Back of the net! What a save! To move the goalposts! To be on the ball! English, and especially British English, is full of football related vocabulary, expressions and idioms. So, to celebrate the start of the UEFA European Football Championship, let’s learn a few of the most useful examples together. Hopefully by the end of the episode you will be able to watch football games in English with ease. And if you hate football, don’t worry! Much of the vocabulary in the episode is also used in business English and everyday conversations.

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Vocabulary List

To qualify (v) – to succeed in getting into a competition

Nigeria was the first team to qualify for the World Cup

To reschedule (v) – to agree on a new or later date for something to happen 

I rescheduled my doctor’s appointment for later in the week

Title (n) – the position you get by beating all other competitors in a sports competition

Joe Louis won the heavyweight boxing title in 1937

Host (n) – a place of organization that provides the space and other necessary things for a special event 

Qatar is the host nation for the next World Cup 

Commentator (n) – a reporter for radio or TV who provides a spoken description of and remarks on an event, especially a sport competition

He is a football commentator 

Beneficial (adj) – helpful, useful, good

A day off will be beneficial to your health

Exclamation (n) – something you say or shout suddenly because of surprise, fear, pleasure, etc

He shouted an exclamation of delight

To dominate (v) – to have control over a place or person 

Despite dominating the game, United couldn’t score and lost 2-0

Over the weekend, the UEFA European Football Championship kicked off with a game between Italy and Turkey. 24 countries across the continent have qualified for the tournament which was supposed to take place last year! Instead, due to the pandemic, it was rescheduled to this summer. So, slightly confusingly, this is the 2020 tournament, despite it being in 2021. The tournament is also known as the UEFA European Championships, but I will use the informal name throughout this podcast – the Euros!

The Euros are one the largest, most watched, and most important international football tournaments in the world. Many of the world’s best players will represent their nations and try to become the champions of Europe. The Euros have been held every four years since 1960 (except for 2020, of course), and is scheduled to take place in between World Cup years. The 15 European Championship tournaments so far have been won by ten different national teams: Germany and Spain each have won three titles, France has two titles, and the Soviet Union, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Netherlands, Denmark, Greece and Portugal have won one title each. 

This year’s tournament is a little different from previous versions, as for the first time in the competition’s 60 year history it is being held across Europe. Usually, there are one or two host nations with all the games taking place there. However, this year 11 different host cities in 11 different countries will hold matches: the final and semi-finals will be in London, while Saint Petersburg, Baku, Munich, Rome, Amsterdam, Bucharest, Budapest, Copenhagen, Glasgow, and Seville will also host games! The tournament begins with the group stages, where the teams are divided into six groups containing four teams. The top 2 teams from each group (as well as some of the best runners up) will qualify for the knock-out stages. The knock-out stages mean that if you lose a game, you are out of the tournament! 

Football is an incredibly important part of European, and many other parts of the world’s, societies. It is so important, in fact, that sport related idioms and expressions have entered the normal English language and can be found in all kinds of situations. So the rest of this episode is going to serve two purposes. First, it will introduce some useful vocabulary to help you watch and understand football games in English. Trying to understand the vocabulary of commentators, either on TV or the radio, is often like listening to a completely different language. So, by introducing some of the most common vocabulary, expressions, and idioms, hopefully you will be able to enjoy watching the Euros (or other regional tournaments currently happening in Asia, South America, North America, and Africa)!

However, if you don’t like football, don’t panic! And don’t stop listening. As I mentioned, football is such an important part of British culture that our language is full of football related idioms and expressions. For that reason, I think it would be beneficial for you to learn a few of the most used. Whether you’re interested in popular culture, business English, or simply informal conversation, you WILL NEED football English. And before I start with the vocabulary, just a reminder that I am British and I speak British English. For that reason I am using British English vocabulary to describe football (most obviously I am saying football instead of soccer). Moreover, while American English is full of sports related vocabulary, football has not had as big an impact on their language. Sports like American football, baseball, and basketball have been more influential. So, while some of the vocabulary you will learn today can be used in both dialects, some are exclusive to British English!

Football Vocabulary

I think it will be useful to start with some of the basic football vocabulary. 

There are 11 players on a football team. The goalkeeper or goalie is the player whose special role is to stop the ball from entering the goal. They can also use their hands. A defender is a player  whose task it is to protect their own side’s goal, and prevent the other team from scoring, while midfielders are positioned to play in the middle part of the playing field / pitch. The main aim for strikers, attackers, or forwards is to score goals! In addition to the 11 players on the pitch, a team also has substitutes who are players able to replace another after the match has already begun. 

Players are not the only important people in football games. A manager is a person  responsible for controlling a team and training new players. The referee is an official who watches the match closely to make sure the rules are followed and to decide what happens when the rules are broken or the teams disagree on something. The referee is helped by the linesman and assistant referees who assist from touchline and can see things the referee may struggle to notice. The touchline or sideline is the boundary on each side of the field, within which the ball must remain. The referee and his assistant are responsible for deciding on fouls, which are violations of the rules; bookings, yellow, and red cards which are given for the most serious fouls; sending players off which means they are removed from the match f they receive a red card; and judging offside – a position not allowed by the rules of the game – when a striker is closer to the opposing team’s goal area than the last defender, when the ball is passed to him/her.

There are also some useful verbs which will help you understand football. Many of these verbs also have noun counterparts! To kick-off means to start the game. To shoot is to kick the ball towards the net in an attempt to score a goal. To pass means to kick the ball to one of your teammates, while to head the ball means to touch and guide the ball with your head. To tackle is to take the ball from an opposition player, to block is to stop a shot or pass from going through, and to save is what goalkeepers do when they prevent the ball from entering the net! 

There are many other specific vocabulary terms related to football, but I think the terms I introduced are enough to understand most of the basic parts of the game. Now, let’s have a look at some of the most common football expressions. 

Football Expressions

Back of the net! This means to score a goal, especially when the ball hits the net hanging behind the goal posts. It is often shouted as an exclamation – as in “You should’ve seen it, it was such a great goal. Back of the net!”

We were robbed! This is one of the most common phrases in football English, especially if your team has just lost. It is a phrase used to suggest a defeat was unjust or undeserved, usually due to the actions of somebody else (and often the referee!). For example, “The referee made a bad call. We were robbed!”

He (she) pulled off a great save or what a save! These are used after the goalkeeper performs a quick, impressive, and acrobatic stop of a shot. For instance, “our goalkeeper is fantastic! I have no idea how he pulled off that save at the last minute!” 

Hit the woodwork. When a player shoots at goal, but instead hits the crossbar or post of the goal, we describe this as hitting the woodwork. It is seen as very unfortunate! 

The goalkeeper made a howler! I chose goalkeeper for this expression, but you can change it to any player and even non-footballers. It is used when a player makes a very basic mistake and lets the other team score a goal. For example, “the goalkeeper made a howler in the last minute and missed the ball completely!”

It’s a game of two halves! This expression refers to the fact that football games can, and often do, change considerably throughout the 90 minutes. The team that dominated the first half, might be second best in the second half. As in “they are losing at half time, but as we all know football is a game of two halves!”

As with the vocabulary earlier, I’m sure there are many other expressions out there. If you know any others please let me know on Instagram or by email! However, now let’s move on to a few important football idioms. 

Football Related Idioms

Some of these idioms are going to be directly connected to football, while others will be more loosely associated with the sport. 

Get a kick out of something. This means to enjoy watching or doing something. For example, “if you get a kick out of eating spicy food, I recommend trying this Indian restaurant!”

To kick something off. I introduced the verb “to kick off” earlier in this podcast, but now let’s look at the idiomatic meaning. In fact, you might have noticed I used this idiom right at the beginning of the episode. To “kick something off” means to begin something or to cause something to start. In England, for instance, “everyone is hoping that we can kick summer off with a successful Euros.”

To watch from the sidelines. I also mentioned sidelines earlier in the episode as well. This idiom is used to describe a position where someone is observing a situation rather than being directly involved in it. In football we can describe fans, substitutes and managers as “watching from the sidelines.” Like many of these idioms, however, it also applies to everyday situations. For example, “You didn’t help me when the boss was shouting at me! You just watched from the sidelines!”

To move the goalposts. This means to unfairly change the rules or conditions of procedure after it has already started. Many countries’ lockdowns were extended over the last year as the “government kept on moving the goalposts!”

To be on the ball. If you are on the ball, you are very quick to respond to questions or requests and are very aware of new ideas and methods. “John is the best employee, as he is always on the ball!”

To score an own goal. Scoring an own goal in football means to accidentally put the ball into the wrong goal. In real life, it means to do something that unintentionally harms your interests. For instance, “Jim scored an own goal by quitting his job before he had another offer!”

To take sides. This means to support one person, or stand against a person, on a certain issue, in a dispute or in a contest. “I’m not taking sides in the dispute between Apple and Epic Games!”

A Game Changer. “A game changer” is an idea, procedure, event, or even a person that significantly changes that current way of doing something or thinking about something. For example, “this new computer program is a ‘game changer’ for the banking industry.”

Final Thought

On this episode of Thinking in English I have tried to introduce a selection of incredibly useful football related vocabulary, football related expressions, and football related idioms. Football is such an important part of British culture that the English language is full of related terms. Even if you hate the sport, you need to know these idioms to understand many informal discussions, business English expressions, and more! Can you think of any other football related idioms? Have any other sports had impacts on the English language? How about in your language? 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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