World Cup Words: Talking about Football in Japanese

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On July 12, 2018
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Photo by Becca Takano

Following the Japan team’s fantastic performance against Belgium, even after elimination my Japanese colleagues are still going crazy for the World Cup. For foreign people living here, this can be a great chance to get your coworkers to open up as even people who don’t know a defender from a striker will be quite happy to discuss at great length Japan’s second goal against Columbia, whether they should have beaten their Senegalese opponents in the second match or the infamous last 10 minutes of the game with Poland.

While there is no shortage of people who are willing to talk about football, one of the tricky things for Japanese learners is mastering some of the terms associated with the sport. Some of it is decidedly English, but some of the language uses uniquely Japanese concepts.

Fortunately, as the sport has British origins, a lot of the terms are taken from the English language. While “football-is-football” stalwarts like myself may not like the fact the sport is called  サッカー (soccer) over here (or in Canada and the United States), the British influence is clearly seen in words like ゴール (goal), シュート (shoot), フェイント (feint), オウンゴール (own goal) and many other terms.

Similarly, the names for the positions are also taken from English. A チーム (team)  usually consists of フォワード or ストライカー (forwards or strikers), ディフェンダー (defenders), ゴールキーパー or キーパー (goalkeeper) and ミッドフィールダー  (midfielders).

While the names of most positions are pretty straightforward, one of the strange 和製英語わせいえいご, or quasi-English,  words that took me by surprise was the abbreviation スタメン. What’s confusing about this word is that it doesn’t describe the star players (サッカースター or スタープレイヤー) but instead the starting line-up of the squad. For the longest time, whenever I heard スタメン, I assumed that there must be 11 star players on both sides!

While so far most of these words have been similar to English, there are a few Japanese words to talk about your team, as well. You refer to 選手せんしゅ for the players in general and 控えひかえ選手 for the substitutes. Then there are the important non-players such as the 主審 しゅしん)  (head referee, however レフェリー is becoming more common), head coach (監督かんとく), coaches (コーチ) and, of course, the 観客かんきゃく, the spectators themselves.

Some of it is decidedly English, but some of the language uses uniquely Japanese concepts.

All of these players will be trying to win the intriguingly over-abbreviated Wはい)   (the Japanese word for the World Cup). Similarly to English the 杯-kanji here is the literal character for “cup” — the drinking vessel. While W杯 might seem like a massive abbreviation, it is mostly used due to the problem of trying to fit the incredibly long word FIFA ワールドカップ into the tiny spaces allowed by most headlines in newspapers and magazines. A similar common abbreviated phrase often used in headlines is W杯ねつ for “World Cup fever.” The kanji 熱 literally means the high body temperature that one gets from an illness!

The tournament itself is divided into two parts, the グループリーグ or グループステージ stages or pools followed by group of 16 決勝けっしょうトーナメント (elimination round). Anyone wanting to find out when their team is playing in each of these stages needs to check out the 試合日程しあいにってい (game schedule).

So how do you talk about the fates of all the teams in the 決勝トーナメント? One word that learners will come across a lot is 敗北はいぼく, or a loss. Of course, not all losses are equal and one of the more interesting terms that I came across in the world cup was 楽勝らくしょう, or an easy victory. Intriguingly, this term was associated with the opinions of most Belgians before Japan surprised them by taking one of the favorites all the way to the final minute of the match!

Of course, 楽勝 and 敗北 come from 得点 とくてんor スコア (scoring) more or less goals that the other side. Of course, not all scoring is equal, as anyone thrilled with Ronaldo’s amazing comeback against Spain will be familiar with the word 同点どうてん ゴール (an equalizing goal). This may result in a ドロー or け (a draw) or an even more thrilling game — a 逆転勝利ぎゃくてんしょうり (come-from-behind victory).

Regardless of your level of enthusiasm for the World Cup, it can be worth knowing a few soccer words even if it is just to express your lack of interest. Who knows? With the final this weekend you just may find yourself with a sudden case of W杯熱!

What are some of your favorite Japanese words to use when watching World Cup games in Japan? Let other readers know in the comments!

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Grooving to Japan's rhythm.

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