Soccer's way with words -- and the 'performing' of the national anthem

So George Orwell was right? Words, it seems, are losing their meaning. He saw that coming in his analysis of the way in which politicians dress lies up as the truth. His wonderful 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is worth a read for those unlucky enough to have missed it first time around.

Orwell didn’t coin the phrase “alternative facts” -- which is odd, as it’s pure Orwell (up there alongside “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”). But he warned us. In a world of alternative facts (ask yourself -- how many alternatives?) how on earth does one discern what is true and what is just made up?

A matter of some importance for journalists. Journalists of the old school, I need to say. A disappearing breed, of course. Not needed any more. Just last week the New York Daily News found a way to ease its financial problems: it fired half of its editorial staff -- some 40 experienced journalists from one of the country’s oldest and most famous tabloids suddenly out of work. Not needed.

The slow decline of journalism has been splendidly chronicled in Nick Davies’ 2008 book “Flat Earth News” -- a tale of how fewer and fewer journalists are employed to write original stories, while more and more spend their time re-writing stories put out by news agencies (their number is diminishing, too). Churning out pretty ordinary stories. The new journalism -- they call it “churnalism.”

It’s hard to avoid the churnalism trap. Even for a soccer writer -- we get plenty of press releases and hand-outs that are, in effect, ready-to-use stories extolling the virtues of some club or some league or some product. I don’t read them, though I’ll confess that every now and then my attention is snared by a craftily written headline.

Something like that happened a few days ago -- though the headline that grabbed me was a rather straightforward one on a Major League Soccer release proclaiming: “Grammy Award-Winner Ashanti to Perform National Anthem at MLS All-Star Game.”

Oh well, Big Deal ... I suppose, even though the release contains nothing of the slightest soccer interest. As I have long disliked the playing of national anthems at sports events (and have yet to hear an intelligent reason for it), and as I have never heard of Ashanti, I should have happily ignored this apparently major event.

I did not do so. Because I have a life-long interest in words, and there was one word in this 13-word heading that immediately interested me. The word “perform.” Ashanti will “perform” the national anthem.

Apart from the Spanish version, which has no words, most national anthems are tunes with words. The words -- lyrics -- are there to be sung. But MLS uses the word “perform” and it occurs to me that MLS has nailed this one. National anthems at sports events these days are shouted or bawled or screeched or moaned or just plain murdered -- but rarely sung. They are performed.

Maybe that’s just as well because these national anthem words can be quite blood-curdling. In France’s La Marseillaise, musically speaking probably the only anthem worth listening to, we have slit throats. Or the anthems are likely to be jingoist calls to national superiority; England’s anthem demands of God that he make the Queen victorious -- it doesn’t specify who she should conquer, but presumably it means everybody.

Those national anthem words surely ought to be sacrosanct, no? But MLS allows them to be regularly mangled beyond recognition.

MLS has realized -- probably unconsciously -- that anthems do not need singers any more, and that anthems shall therefore be performed. Congratulations, then, to MLS for succeeding in an area where they do not usually excel, an area that is far from being a comfort zone for the whole sport of soccer. The use of words.

Of course, MLS could easily get rid of any embarrassment involving anthems by banishing any singing, or performing, of anthems at its games. That would merely add the lyrics to the list of words that MLS already bans -- including swear words, racist and sexist slurs and homophobic chants.

And another category: words that are critical of referees. The man to ask about that is Real Salt Lake’s coach Mike Petke, recently fined $10,000 for tangling with referees and sounding off in a comparatively mild rant.

Should MLS try to gag its coaches (and general managers and players) from uttering naughty words about referees or the league? My answer -- as a journalist -- is a clear No. But, even trying to lay the journalist attitudes aside, I’d still say No -- because the idea of any free person not being allowed to voice his dissent is not one that appeals to me.

Petke has a valid point -- that more direct communication between coaches and referees would be helpful. But this is a point that referees will probably continue to ignore.

Because referees, as a group, are used to not saying anything. It’s not that they mis-use words, more that they don’t use them at all. Communication is not, never has been, their strong point. This is a traditional attitude, dating back 100 years, when referees in England dressed themselves not only with authority, but with superiority. From that standpoint, any criticism was regarded as an impertinence and could simply be ignored.

Of course things are better now -- 100 years is a long time to resist change -- but strong traces of that unwillingness to communicate remain.

Another recent episode involving MLS referees also fascinated me with its word-involvement. Referee Silviu Petrescu called an 86th-minute game-changing penalty kick for Columbus against Orlando. It looked dodgy, right from the start. Replays didn’t help -- they seemed to show that there was no contact at all. How could that be? Petrescu is an experienced referee, he was well-positioned, and he showed not a moment’s hesitation in awarding the penalty. Columbus tied the game from the PK, then got the winner in the 92nd minute.

In this case, things followed an unusual path. Three days later we got an official statement admitting that Petrescu had erred:

The Professional Referee Organization (PRO) acknowledges that an officiating error occurred during the 86th minute of the match between Columbus Crew SC and Orlando City SC on July 21.

The referee awarded a penalty kick after contact from Orlando City SC defender RJ Allen on Crew SC forward Patrick Mullins. PRO believes the minimal amount of contact between the players did not justify this decision.

Video Review protocol requires that all reviewable incidents are checked and analyzed by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) for clear and obvious errors or serious missed incidents. The VAR checked this penalty kick decision, but did not accurately identify the on-field call as a clear and obvious error based on the minimal contact between the two players. Therefore, the VAR did not appropriately recommend a video review.

This “acknowledgment” (it is not an apology, Orlando can forget about that) is worth studying. Words again -- the key words here being “clear and obvious” a couple of words we’ve been hearing regularly since VAR came into being.

But the revealing part of the statement is not the words that are there, but the ones that are not.

Missing words. The two players involved are identified by name, and by position. Why is it then that the two PRO officials -- both revealed as having made a serious mistake (not identifying a “clear and obvious error”) -- are not named?

There are more missing words in the statement’s final paragraph:

PRO holds its officials accountable and takes appropriate action when necessary. In addition, PRO evaluates the performances of every match official, and is taking steps to continually minimize these types of errors through rigorous training and testing protocols.”

OK -- but what does “appropriate action” mean and, anyway, will it be applied in this case?

In short, this statement is a typical example of what we get when referees feel they have to own up. That genuine impulse is immediately vitiated by the ancient referee feeling that they have a right to operate behind closed doors and are really not required to let outsiders know what they’re doing.

So we get an admission that fails to “reveal all.”And we’ll continue to get these unsatisfactory confessions until referees find a way to abandon their notion that they are entitled to secrecy.

I don’t imagine that’s going to be easy. A century of operating sub rosa has ensured that the referee community -- always likely to be under critical harassment -- finds silence the best response.

Journalists requesting interviews with referees are unlikely to be successful. Referees do not make statements, even to defend themselves when they are wrongly accused of making poor calls. Nor are they known for their comments -- either pro or con -- on the soccer rules that they are required to enforce.

In the monastic -- virtually Trappist -- referee community, if you want to keep getting game assignments and advance up the ladder toward a FIFA badge, best to comply.

That does sound rather gloomy, admittedly, but the situation is so patently absurd, so hopelessly out of touch with modern ideas of “transparency” that you can feel quite certain of the approaching implosion that will bring the whole musty setup crumbling down.

Until that refreshing day, there is some solace to be found, again in the world of words. I saw referee Petrescu’s error referred to as a “make-up” call. A term I rather like. It sounds familiar for a start -- I suppose, because it sounds -- almost -- like a “wake-up” call, which is a call to arms, a call to get on with things before it’s too late.

Good positive stuff, but you need to mis-hear the term to reach that conclusion. In soccer, a make-up call means a call made by a referee in favor of a team to make up for an earlier call he wrongfully made against that team. To “make up for” meaning “to compensate for.” I did not see the first half of the Columbus-Orlando game, so have no idea whether Petrescu’s PK call falls into that category.

But it doesn’t need to. We have another meaning of “make up” that fits nicely. To make up something is to invent something. That describes Petrescu’s PK, something he made up, invented. An alternative-fact penalty kick.

And so to an ominous enemy of words, one that has long been recognized as a menace to scribes. We’re told that --

A Good Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

and now we have millions and millions of pictures to deal with. Some of them very good indeed. And in case there are still some dimwits out there who haven’t cottoned on, we have graphic novels, too. Take that, Tolstoy!

So let me present my graphic soccer article (a whole novel is quite beyond my grasp). The title of this graphic article is “How Atletico Madrid Cheated Its way to a Shootout Victory Over Arsenal.”

Probably that’s already too long, but I’m still wedded to words. So I’ll explain further. Atletico Madrid’s goalkeeper Antonio Adan saved three of Arsenal’s four kicks -- but as the photos show, he moved illegally (i.e. before the kick) on all three saves. All three kicks should have been re-taken.

In all three pictures, off to the right, there appears a figure with all the qualities of a statue or a mannequin. In the 4 minutes that elapsed during this sequence he appears not to have moved a muscle. He is not really a mannequin, but rather the assistant referee whose job is to spot any goalkeeper movement. So much for that task.

End of words, here come the pictures, greedily eager to replace thousands of words ...

Arsenal's 1st kick: Goalkeeper Adan cheats as Henrikh Mkhitaryan prepares to kick.

Arsenal's 2nd kick: Goalkeeper Adan cheats again as Joe Willock prepares to kick.

Arsenal's 4th kick: Goalkeeper Adan cheats yet again as Eddie Nketiah prepares to kick.

(For the time being)

12 comments about "Soccer's way with words -- and the 'performing' of the national anthem".
  1. s fatschel, July 31, 2018 at 1:06 p.m.

    As a sign of unity for national teams. 

  2. Kenneth Barr, July 31, 2018 at 1:09 p.m.

    Since I lived in London in the early 1990s I have come to believe that playing any National Anthem before a match should be restricted to Cup Finals and international matches.  Playing it before every club match is just a waste of time and an opportunity for some recording artist to butcher the anthems, especially the American anthem.  Anthems should also be used before matches when a significant event occurs, such as a terrorist attack in a city.  The moving tribute in Ottawa, Toronto & Montreal following the mass shooting a few years ago is an example.

    National anthems, especially in the USA, have been made into near religious experiences and they really aren't.  Using them before every single sporting event was fine during World War II but far too much these days.  Let's use them as they were intended.

  3. Ric Fonseca, July 31, 2018 at 2:26 p.m.

    Hay Pablo Jardinero!!! Another very sloooowww soccer week or is this part of a post-WC withdrawl symptoms?  Interesting, but it really took some effort on my part to read this PG piece, as halfway through it it reminded me of some of the final exam essays some of my college students are required to read: painful.  However, I do agree with K. Barr's commen, at least historically and should only be sung during WC games and on the national holidays.

  4. Kent James replied, July 31, 2018 at 9:38 p.m.

    Yeah, PG was really wandering on this one.  I wasn't sure where he was going, nor was it clear why he stopped!

  5. John Polis, July 31, 2018 at 2:40 p.m.

    Paul, really thought-provoking article that touches on a number of topics, not the least of which is the demise of yet another newspaper (they are all falling like dominoes all over the United States). Technology has a lot to do with it, but perhaps the biggest demise that I see (as a former journalist myself), is the unadulterated foray of most all journalistic endeavors into the dodgy area of all-opinion, pick-a-fight journalism. It's all about here's where we stand and here's where you should stand. Thoughtful reporting and logical discussion is gone, much of its departure fueled by cable news' nonstop programming that features one paid consultant arguing against another paid consultant, with the "journalist" reduced (at best) to bystander status. Because of this particular deterioration, it's my opinion that the Daily News has in no small way hastened its own demise and therefore, like so many other papers, rendered itself irrevelant. But enough on journalism. Regarding referees, it's beyond comprehension how something that's so obvious to fans (in real time and on replay) can somehow bamboozle professionals sitting in front of VAR apparatus and being paid (we presume they get something) for ensuring that difficult calls that could sway a game one way or another are accurate. I suspect internal politics might get in the way (just who's on the VAR that day, as opposed to who's in the middle). Sadly, it seems to me that these really odd ones are seen mostly in MLS, and it needs fixing. Third comment: Thanks for pointing out how goalkeepers are coming off their line on penalty kicks. It's a rare instance indeed when this is called -- so rare that the average fan may not even be aware that a goalkeeper charging off his line before the ball is kicked is against the rules. I remember one particular game in I believe it was the 1984 Euro semifinals when one of my favorite referees, George Courtney, was in the middle. (In the early 80s George was one of the "guest referees" brought over from Europe for the summer by the North American Soccer League). Courtney ordered a retake when Spain's Luis Arconada saved Michael Laudrup's spot kick. (In those days, you couldn't even move side-to-side on your line, but had to remain motionless). Courtney was immediately surrounded by wildly protesting players. His face was like stone. No reaction. He just slowly, methodically reached into his shirt pocket for a yellow card to caution the most vociferous of the dissenters). Kick was retaken and scored. Order was restored. Tough dedecision but it was the right one. Clearly, these days we need to see some of this courage of conviction to call the game as it should be called. Even in the recent World Cup, goalkeepers were allowed to come off their line early (see Kaspar Schmeichel and others). Rules are rules and fans want them enforced. VAR is supposed to help that along, but we are seeing errors being compounded by other unexplainable errors. I hope this gets fixed.

  6. Alan Meeder, July 31, 2018 at 3:49 p.m.


    During our war of independence, the colonists resisted the crown because they believed the king had violated their rights as Englishman. These very intelligent men were willing to risk their “lives, fortune, and sacred honor” to defend these rights. While God given, the rights were protected by the state. These rights were later spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. constitution. 


    More than just a collection of people, the United States is an Idea. It is an idea that people can join together in freedom to pursue their own interests with a government that protects their rights. In our world, everything has a price. Rights are no exception. 


    With rights also come obligations. For a nation to survive, its citizens must support its culture, customs, and law. Because our nation is governed by humans, they have not always protected the rights and freedoms of all within its borders. Governments and its governed hopefully evolve with the times toward a more free and protective society.



    In spite of America’s flaws, the Idea is still alive. As a nation and as a people, we all want to achieve the ideals set down in our founding documents.  When we sing the National Anthem, we are affirming that Idea. We recognize that while there is still much injustice and inequality, rituals like the anthem singing do bring individuals together with a common understanding of our past and our place on the planet. The singing gives each individual a chance to be part of something larger than themselves. 

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, August 2, 2018 at 6:17 p.m.

    Your history is a little off, but the sentiment is still valid. 

    I can't wait for someone to complain about the military communities playing the national athem after retreat is sounded.

  8. Valerie Metzler, July 31, 2018 at 3:50 p.m.

    Thank you, Mr. Gardner, for a well-thought article making important points.  National anthems should be SUNG (or played, for those with no lyrics) at international events, only.

  9. R2 Dad, July 31, 2018 at 4:17 p.m.

    PG still insists the 1 step is cheating, while implementation at every level of organized soccer allows the 1 step. Not sure why this specific dead horse must be flogged so mercilously--would much prefer PG thoughts on carding coaches in England (new development), Garber whinging about Ibra not playing in the meaningless All-Star game, DA play-off results and lack of real team quality (pls ID worst coach offenders of kickball), uswnt, the fate of Osorio and what can be learned from the bad behavior of Mexican fans, etc etc.

  10. frank schoon, July 31, 2018 at 8:57 p.m.

    I expect a lot better from PG, maybe it was one of those quick summer break articles.....
    I barely remember what he was talking about after reading it.
    I come from a country that only plays their anthem at international games. But I ,as an immigrant to this country, will steadfastly support and follow the cultural norms of its people for I believe in the saying, "when in Rome ,you do as the Romans. 

  11. Kent James, July 31, 2018 at 9:48 p.m.

    As for why referees don't speak to the media, I believe it was Lincoln who said (and I paraphrase), "Better to be quiet and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt..."


    As for the anthem, I have mixed feelings. The local pro USL team (the Riverhounds) has gotten some amazing singers for the notoriously difficult anthem (recently that had a girl who looked to be all of 10 years old, but sang like Whitney Houston), and it does kind of provide a pre-game ritual (it also has the added benefit of giving me a few minutes cushion to find my seat before I miss anything).  I went to one of the international cup matches (Dortmund v. Benfica) and it was weird when they didn't play an anthem (they kind of just came out, blew the whistle and played); I thought maybe because it was a pre-season game it was just casual, but then realized that it was not clear whose anthem should be played (US, Portugal or Germany; better just to skip it...). I actually find the anthem moving, but get it that it can be overused, so I would be fine either way.

  12. Kent James, July 31, 2018 at 9:51 p.m.

    I think Paul's asking for a lot when he wants the VAR officials to be taken out and publicly flogged for their mistake; I'm impressed that they're admitting error!  As for the keeper coming off the line (I'm an Arsenal fan), these are certainly not blatant violations (a la Briana Scurry in the WWC final v China); heck, the keeper has one foot on the line when the kicker is striking the ball in most of the photos; that's pretty good.  While I can see VAR tightening this standard up, I wouldn't lose sleep over these violations. 

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