Language as a metaphor for football

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The German language has never agreed with me. I dislike its harshness. At school I was told about a poem by the Spaniard Miguel de Unamuno consisting of a list of the ugliest German words. This struck me then as pretty hilarious.

At this World Cup though, I find myself developing a grudging admiration for its utilitarianism. This first manifested at a big screen in Frankfurt, where I was watching Ivory Coast’s doomed attempts to upset Argentina. My eye kept being drawn to the scoreboard in the top corner of the screen. Elfenbeinkuste – elephant bone coast: it was a striking example of the German language’s fondness for composites. Why worry about creating a new word (“ivory”) when the combination of two existing words (“elephant bone”) would do?

I noticed it again immediately in the hotel lobby – Aufzug, or “up train” – ah yes, the elevator. And I have been noticing it with regularity ever since.

The benefit of this is it makes the language accessible and simple. With the building-blocks of a relatively sparse vocabulary, foreigners like me can convey a surprising amount. The drawback is it is imprecise and rather primitive: ivory is not really elephant bone; an elevator is not quite a train that travels upwards.

Why dwell on this? Because I think this characteristic of the German language is reflected in the way Germany plays football. Composed of similarly simple building-blocks – hard work, simple passes, positional discipline – the German style is good at accommodating players of limited ability and turning them into, if not world-beaters, then more competent performers than we (or they) might have expected.

The downside is that, with the exception of the early 1970s when giants such as Breitner, Netzer and Beckenbauer were around to embellish on the template set down by their less gifted team-mates, German football has tended to lack aesthetic appeal.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s current team is typical. Everybody knows his job and performs it competently or better. But even the flair players – Michael Ballack and Sebastian Schweinsteiger – rarely quicken the pulse, although David Odonkor, Klinsmann’s surprise inclusion, may.

Gertrude Stein, the Franco-US intellectual, wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that the Germans were “a backward people who have made a method of what we conceive as organisation”. It seems an unduly sweeping way in which to belittle one of the most successful nations on earth. But it captures perfectly the shortcomings – and strengths - of the German way of football.

More David Owen diary:

Return to Berlin

When Leni met Luis

Munich puts World Cup in the shop window

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