England football manager Fabio Capello has recently come under criticism for his poor grasp of English despite being in the job for over 3 years, but this week he has hit back, claiming he requires “maximum 100 words” to communicate tactics to the England footballers. This comment has been seized on by the English media, keen to criticise the error-prone manager, but also amused at what this tells us about the size of the average English footballer’s vocabulary.
But is Capello’s statement so absurd? Well, as many have pointed out, you need to know far more than 100 words to communicate effectively in English – just the most basic words such as the, to, be, of, in etc amount to far more than that. But let’s be generous to Capello: let’s assume he was not including these words, sometimes referred to as function words, in his putative 100. Let’s assume that in fact he was referring only to the content words, those nouns, verbs and adjectives that provide the meat on the bones of communication. Would it really be possible to talk football with only 100 of these?
At Cambridge University Press, to ensure that our English teaching materials always reflect the real, authentic language, we maintain a vast database of English texts, the Cambridge International Corpus, which now contains over 1 billion words of English in any form in which it occurs – newspaper articles, emails, transcribed conversations, websites, books…furthermore, every such document is coded for the subject area it deals with, allowing us to automatically pull out all the documents relating to football – that’s over 8.5 million words’ worth of football-talk. What’s more, using our smart corpus analysis software we can then compare these documents with the rest of the corpus to pull out those words which are most significantly over-used within the domain of football. Note, this is not the same as just pulling out the most commonly used words – these will be that same set of basic words – the, a, of, be, in etc – mentioned above, which are the most commonly used words in any area of language. Rather, this is identifying those words that are used much more frequently within football English than they are in normal, everyday English.
The resulting list makes for interesting reading; but as many of these come more from non-footballers writing about football rather than footballers themselves writing or speaking, let’s consider which you would really need to coach footballers. There’s the absolute basics, for starters: ball, cup, player, game, match, win, lose, play, team. You’d need to refer to their various positions, of course: so that’s goalkeeper, defender, fullback, midfielder, winger, striker, forward as well as groups – defence, midfield and attack. You wouldn’t be able to get very far without knowing what to call different areas of the pitch – the goal, made up of the goalposts and the crossbar (collectively the woodwork), the box, the touchlines, and of course left and right. Then there are the actions players do in the game – kick, pass, tackle, cross, dribble, shoot, strike, score, equalise, foul, defend, attack, header, touch, mark and of course dive (although we would not wish to suggest England players are ever instructed to do that). That makes 44 words so far.
Then there are words referring to the laws of the game and their enforcement: referee, linesman (these days referred to as the assistant referee), offside, handball, free-kick, penalty, corner, goal-kick, caution, suspension, plus the yellow and red cards (though you could probably get by without knowing any other colours). As international football is all about tournaments, he would need to refer to the various stages of the competition: the friendlies, the qualifiers, the group stage, quarter-finals, semi-finals and, in the unlikely event that England should ever progress that far, the final itself – probably by means of a penalty shootout somewhere along the way. That gets us up to 70.
Then there are the words relating specifically to tactics and training: formation, possession, pressure, defensive, attacking, patience, fitness; the different parts of the game, first-half, second-half, half-time, injury-time, extra-time. Words describing footballers’ qualities: physical, technical, clever, pace, skill, talented. Then those elusive qualities that the viewing public, the fans or supporters, always demand: passion, spirit, pride, excitement. Which leaves just 4 more, and since we’re talking about England, no list of essential vocabulary would be complete without the inevitable defeat, disappointment, humiliation, and the one word England managers live in fear of: sack.
So there you have it, international football in 100 words. And if you need any help with them, Fabio, you know where to come.