Thursday, August 16, 2007
Football is notable, apart from the fact that it the most-widely played team sport in the world, for the relative sobriety of its club names, no more so than in the home of the sport. English football is replete with a plethora of Uniteds, Cities, Towns, Rovers and Wanderers. There are a few more adventurous monikers, such as Arsenal (repeated in many countries around the world, most notably in Argentina), Tottenham Hotspur (feeding off the Boy's Own popularity of Harry Hotspur in the late Victorian era), Nottingham Forest and, of course, those midweek specialists Sheffield Wednesday, whose name is echoed in the Welsh part-timers Abergavenny Thursdays. But in the main the names are standard, as a result of which football fans are not too fond of the more colourful American-style team names, which were foisted on Rugby League about ten years ago. The advantage of ordinary team names is that a nickname can then be appended to the team. With the American naming tendency, the Boston Red Sox remain the Red Sox, the Green Bay Packers the Packers and so on; it seems, to European ears, one-dimensional.
Irish football is similarly bereft of colourful names, with the exception of Bohemians south of the border - a name that is more evocative in its official title 'The Bohemian Football Club' and Distillery in the north. In Scotland though, the names are more creative, akin to rugby clubs in their originality, which always made the Scottish results on Final Score a greater pleasure to listen to, almost like the Shipping Forecast in its lilting recitation of lengthy names. Some are well-known, such as Heart of Midlothian, named for the eponymous prison in Walter Scott's novel; others less so, such as Queen of the South, one of the few teams to have taken their name directly from the Bible. The musicality of real placenames such as Stenhousemuir (with their equally lyrical Ochilview Park home - beside the McCowan's toffee factory) and Cowdenbeath complete the medley.
The origins of most football clubs lie in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and many of the most popular names reflect the nationalisms of the day, such as Borussia, Hansa and Hertha in Germany; Español (recently Catalanized to Espanyol) and Real Sociedad in Spain; Maccabi in Israel, Hajduk in the Balkans, Thistle in Scotland and Albion in England and, strangely, Scotland too. Irish football is lacking nationalist names, probably because the GAA was more concerned with using them. Also popular, and not surprisingly given the public school origins of the game, were references to antiquity in names such as Corinthians, Ajax, Atalanta (of Bergamo in Italy), Sparta and Hellas (as in Hellas Verona). There are also teams around the world that retain names in English due to their English founders or a simple anglophilia such as Milan (never referred to in Italy as 'AC'), Athletic Bilbao (as opposed to 'Atletico'), the Racing clubs of Paris, Strasbourg, Lens and elsewhere in France, Sporting Club de Portugal (better known as Sporting Lisbon), River Plate and Newell's Old Boys in Argentina, though not, as I pointed out yesterday, Red Star Belgrade.
Most continental clubs are similarly restrained in their nomenclature, Scandinavian clubs, in particular, being almost exclusively named after places. There are exceptions though, such as two Swiss clubs with English-language names, such as Young Boys of Bern and Grasshoppers Zurich. The former was a simple riposte to the more common fashion of calling alumnus teams 'Old Boys' but its name does provoke mirth in the English-speaking world these days. A couple of days ago, the URL BSC YOUNG BOYS - OFFIZIELLE INTERNETSEITE appeared in my del.ic.ious subscriptions and I was momentarily disturbed by the prospect that I had been directed to a site that was not only unsavoury but also possibly illegal. But I soon realised that these Young Boys are a much more wholesome lot, though it must be pointed out that they do play at the Wankdorf Stadium. Grasshoppers, for their part, apparently owe their name to their early players' 'energetic goal celebrations', which evokes the image of old black-and-white newsreel footage. The vigour of youth is also celebrated in teams such as Juventus, the Jeunesse teams from Auxerre to Yaoundé and the recently-formed Wexford Youths, rescuing that fine word from its long-standing connection with juvenile courts.
Eastern bloc teams were often named after their connection with a particular state body, such as the Lokomotiv teams, from Leipzig to Plovdiv to Moscow; Dynamo teams, who were usually associated with the Secret Police; Honvéd Budapest, who were named after the Hungarian Army; Shaktior Donetsk is named after the local mine ('Shaktior' is Russian and Ukrainian for 'mine') and both they and Zenit St. Petersburg were at one time in the past named 'Stalinets'. Probably the best name from the former Soviet Union is Torpedo Moscow, the team of the Soviet armaments industry, funnily enough. Though the team's name has rarely stricken fear into the hearts of opposition since the glory post-war years the name is a suitably formidable one for a Stalin-era football club.
Dutch football provides us with one of the world's greatest football team names, Go Ahead Eagles of Deventer, a case of someone using the English language to invoke powers that were well beyond it. A similar name is provided in the name of the Breton club En Avant Guingamp ('En Avant' meaning 'ahead' or 'in front'), who spent a couple of years recently in the French top flight. French football team names are usually a lot more elaborate in their official denomination than in the names that end up in the newspapers and often they are referred to by almost unrecognizable acronyms, such as ESTAC for Troyes, LOSC for Lille, MUC72 for Le Mans.
But one must venture outside of Europe for the best club names; South Africa veers close to the American formula whilst still being distinctive, giving us Kaizer Chiefs (the Britpop band uses an 's'), Orlando Pirates, Platinum Stars and best of all, Mamelodi Sundowns. One of the greatest clubs in African history is Hearts of Oak of Accra, the Hearts that Valentin Romanov has yet to get his mitts on, but Ghanaian football has even more impressive club names such as Ebusua Dwarfs and King Faisal Babes. In Cambodia there is a team called Hello United, while Bolivia boasts some great names such as Blooming, Destroyers and The Strongest, who started off as 'The Strong' before graduating to the superlative, and they are considered formidable opposition every year in the Copa Libertadores.
Trinidad & Tobago's Joe Public FC is also an inspired name and their chairman is the dodgy, populist FIFA vice-president Jack Warner. Jamaica's Violet Kickers is also a good one, an echo of the Ruhr Valley legends of yore Kickers Offenbach. There are some teams that have great names by dint of their mundane professional connections such as Botswana Meat Commission FC or FC Impôts (i.e. 'Taxes FC') of Cameroon while others such as the Sierra Leone trio of Real Republicans, Golf Leopards and Mighty Blackpool have a deeper resonance. Though Big Bullets of Malawi is a fair attempt at a great club name, the overall crown must go to the Swazi club named Eleven Men in Flight. Pure poetry.
Of course, some team names have been missed out upon because their names were in languages unknown to me. Feel free to point any out that I might not have mentioned, be they famous or otherwise.