Keeping up with the changes and additions to the English language -- I'm talking now about demotic usage, the every-day words that we speak and read -- is a topic of much fascination to me.
New words and phrases and, increasingly, abbreviations seem to arrive almost weekly. Exactly where they originate is never clear, though I imagine we can thank texting for most of the abbreviations. And I suspect that a lot of the words come from the business world, from the formidable marketing/sponsorship duo.
As far as soccer’s vocabulary goes, we get a fairly regular stream of new terms. Not new words -- these are familiar words that suddenly pop up with a new meaning, a soccer meaning. They rarely describe anything new, because there is rarely anything new happening in the sport.
When these words arrive, they seem to spread like wildfire. A current example of this overuse can be heard regularly on telecasts as the commentators natter on about “pockets of space.” A fatuous phrase that manages to get in the way of any intelligent understanding of the nature of space and the importance of its fluidity on a soccer field.
A pox on the pockets. A pox too on “playing a high line,” another comparatively recent and often uttered buzz-phrase. As a (reasonably) succinct description of a team that tries to do its defending as far as possible from its own goal line, this one has some merit. Only its over-use makes it an irritant.
But there is another phrase involving the word “line” that simply demands to be ridiculed. This one is anything but new. It is downright antiquated, in fact, and ought to have disappeared decades ago. A forward is said to “lead the line” -- what can that mean in this modern era when most teams play with two, or maybe only one, forward?
When team formations included a center forward and two wingers and probably an inside forward, the phrase had meaning. Four players. Enough to form a decent attacking line. This anachronistic phrase flourishes in England -- logically enough because it belongs in the 1950s, the era of center forwards and wingers and crosses, a set up that still dominates English thinking about the game. The continued use of out-of-date terminology must indicate a lack of clarity in perceiving and understanding the sport.
I have mentioned the likelihood that a lot of our new words or word-usages come from the business world. I imagine that’s the case with a word we hear quite frequently now in soccer circles: stakeholder. Indicating any person or group that has any sort of interest in the sport. We are now being informed that the opinions, maybe the requirements too, of these stakeholders must be listened to.
Paying attention to the needs and desires of the fans is obviously a good idea -- but I have the feeling that the word stakeholder is a financial term, really referring to those groups who put money -- big money -- into the sport. That would be television, advertisers, and sponsors.
Inevitably, people who put millions of dollars into soccer will expect to have a voice at the soccer table. They’ll expect to be listened to. And it’s not too big a step from there to feeling they should have a say in how things are run. We have already seen examples of World Cup kickoff times being arranged to suit international television companies, and of world tours being arranged to satisfy sponsor requirements.
We may be on the threshold of even deeper sponsor involvement in the sport. We’re thoroughly used to sponsors talking like Adidas chief executive Herbert Hainer: “Business with Manchester United is going very well, we are selling more shirts than expected. We are satisfied ...” But Hainer didn’t stop there, he went on with these words: “... even if the current playing style of Manchester United is not exactly what we want to see.”
Up until very recently, I don’t think that any sponsor, whatever its thoughts might have been, would have dreamed of publicly criticizing one of its client teams. But that “what we want to see” sounds ominously like “what we expect for our money.” Could it even become “what we have a right to expect for our money”?
Hainer’s veiled warning poses a pretty problem for those of us who tremble at the thought of yet more sponsorship involvement. Because soccer itself -- meaning FIFA -- is to blame for this situation. FIFA, with all its dirty laundry exposed, has made itself vulnerable.
The current corruption scandal has led many people to wonder just who can be trusted to renovate FIFA’s moral standards. A solution has been suggested. The sponsors will ride to the rescue, they will not put up with all this monetary chicanery, they will not want to be associated with criminal activity. They will demand a cleanup.
And if they don’t get one, what then? Why they’ll take their money elsewhere. An unrealistic threat, as there is no “elsewhere” in sport, or indeed any other activity, to compare with soccer. Sepp Blatter has already ridiculed the idea that sponsors and advertisers will simply turn away in horror. “They’re queuing up,” he has said, and he means lining up to get in, not out.
Now we have Adidas hinting that it is a real concern if a sponsored team does not perform “as we want” on the field. ManU could tell Adidas to mind its own business.
But Adidas is a stakeholder, a huge one, and anyway how can it be denied that the team’s performance on the field, its attractiveness, as well as its won-lost record, are of considerable interest to its sponsor?
Speculation about just how far any sponsor involvement with the playing side might go is in order. An assistant coach appointed by the sponsor, to “look after its interests”?
The idea that sponsors can heal FIFA’s badly battered and compromised probity by introducing the morals of the marketplace is not an inviting one. Nor is the notion of a sponsor’s involvement in creating a team’s style.
FIFA has created these problems. It’s lax morals have almost invited other stakeholders to move into the moral vacuum. While its long-term refusal to even think about using the sport’s rules as a means of ensuring its attractiveness have resulted in a game that has become overly defensive.
FIFA-created problems that call for FIFA-created solutions. Next month FIFA, a crippled organization, will elect a new president. From what must be the most unsatisfactory list of candidates ever put forward for election to anything, anywhere.
As published, the list is incomplete. Not included are the big financial stakeholders. Like television. Like the sponsors. They are undeclared candidates. Certainly, their dissatisfaction with the current mess is understandable. But the threat that they might become intimately involved in the governing of soccer is unacceptable.