Calling urbane, European managers such as André Villas-Boas "the gaffer" verges on surreal. Photo: Getty
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Back to mine: why we still talk about footballers in the language of the pit

They may earn millions and drive Maseratis but today’s footballers are still described using old working-class terminology. It’s the last link with the game’s roots. 

In a sparkling recent column in these pages, Hunter Davies examined football’s fraudulent use of language. He pointed out that although footballers earn millions and drive Maseratis, their lives must still be described using old working-class terminology.

Any player who stays at a club for longer than the duration of a holiday in the Maldives is described as a “fantastic servant”. It is as though, in Hunter’s phrase, “he hadn’t been paid and had just been given food and lodgings, forced to sleep under the grandstand and wash his own kit”.

My favourite football cliché is the ubiquitous “He’s really put in a shift” – a commentator’s euphemism for: “He’s run around a lot today.” What was he supposed to do in return for £200,000 a week? Sit down in the centre circle and meditate?

It’s not just football. County cricket still tolerates the tradition of the “benefit year”, which permits players, who have driven to the ground in German saloon cars, to arrange plastic buckets to be passed around the stands, where pensioners rummage around in their purses for a couple of quid to throw into the whip-round. In the 1930s, when clubs treated professional players like tradesmen, the benefit year helped the seasoned pro settle into a well-earned retirement. Today’s pros have the protection of an effective union and EU employment law, as well as a lot more money.

Football is even more obsessed with retaining and celebrating its working-class origins. This is particularly odd when applied to the new breed of urbane, sophis­ticated and (usually) European manager. Yet we must still call him the “gaffer”. It is unclear exactly what Pep Guardiola (a devotee of Catalan poetry) and André Villas-Boas (the great-grandson of a viscount), with their skinny-fit suits, cashmere V-necks and multilingual panache, have in common with a factory foreman from Queen Victoria’s heyday.

The terror of the half-time team talk is another part of folklore. We are still led to believe that, at the sound of the whistle, 11 balletic young men, most of whom are far more at home eating tuna carpaccio with the Eurotrash crowd in Knightsbridge than unwrapping cod and chips, walk into the dressing room feeling like terrorised orphans in a Charles Dickens novel.

In reality, they will sip on isotonic sports drinks while listening to the kind of complex tactical information that football coaches – aided by their crew of quants and data gurus – now marshal into strategic decision-making. Backstage in elite sport these days has more in common with Nasa’s HQ than a coal mine.

Meanwhile, footballers have become spectacularly wealthy, though their astronomic annual salaries must still be expressed as a weekly wage – a mark of respect to their working-class predecessors. The equivalent salaries dished out by Goldman Sachs are never divided into working men’s chunks, so we remain unfamiliar with the phrase: “Lloyd Blankfein, who earns £8,000 per shift as CEO, answered questions about the bank’s profits . . .”

The players who entertain us so spectacularly in the Champions League and the Premier League – though this point holds more for non-British players – often do not fit the old template of boy-made-good. Kaká and Andrés Iniesta, for example, stayed on in school after the age of 16.

It is certainly true, both here and abroad, that the social composition of the fans has shifted. There is still guilty talk about the “authenticity” of football crowds but they are increasingly drawn from the middle classes. When a season ticket to watch Arsenal costs £1,470, they have to be. Those who can afford it still cough up, bemoaning the trend while not seeing the contradiction. “The tourist is the other fellow,” as Evelyn Waugh once said.

Meanwhile, as an inspiration to thoughtful critics, football has become one of the most sophisticated manifestations of contemporary culture. Jonathan Wilson or Simon Kuper’s forensic analysis of the strategic feints and counterpunches of Mourinho and Guardiola will probably be the most intelligent article you read in the newspaper.

Given all this, why do the old linguistic stereotypes endure? I would take Hunter’s thesis one step further. In the 25 years or so that I’ve been watching televised football, the obsession with working-class terminology has increased sharply. There are more “good shifts”, “gaffers” and “loyal servants” around than ever before. The language of industrial perspiration has hardened into the game’s collective mythology.

So industrial language is not a hangover from the past, an accidental residue that will one day die out. It is a willed, semi-deliberate aspect of football’s identity. Language always has a point, even if it is to obscure reality rather than to clarify it. As the players get richer and their social backgrounds broader, as the crowd becomes wealthier and more detached from the local community, as the writers dazzle intellectually – all this must be counterbalanced by constant references to a simpler, earthier time, when men were real men and hard-working defenders toiled away at the coalface (the tic is contagious), fearing a clip round the ear from the gaffer if they got caught napping on the job and let that whippet of an opposition winger get goal-side.

Roy Hodgson – a civilised and thoughtful man who relaxes by reading Philip Roth novels and who talks wistfully about the view from his old balcony overlooking the Italian lakes – now prepares to take our boys to Brazil for the World Cup. What else can we say to them beyond: “Don’t punch out unless you’ve got the job done and brought home the goods”?

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.