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Lifting the silverware
An exploration of
English football jargon

World Cup competition
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Lifting the silverware
An exploration of English
football jargon
by Susan Jellis

• Essential English for football fans
• Playing the game
• Getting a goal
• The second half
• Glossary
• Notes
World Cup competition

With the World Cup now only a couple of months away, it's time to 'warm up' for the deluge of football commentary and expert analysis.

You will find some of the specialist words and phrases included in this article and shown in italic in the Macmillan English Dictionary (MED). Some of the others (shown in green) however, are not included in MED. You'll find a list of these words and phrases in the glossary at the end.


Essential English for football fans

English football jargon is travelling worldwide. David Beckham is a global brand – his old team Manchester United has supporters in countries all over the world. Stars from other countries come to play the beautiful game in Britain and their national supporters follow them (= watch their progress) if not physically travelling, at least watching them play on satellite TV. Following (= understanding) the English commentary can sometimes be challenging. There are specialist terms (sometimes several for the same thing), typical expressions, and verbs that behave in unusual ways. This article includes a selection of the common terms you'll often hear used when people talk about football.

Every football player has a dream of becoming a champion and lifting the silverware. Winning players usually lift up the trophy, often a large silver cup with two handles, in turn and may kiss it as well when it is presented to them. Perhaps there's also a feeling that they lift it (in the sense of 'steal it' or 'take it away') from their opponents.

However, before they can triumph, players have to first get into the squad and then be selected for the side (or team). Will they be in the starting line-up or will they be on the bench as substitutes, hoping they'll be asked to warm up later in the game (or match)? Some key players usually start for their team, unless they are coming back from injury, while other players may be supersubs able to come on late in a game and quickly influence the action, sometimes even with their first touch.

Out on the field (which might also be called a pitch or, especially in commentaries, the park), what are the manager's tactics? What formation has he decided on for the game? How many strikers are there? Who is in the midfield? Is there a back four and is it flat (= in a straight line) or is there a sweeper? How solid is the keeper (or goalkeeper or goalie)? And who is the skipper (or captain)?


Playing the game

When it comes to the match, possession, or keeping the ball in play between the members of your own team, is crucial if your team is to dominate the game taking possession early and keeping it from the other side (= opposing team). Fluid passing to other members of the team so that you are not caught in possession, accurate crossing, close marking (or man marking), avoiding the offside trap and clean finishing are all important. Losing possession can be very costly; an opposing player might break and, leaving the defenders behind, head for goal.

Players dribble the ball, pass to another player or maybe play a quick one-two. They might backheel the ball to a player behind them or use a complicated stepover to confuse an opponent. One player might lay a ball off to a teammate who is running up or might win the ball from an opponent. If a player is nutmegged the ball goes between his legs. An unwise foul and a player who is already on a yellow card is shown the red card (or is red-carded) by the referee (or ref) and heads for an early bath (or is sent off).


Getting a goal

Some players are good at making (or setting up) a goal for one of the strikers. The striker might power, slam, volley or lob a ball into the goal, or bury it, or hammer it home; or they might put it away, slot it in, tap it in or even sneak it in. There's a good chance of scoring from a set piece like a free kick or a corner (or corner kick), but, alas, quite often the ball just slams into the wall. The worst thing that can happen is for a defender to score an own goal, by putting the ball into his own net. Almost as bad is conceding a penalty; a player is brought down in the area or did he dive (= deliberately fall)? When a player makes a late tackle in the penalty area, if the referee sees it, a penalty is awarded (or given).

Getting the ball in the back of the net (or scoring goals) is the aim of the game or at least, not conceding any. Will the team be able to keep a clean sheet or will the keeper let in a goal? Sometimes the keeper muffs or fumbles a catch or leaves the goal wide open much better to gather or collect safely! When the keeper takes a goal kick he often boots the ball as far down the pitch as he can. A player shoots the ball goes across the face of the goal (or goalmouth) but the keeper dives (= moves quickly towards the ground) to save it and the player is denied. Another shot on goal the keeper goes the right way but the ball hits the woodwork (either the upright or post (= goalpost) or the crossbar); the following shot smashes into the netting. Someone tries to sneak a ball past the keeper and get on the scoresheet. But he can't manage to beat the keeper. A player climbs (= jumps high) to head the cross but it goes wide.


The second half

It's a game of two halves when the teams come back out after half time, the second half may be quite different from the first half, with a different style of play. Who will score first? No one wants a goalless draw. Someone suddenly scores against the run of play the rush is on now to equalize (or to get the equalizer). A brilliant header, from a player who is good in the air (= good at jumping to head the ball), clinches it and the scorer celebrates. And then another brilliant finish what a great feeling to be the matchwinner (= the person who scores the winning goal) even though there's no hat trick today. When it comes to injury time (or stoppage time, or sometimes in commentaries, overtime) to make up for the time lost in stoppages when a player was injured or stretchered off, they think it's all over but there's always a chance of a late goal and the team surges forward there are lots of (red/blue/etc.) shirts (= players) in the box (or penalty box or penalty area).

Some games have to go into extra time or even go to a penalty shoot-out, but not this one. The referee's blown the final whistle! Now it really is all over, bar the lap of honour (or victory lap) and the post-match analysis by the pundits. Your team has topped the group (or gone top or won) and the other side has gone down (or lost) two-one. Result!



The following specialist words and phrases you will not find in the dictionary. They are listed here in order of appearance.

the beautiful game the game of football
lifting the silverware winning a trophy
supersub a player who often scores as a substitute
first touch a player's first contact with the ball in a game
back four a line of four defenders
possession keeping the ball between the members of your own team
caught in possession caught by an opposing player when you have the ball
man marking close marking of an opposing player
the offside trap a move by opposing players to make a player offside
finishing successfully scoring a goal
lose possession let the other team get the ball
break run with the ball towards the other team's goal away from the main group of players
backheel kick the ball behind you
stepover a set of moves over and around the ball without kicking it, to confuse an opposing player
lay off pass the ball to a player who is running down the side
nutmeg kick a ball through the legs of a player
on a yellow card having one serious warning for breaking the rules
be shown the red card be told by the referee to leave the game after a second serious warning for breaking the rules
be yellow-carded/red-carded receive a yellow/red card
head for an early bath leave the game because of being sent off
the wall a line of players trying to block the way to the goal
a late tackle a move when a player doesn't win the ball and knocks into the opposing player
get the ball in the back of the net score a goal
gather (of a goalkeeper) get hold of a loose ball in the area near the goal
collect (of a goalkeeper) receive a pass
the face of the goal the open front of the goal
shot on goal an attempt to score a goal
go the right way (of a goalkeeper) guess correctly which way a player will kick a ball at the goal
netting the net around a goal
climb jump to head a ball
a game of two halves a game in which the final result can be very different from the score at half time
a goalless draw a game without goals
good in the air good at jumping to head a ball
finish skilful way of scoring a goal
matchwinner the person who scores the winning goal
stretcher off carry off on a stretcher



1 You can take the field (= go on to the football field to play), but you can't take the pitch/park.

Football verbs are often used unusually without objects or complements, e.g.:
Beckham arrives (= comes into the area of play)
Owen takes (= takes a free kick or a penalty)
a defender climbs (= jumps high to head a ball)

A header is also a player who heads or is good at heading a ball. There are many -er words of this type, based on verbs, to describe players and their skills: e.g.

4 they think it's all over is a humorous expression based on a remark made during the commentary of the England v Germany World Cup final in 1966 just before England scored a fourth and final goal to seal their victory.


World Cup competition

Visit the official website of the 2006 World Cup to find out about the latest news of the tournament. The website will also help you answer some of the competition questions in the next 3 months.

Download the pdf version of this article to find out what the first question is in our World Cup competition. Look at this page to see how you can enter the competition and win a specially engraved Macmillan English Dictionary iPod.