World Cup 2010: An essential guide to commentator babble

Commentators have enriched our knowledge of 'the beautiful game' with their clichés and knowing asides for years. But what are they really trying to say? John Leigh and David Woodhouse break it down, country by 'tactically naive' country
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The Independent Online

Algeria

Many entries in this World Cup Lexicon are driven by the habit of the English media to refract international football through a parochial lens. Algeria will be a largely unknown (in other words, "under-researched") quantity, but count on whoever is dispatched to their first group game to tell us that Hull City fans know all about Kamel Ghilas

Argentina

Although Uruguay's qualification relieves the Argentines of their traditional duties as chief pantomime villains (below), they are still likely to be cast as an intriguing mixture of beauty and the beast, and Maradona's presence at the helm is bound to attract a range of barbed remarks about his single-handed contribution to past triumphs

Australia

The Socceroo – officially, the Qantas Socceroo – is a cross between a footballer and an animal. For a prime example, see Lucas Neill

Brazil

Even when managed by the pragmatic Dunga, the seleção are synonymous with the beautiful game. The moment the cameras focus in on a gyrating fan in a shirt tied at the navel, Brazil will be praised for the samba rhythm and carnival atmosphere they bring to the tournament. If a particularly nonchalant piece of play occurs on the pitch, it is likely Clive Tyldesley will purr: "Oh just look at Kaka, that little flick was straight off Copacabana beach"

Cameroon

It is only a matter of time before a commentator reminds us that it is only a matter of time before an African side wins the World Cup. Cameroon's Indomitable Lions will therefore find themselves portrayed less as representatives of their country than of their continent. The same members of the press who recite this cliché would never dare suggest England were flying the flag for European football – though one preview has already stated that Arsenal's Alex Song and Spurs' Benoit Assou-Ekotto will be flying the flag for the Premiership

Chile

It is unlikely but still conceivable that Chile might meet Italy in the quarter-finals, thereby evoking memories of the Battle of Santiago in 1962. David Coleman's indignation back then – "the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football" – was fuelled by the fact that an English referee lost control of the game. (It is thereby guaranteed that any performance by Rotherham ref Howard Webb this year will meet with unanimous approbation from the BBC team as brave and unflustered – even if he shows a player three yellow cards)

Denmark

When the local director cuts to a shot of a middle-aged foreigner hitching up his trousers in front of the dug-out, commentator Jonathan Pearce may, for once, be lost for words. However, Morten Olsen is one of those players-turned-managers who remains just about recognisable from old Panini stickers. Morten therefore qualifies as a football legend – even if his namesake Jesper, after a fatal backpass in the 1986 tournament, has become a synonym in Danish for cock-up

England

When referring to footballers' other halves, reference to "partners" has always been avoided in favour of the formulation wives and girlfriends. But it wasn't until the last World Cup, in 2006, that they were abbreviated to WAGs, an acronym now as universally understood as FIFA. The shopping may not be as good in Bafokeng as Baden Baden, but coverage of Coleen and the rest will still be a fairly reliable barometer of how well the team is faring on the pitch, as it will be inversely proportional to the prevailing odds on England winning the tournament

France

The French football lexicon revels in literary and historical allusion, with references to a player in space as Robinson Crusoe and a crowded penalty area as Verdun. Zidane and Henry are two exponents of the late-dipping free-kick known (with a nod to Verlaine) as a feuille morte. But they are more likely to be remembered in Anglophone commentary for THAT headbutt and THAT handball

Germany

While pundits are less likely than Alex Ferguson to say something politically incorrect about typical Germans they will almost inevitably subscribe to the notion of a ruthlessly efficient machine. The metaphors will allude to a purring BMW, but the main connotations will be military. The Germans started it with Der Kaiser (Beckenbauer) and Der Bomber (Gerd Müller), but Terry Venables carried it on by describing Horst Hrubesch as a real dreadnought of a centre-forward

Ghana

Although lesser nations such as Ghana have evolved into the so-called lesser nations, and are accorded more respect, some pundits still imply that African teams are tactically naïve. There is, however, an equally active stereotype of the European manager, in this case Milovan Rajevac, wily enough to prevent his charges from having their limitations exposed ("wily" here translating to old and cheap)

Greece

It may be the Greek team's turn to provide their country with a much-needed boost, a faintly absurd assessment of the restorative powers of football that would usually be reserved for earthquake-hit Chile or politically unstable Honduras

Honduras

Any mention of Honduras may instead provoke reminiscences about a football war. Not necessarily the real one, with El Salvador in 1969, but rather the hard-fought 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland in Zaragoza 12 years later

Italy

Italian football inspires a certain ambivalence. While catenaccio is as untranslatably Italian as cannelloni, and the term is dusted down as soon as the Azzurri set their stall out to defend a lead, the endlessly repeated images of Marco Tardelli's celebration in the 1982 final gratify an equally entrenched view of the Italians as an unbridled and passionate race

Ivory Coast

Ever since Roger Milla did his thing with the corner flag in 1990, any celebratory jig tends to be greeted with a patronising chuckle. Didier Drogba's trademark used to be the fouka-fouka, although even he seemed nonplussed when the country's president once joined in.

Japan

References to kamikaze defending are obviously prohibited but, in any case, media caricatures of the Japanese team tend to focus on the country's reputation for manners rather than its martial traditions. Take this recent headline on the FA website: "Japan bow to Serbia in friendly". Perhaps the emphasis would be different if anybody rated Japan's chances of actually lifting the cup

Mexico

The principal role of Mexico in tournaments is to flatter to deceive. Commentators will cite the fact that the Mexicans won every home match in qualification, and should their national team duly succumb to defeat against Uruguay, we may be invited to infer that Mexico has great natural resources and potential – but is sadly corrupt and badly governed

Netherlands

Preparation is the standard noun to be adopted in the run-up to a tournament, covering everything from penalty practice to relationships within the camp. (Why is it always a camp when teams are at the World Cup?) In the case of the Dutch, this preparation always seems to be far from ideal, usually because of internecine squabbling

New Zealand

Rank outsiders get to enjoy a World Cup adventure, and this term will duly be enlisted if New Zealand, just happy to be there, are eliminated after the group games. If a country progresses beyond expectations, the adventure duly transforms into an odyssey (as in Senegal, 2002)

Nigeria

There is sometimes a tinge of resentment when players are sighted in the World Cup who have rejected England in favour of their motherland. A few Nigerian internationals have always played their football in England and we will no doubt be reminded that they chose the Super Eagles over the Three Lions, even if Danny Shittu is not exactly Ryan Giggs

North Korea

North Korea are unlucky enough to find themselves in this World Cup's Group of Death, a nice piece of hyperbole probably coined by the Mexican press in 1970, and now mandatory. If Peter Drury is assigned to commentate on one of Korea's games, he may steer clear of the cliché and note instead that Kim John Il has not been seen in the crowd

Paraguay

A country of modest proportions wedged between Brazil and Argentina, Paraguay inevitably invites remarks about a surprise appearance at the top table or on the biggest stage of all, even though its footballers have qualified regularly in the past. Should the team proceed to the next round, condescension may turn into indignation as Paraguay then ignore the script or crash the party

Portugal

Whereas Portugal was traditionally depicted as England's oldest ally, such cheerful references fell out of favour at the same time as successive eliminations from football tournaments at Portugal's hands

Serbia

In the way foreign correspondents tend to routinely refer to the Balkans as a tinderbox, the Serbians will probably win the prize for the most fanatical support, a phrase that hints gently, but unmistakably, that good-natured banter may give way to sectarian thuggery

Slovakia

If swathes of empty seats can be seen when they play New Zealand, it will be noted sagely that few fans have made the long journey from Slovakia. Nations such as the US, England and Japan may be further from South Africa, but the long journey seems to be the prerogative of fans from smaller countries assumed to be poorer

Slovenia

UK commentators are familiar with one player from Slovenia. He plays for West Bromwich Albion. No matter how mediocre he might turn out to be, Robert Koren will duly be appointed (not only by Adrian Chiles) as the team's talisman, in tribute to the strength of the English game

South Africa

It is one of the oldest World Cup truisms that a successful competition depends on the host nation surviving until at least the quarter-finals. The gathered media will naturally want to see stadia packed to capacity and streets thronging with jubilant home fans. However, rumours that Matt Damon is rehearsing for the role of Bafana Bafana's top scorer Benni McCarthy may be slightly premature

South Korea

Anyone not recalling the performance by South Korea in the World Cup it hosted in 2002 may instead describe the team as technically gifted but lacking physical presence – the polite way of saying that the average height of the squad is five foot six

Spain

The Spanish team has traditionally been cast in the role of perennial underachievers. After Spain won Euro 2008 at a canter, we would not venture to guess which big international team may have assumed their mantle

Switzerland

The Swiss nation is scrupulously multilingual, which is one reason why the Wankdorf Stadion in Bern is also known as the Stade de Suisse. Yet the euphemism coined by the Zurich police for the country's hooligans, erlebnisorientierte fans (adventure-oriented fans), has not yet been translated successfully

United States

Listening to an American talking about a football match is like drinking tea out of a Coca-Cola bottle: it feels odd, even if you recognise what is happening. It is possible for a home-grown commentator to parody the effect with borrowed references to corner balls, front headers and tying tallies.

Uruguay

Uruguay was the final team to qualify for South Africa, much to the delight of that prurient species of pundit whose role it is to point out that Latin Americans will be up to their old tricks. Commentators will be on the lookout for the first bodycheck or late tackle that they can classify as cynical. If an English player commits an identical foul, his challenge will be mistimed

'Football Lexicon' by John Leigh and David Woodhouse is published by Faber, priced £4.99

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