The 2014 FIFA World Cup is very nearly underway, with hosts Brazil among the first to take to the pitch. If you didn’t understand a word of that, this post is for you. Football is the blood that runs through our nation’s veins, so it can feel a bit awkward being the only person in the tap-room who doesn’t know the offside rule. You become an eternal wallflower, ostracised and muttering with embarrassment whenever the fateful question is asked: “who do you support?”
It’s like being asked whose side you’re on – and you don’t have a side. You’re no one. You’re Billy No Mates. You’re the kid that teachers flick spitballs at.
But fear not! The World Cup is the ideal time to learn how to talk about football credibly. It’s a crash course in the highs and lows of the beautiful game, compressed into four compact weeks. It’s football fan university, with all the drinking, partying and physical contact with members of the same gender that implies. All you need to do is go with the flow, get yourself a cheap England shirt and follow our simple instructions.
Watch the matches in a crowd
It’ll be difficult to avoid football during the World Cup, so embrace it head on. Head down the pub to see the matches with your mates. The crowd will provide handy camouflage for your ignorance.
If you’re invited by a friend to watch a match at their house that’s fine, but check who else is invited. If it’s just you and your mate, counter-invite them to the pub. Make sure you have your excuse in place though. Good ones to use are:
- I like the atmosphere of a crowd
- The TV’s bigger down the pub
- I owe Steve a tenner and I said I’d meet him there
- The pub’s got draft beer, I hate tins
Listen to the pundits
Before the matches begin and at half time, a group of middle-aged men will appear on screen talking about the game. They are called “pundits” and they have years of experience boring paint off walls with their incessant talk of total football and the merits of various formations. Listen carefully and try to remember some of the key points they make. It won’t be difficult as they tend to speak very slowly and repeat themselves a lot. You can then wait for the same subject to arise in conversation and drop in nuggets like:
“It’s a coin toss between the three of them.” (Adrian Chiles)
“The thing about goalscorers is that they score goals.” (Tony Cotee)
“I don’t want Rooney to leave these shores but, if he does, I think he’ll go abroad.” (Ian Wright)
“If that had gone in, it would have been a goal.” (Adrian Chiles. Again.)
What side are you on?
It’s very important to know what side you’re on as soon as possible in the proceedings. In World Cup games this will not always be obvious, unless your national side is playing. Here are some broad rules you can apply.
- If you’re in an English pub and England are playing, support England.
- If you’re in a Scottish pub and England are playing, support the opposing team.
- If Germany, America or France are playing, support the opposing team.
- If a plucky South American underdog is up against a big European team, support the plucky South American underdog.
- If the Netherlands are playing anyone but England, support the Netherlands.*
As the World Cup progresses it will get more complicated. The play-offs will decide what kind of match your favourite team will face next – easy or hard. Clue: we always want an easy to beat team so we can get to the final fairly and squarely.
In normal, league football, it is VERY important that you know who you support. As in, life or death. Not only should you pick a team and stick to it for the rest of your days, but you must also know who the star players are, who the manager is, how the team performed last season and how they’re expected to perform next season. Consider the World Cup a primer for this much, much harder test of your potential credibility as a fake fan.
Finally, and very importantly, make sure you know what shirt colour your team is wearing. This will prevent the potential embarrassment of cheering for an opposition goal or praising a particularly brutal tackle against your side.
Avoid one-to-one football conversation
Even though you’ve have had a crash course in football etiquette, you should still avoid one-to-one football conversation as much as possible. If you do find yourself stuck in a corner with a single football fan, the best tactic is the therapist approach. In this strategy, you let the other person drive conversation, then turn all your chatty friend’s questions back on him, like so:
Chatty Friend: “That first half was dire. Where’s the defence? Where’s the attack?”
You: “You think there’s no defence or attack?”
Chatty Friend: “Did you see Balotolli go straight through them? Luke Shaw’s untested, he just bottled it.”
You: “Yeah. Shaw’s a bit green. What do you think’s wrong with the attack?”
Every now and then, drop in a bit of information you’ve gleaned from the pre-match pundits:
Chatty Friend: “And Jones. I haven’t seen him go near the ball!”
You: “Well, he’s only just come back from injury.”
Chatty Friend: “He should be ready. He’s had six weeks to recuperate.”
You: “You think he should be ready?”
And so on.
Mimic the crowd
When you watch the match with a gang of people, they’ll give you lots of important behavioural cues. Crowd behaviour in humans is similar to pack behaviour in any animal. The alphas lead the crowd and the others merely mimic and follow. Think about birds flocking, sheep running around a field or a shoal of fish switching direction to avoid a predator.
So, be just another fish. Cheer when everyone else cheers. Turn to your mate and roll your eyes when everyone else groans. No one will suspect you don’t have a clue what’s going on.
Listen to what others say
The key to talking credibly is staying quiet. Sounds like a paradox? In most conversation people are just waiting for their turn to speak; to spout their own opinion or disagree with the opinion of someone else. That means you have an advantage. You don’t need to appear dominant – merely credible – and that gives you a very powerful weapon; listening.
When you listen to what people are saying you can weigh up the relative merit of the arguments being made and gather information you might need later. When you do speak, you can then simply rephrase what was said by your most persuasive mate. The bonus part? You will always come across as the most reasonable and even-tempered person in the group and everyone will like you that bit more for it.
Learn these key phrases
In addition to these sneaky communication techniques, you can also drop in some of these phrases while the match is in progress:
Say this with a tone of exasperation any time you see a man in a black shirt talking to one of your team.
“It’s gone a bit quiet.”
If the crowd hasn’t cheered or booed for a while.
“Oi! Get back to drama school!”
If a player from the opposite team is visibly injured.
“Where are you?”
Say this when the action lingers too long near your team’s goal. Or Delia Smith appears on screen (just trust us on that one, OK?)
Any time a free kick or penalty results in a goal for the opposition.
“How did he miss that?”
Any time a penalty does not result in a goal for your side.
Over the next month you’ll have plenty of opportunities to put your new knowledge and skills to the test. And who knows? By the end of the tournament you may have graduated from being a fake fan to a fully fledged football know-it-all. Everyone has to start somewhere…