Jürgen Roth on German Footballese “Verbal Expression is Flattening out”

Talking about football
Talking about football | Photo: © Africa Studio - Fotolia.com

Stoßstürmer (i.e. centre forward), falscher Neuner (false nine), Staubsauger (defensive or holding midfielder): German footballese is a language unto itself. For philologist and author Jürgen Roth it has been a fascinating object of study for years. How we talk about football, says Roth, reflects the state of our society.

Dr Roth, as a trained philologist, what would you say about the following sentence: “The whole city is black with so many people in orange.”

Terrific! An utterance of downright sententious pithiness and brilliantly paradoxical structure. I didn’t know that one, who’s it from?

It’s attributed to football commentator Dieter Kürten describing a large number of Dutch fans that way. I actually thought you might know the line. After all, you’ve been delving into the language of German football for some time now.

That’s true. But I can counterattack with a very nice line of Andreas Brehme’s: “Making the impossible possible is becoming a physical impossibility.”

A wonderful phrase! We could probably go on this way for hours. But how do tropes like these come about in the first place and why does talking football in particular seem to lend itself to such metaphorical language?

Football talk has always been heavily prone to analogies. It’s interesting to see, for instance, how war tropes were incredibly widespread even into the 1970s. People talked about the “Bomber der Nation” (“bomber of the nation”) or a “Kampf auf Biegen und Brechen” (“make-or-break fight”). Then, in the wake of social changes, people noticed, hey, we’ve got to break free from this metaphors, we need to find a more neutral idiom.

Video: Football tropes taken literally (WDR) (in German)

The charm of the reductionistic

You mean commentary became more matter-of-fact, less emotional?

Exactly. All of sudden, commentators found it possible to confine themselves to providing names and a little background information very unobtrusively from time to time. They discovered the charm of the reductionistic. Just recall the commentary on the 1974 World Cup finals: “Bonhof, Müller ... and goal!” What’s more, in those days they had no qualms about saying things like: “What kind of a football game is that? This is awful, simply unwatchable!” That would be unthinkable in our day.

You’re right, it is hard to imagine that kind of commentary nowadays. Why is that?

It’s owing to the fact that each match has to be an event. 80 per cent of football matches are boring, but that’s something you’re not allowed to say anymore, not allowed to express in reporting. After all, that would be denigrating your own product, for which you’ve paid a pretty penny. The networks now spend gigantic sums on broadcasting rights. What we’re experiencing is an unprecedented media buildup, which goes hand in hand with a complete loss of shame and self-awareness. Decency has given way to effrontery.

The sportification of society

So has money corrupted the way we talk about football?

Naturally, this is not a conspiracy in any tangible sense against language by the economic imperatives of our age. But when you study the history and evolution of language, you know that in the use of language, the main features of societal organization are expressed. I think that football, as a sport that now gets the most attention by the media, bears out Adorno’s old theory of the sportification of the world.

Author and philologist Jürgen Roth Author and philologist Jürgen Roth | © Jürgen Roth How so?

Adorno’s prognosis was: all of life, our whole daily routine, all so-called culture is increasingly organized according to the imperatives of competition: of whipping ourselves into shape, biting away the competition. The capitalist principle of competition percolates all the way into everyday tasks, into our so-called free time. Everything is organized according to this schema. This is precisely the situation we’re in today. And that is shown in language, too.

What concrete effects does this sportification have on footballese?

What we are observing is an increasing professionalization and simultaneous flattening of verbal expression. Take the notorious so-called field interviews right after a match. We’re increasingly dealing there with players who can talk in a wonderful way, to be sure, and yet actually say appallingly little. Or take so-called journalistic reporting, which in my opinion now only marginally differs from a PR campaign. The aggregation of interests has now become so huge that it prohibits from the get-go any objective criticism of the product itself, namely football.

Making analogies

Besides language getting flattened out, the game of football is often heavily intellectualized in the feuilletons. What do you think of that?That’s a trend which is fortunately already somewhat subsiding. I think its heyday was back in the early 1990s, and that definitely has something to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s winning the World Cup in 1990. Books that came out then like Gott ist rund (God Is Round: The Culture of Football) – there was an outright frenzy for making analogies. That led to absurd theories as that the winning of the German team in 1974 was directly related to Willy Brandt’s resignation as chancellor. I consider that self-referential feuilleton-style nonsense. It has nothing to do with football reality.

What do you mean by “football reality”?

The fact that in its simplicity, football actually utterly defies explication. At least as long as it’s not essentially a matter of describing what goes on in these teams, how they organize themselves as a dynamic social system. That’s what it’s all actually about, after all; we need linguistic originality and situational spontaneity for that. And I find it a shame that this is precisely what’s getting censured away more and more often.