The word on the streets is football (or soccer).
With the sport having originated in Britain – the modern form being a 19th-century adaptation of various versions of folk football played since medieval times – it is unsurprising thatthe game’s English terminology spread alongside it upon its introduction to the European continent in the late 1800s.
Many languages directly borrowed the word for football: fotbal (Rumanian), le foot(ball) (French) and futbol (Turkish). Others literally translated the meanings for “foot” and “ball”: fußball (German), voetbal (Dutch) and jalkapallo (Finnish). Some languages maintain two forms for the term: fútbol, balompié (Spanish), futbol, piłka nozna (Polish). Another commonly borrowed term is goal: gol in the Romance languages, Russian and Korean, and goru in Japanese.
But going global works both ways. Teams have become increasingly international over the past two decades, following the 1995 European Court of Justice Bosman ruling on the free movement of labour within the EU; an English Premier League club fielding a starting 11 without any Englishmen is no longer novel.
This year’s Fifa World Cup has seen 25 of the 32 teams field at least one foreign-born player during qualification. Refreshingly, terms from other languages have also become global football-speak.
The rabona is a beautiful example. The kicking leg wrapped around the back of the supporting leg, the technique, popularised by Italian Giovanni Roccotelli in the 1970s (called incrociata, meaning “crossed kick”, in Italian), was first noticed when used by Argentinian striker Ricardo Infante in a 1948 match.
A football magazine, punning on the Argentinian Spanish expression hacerse le rabona “to play truant”, produced the headline El infante que se hizo la rabona “the child plays hookey”, in reference to Infante “skipping” the use of his weaker foot with the move.
Another explanation stems from the Spanish rabo, meaning “tail” – the trick resembles a cow’s tail swishing between or around its legs. With European players performing this tango-esque move – “rabona” is also the name of a dance step – in English football in the 2000s, the term has crossed over into the English language.
A major American sportswear brand used the phrase joga bonito, Portuguese for “play beautifully”, in a video ad campaign to appeal for a renewed sense of skill, elegance and honour in the game – and, implicitly, to celebrate its transcultural, multilingual nature.
Let’s revel in the beautiful game.