a goal is to score on the counter-attack, after a team has spent most of the game defending. Such a goal might result in a smash-and-grab. Literally this refers to a crime involving breaking the window of a car or shop in order to steal things quickly. In the context of a football match, though, the term describes a victory by one team (usually the away side) who have been completely dominated by their opponents for almost the entire game but have nevertheless managed to break out from defence just before the final whistle to score an unlikely and probably undeserved last-minute winner.

And what would be the response of the defeated team (and their fans) in these circumstances? ‘We were robbed’, of course.

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Andrew Delahunty


  • Not sure about other countries, but in Britain there’s a tradition of using the word “sport” to refer to hunting, shooting, and fishing. The idea is that the hunted animal has a “sporting” chance of escape (the stag can run away, the grouse can fly out of range of the guns, the fish can refuse to take the bait) hence the idea of sport – it’s the hunter pitting his or her wits against the wily prey. Poachers, however, are not sportsmen. They use traps and other unfair means, so poaching is not just stealing, it’s being unsportsmanlike.
    I don’t think goal-poachers are thought of as unsportsmanlike, but as Andrew mentions, their craft is seen as being slightly sneaky. The offside rule was introduced to curb excessive goal-poaching by forcing putative poachers to keep their distance (depending on how well organized the opposition defence is). But in those free-for-all games with no referees and no offside rule, where kids swarm round the pitch all following the ball wherever it goes, the ones who stay firmly placed near their opponents’ goal are called goalhangers, and that’s a much more pejorative term.

  • Those interesting observations on the word ‘sport’ from Stephen remind me that ‘game’ has a similar duality in its use: the phrase ‘big game’, for example, can refer both to large wild animals hunted as sport and to an important match. I seem to be bumping into examples of this hunting imagery all the time now. Last night I heard a commentator on the radio say that, given the player’s lack of goals at this and previous tournaments, ‘the World Cup has not really been a happy hunting ground for Ronaldo.’

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