A lexicon of French football terms, what they mean and their cultural significance’
The French have always had a way with words. From the scandalising satires of Molière to the candid incantations of MC Solaar, via the poetry of Rimbaud, the rousing oratory of De Gaulle and the smoke-enwreathed seductions of Serge Gainsbourg, France is a country defined by its determination to define itself. Its footballers – Thuram, Cantona, Gourcuff – are an uncommonly introspective bunch and its national football vocabulary is thick with inventiveness and lyricism.
This glossary of selected French football terms will not help those heading to France explain who they are or what they hope to obtain by wildly flailing their hands around at the local boulangerie, but it might just enable them to pass themselves off as habitués of the way the game is discussed in the country that brought us Kopa, Platini, Zidane, Henry and, of course, the European Championship itself.
aile de pigeon (n) – pigeon’s wing
“I recently saw Zidane control the ball with his ankle,” Jorge Valdano once remarked. “It was defective, but beautiful.” French footballers do not have a monopoly on unorthodox methods of ball control, but the country’s football lexicon has thrown up some imaginative ways of describing the game’s technical nuts and bolts. Aile de pigeon refers to a player extending a bent leg either behind him or to one side – mimicking the shape of a pigeon’s wing – and using the exterior of his foot or his heel to control the ball, flick it on or steer it towards goal. Zlatan Ibrahimović is a master of the craft, as demonstrated by the astonishingly adroit taekwondo flick he scored against Bastia in October 2013.
automatismes (n) – automations
One of the joys of learning a foreign language is encountering words and phrases for which there are no direct equivalents in your native tongue. Automatismes is used in French to describe the reflexive understanding that develops between players on a team when they have been playing together over a certain period of time. A star signing who is taking time to settle at a new club will be said to be “still searching for automatismes” with his team mates.
bijou (n) – jewel
Typically used to describe a delightful goal. Can also be used to describe a particularly refined pass, touch or piece of skill. “Quel bijou!”
casser les reins (v) – break the kidneys
The NBA has popularised the concept of the “ankle breaker” – a sharp change of direction or feint that sends your opponent careening off in the wrong direction, their ankle ligaments creaking. In French football it is the kidneys, curiously, that are destroyed when a full-back is left grasping at thin air by a slippery wide player.
caviar (n) – caviar
It’s not a cliché to say that France is a country obsessed with food. Eating a sandwich on the Paris Métro is liable to earn you stares usually reserved for public nose-picking and the average French person is so sensitive to the amount of seasoning required in a dish that you start to wonder whether they aren’t taught about it in school. Appropriately, then, when a player creates a chance for a teammate that simply cannot be missed, it is known as un caviar.
champ de patates (n) – potato field
A poor playing surface is often referred to as a champ de patates.
coaching (n) – coaching
French football writing teems with inelegantly appropriated English terms, of which coaching is one. It’s typically used to refer to a coach’s substitutions. A substitute who comes on and scores is said to be an example of bon coaching. A substitute who proves ineffective or the withdrawal of a player who was playing well are signs of mauvais coaching.
coup d’envoi fictif (n) – fictive kick-off
A beloved conceit of French football administrators, the coup d’envoi fictif involves a former player, coach or club official, local dignitary or minor celebrity shuffling across to the centre spot prior to the match and performing a ceremonial kick-off – often an uncultured toe-poke – before trotting off and allowing the match to begin for real.
cuir (n) – leather (ball)
The modern ball may be a mixture of polyurethane, latex and made-up-sounding technology, but in France it is still occasionally referred to as le cuir or ‘the leather’.
double contact (n) – double contact
A double contact [doo-BLUH con-TACT] is the piece of skill used by a player who sweeps the ball square with one foot and then rapidly knocks it forward with the other in order to evade an incoming tackle or squeeze through a gap between two opponents. In Spanish it is known as la croqueta and Andrés Iniesta is its patron saint.
enrhumer (v) – give (someone) a cold
A player who leaves an opponent for dead or ties them up in knots is said to have “given them a cold”.
faire une arconada (v) – do an arconada
The concept of the championship-winning goal is one of football’s most evocative, but it’s striking to note how many major tournament finals have been decided by blunders rather than brilliance. For every Geoff Hurst hat-trick or golden goal by David Trezeguet, there is Roberto Baggio ballooning his penalty into the Pasadena sky in the 1994 World Cup final or Oliver Kahn shovelling the ball into Ronaldo’s path in 2002. Even Trezeguet had his own fall guy moment, his missed penalty in the 2006 World Cup final effectively deciding the shoot-out and handing Italy the trophy. On 1 May 1984, France marked 80 years since its national team’s first ever game, a 3-3 draw against Belgium in Uccle, near Brussels. It was both a milestone and an indictment, for despite having been a founder member of Fifa, a participant at the first World Cup and the birthplace of both the European Cup (later to become the Champions League) and European Nations Cup (later to become the European Championship), France had never won a major trophy. That wait would come to an end less than two months later and while it owed much to the goal-scoring genius of Michel Platini, it was also partly due to the inadvertent generosity of Luis Arconada. Having reached the final of the 1984 European Championship on home soil, France were struggling to break Spain down at the Parc des Princes when the Spanish centre-back Salva was penalised for bringing down Bernard Lacombe two yards outside the penalty area, and slightly to the left of centre, in the 57th minute. Platini, already the tournament’s top scorer with eight goals, curled the set-piece towards the bottom-right corner. Arconada, positioned on that side of his goal, had a relatively simple save to make, falling forward and a little to the left to gather the ball. But as he landed, the ball squirmed out from beneath him and rolled over the line. Yvon Le Roux’s dismissal came too late for Spain to exploit and in the final minute Jean Tigana freed Bruno Bellone to run through and chip Arconada for France’s second goal. The Basque’s role in France’s moment of glory is recalled to this day – whenever a goalkeeper commits a similar blunder, he is said to have ‘done an arconada’.
fessée (n) - spanking
Used, as in English, to describe a heavy defeat.
Footix (n) - Footix
A jaunty blue cockerel with red plumage, Footix was the mascot for the 1998 World Cup in France. The -ix suffix in his name reflects the names given to the Gauls in the Astérix comic strip. ‘Footix’ gained a second lease of life as a pejorative nickname for people who suddenly developed an interest in football after France won the tournament.
grand pont (n) – big bridge
In Aston Villa’s 3-1 defeat at Sunderland on January 2, the Midlands club scored a memorable goal when Adama Traoré ran from his own half, knocked the ball past Wes Brown and crossed for Carles Gil to score with a flying left-foot volley. The piece of skill that Adama used to beat Brown – toeing the ball past him on one side and collecting it on the other – was something you see all the time, but in English it doesn’t have a commonly used name. In French it’s known as a grand pont, big brother of the petit pont (see below). Ibrahimović and Jérémy Ménez have both used it to elude goalkeepers prior to scoring in recent years – the former against Saint-Étienne last season, the latter against Parma in 2014 – with Ménez adding a sublime back-heeled finish (or talonnade) for good measure.
joli (adj) – pretty
A favoured exclamation of co-commentators, the cry of ‘Oh, joli!’ will often go up when a player embarrasses an opponent with an extravagant piece of skill. ‘Oh la la!’ is another, the number of ‘la’s rising in direct proportion to the quality of the goal or magnificence of the skill.
langue de bois (n) – wooden language
Term used to describe any vague platitude trotted out by a player or coach. ‘L’important, c’est les trois points.’
lanterne rouge (n) – red lantern (bottom team)
Borrowed from cycling (specifically the Tour de France), lanterne rouge refers to the team at the bottom of the table. In times past a lanterne rouge would be hung from the hindmost carriage of a train to let those in the vicinity know when the entire train had passed through.
lucarne (n) – dormer (top corner)
In Britain, when a shot or header sails into the top-right corner so squarely as to make a mockery of any attempt to keep it out, the ball is said to have hit the postage stamp. In France, the equivalent expression is the lucarne, or dormer – a gabled window projecting out from a sloping roof. A particularly well placed shot will end up en pleine lucarne (right in the top corner).
madjer (n) – madjer
Born in the Algerian coastal city of Algiers in 1958, Mustapha Rabah Madjer began his football career with the local team NA Hussein Dey. A stylish and versatile striker with an eye for the flamboyant, he came to global prominence at the 1982 World Cup in Spain when he scored Algeria’s first goal in a famous 2-1 win over West Germany. But the Desert Foxes were eliminated nine days later after the Germans beat Austria 1-0 in a result that sent both teams through at Algeria’s expense – a game that would come to be known as “The Disgrace of Gijón”. It was the match that prompted Fifa to rule that, in future, all final group-stage games would kick off simultaneously. A domestic regulation preventing Algerian footballers aged 25 or under from playing overseas initially prevented Madjer from exploiting his new status by joining a major European team and following a long stand-off with the Fédération Algérienne de Football, he signed for Racing Paris in 1983. From there he was to join Porto, in 1985, and it was with the Portuguese giants that he scored the goal that secured his place in European football folklore. Appearing in their first European Cup final against Bayern Munich in Vienna in 1987, Porto were trailing 1-0 in the 77th minute when the Brazilian forward Juary gathered a pass from his fellow substitute António Frasco and played a square ball across the six-yard box from the right. A deflection on the cross meant that Madjer arrived slightly ahead of the ball, but he adjusted brilliantly, planting his left foot in the turf, allowing the ball to pass between his legs and then guiding it past the covering defender Hans-Dieter Flick with a deliciously deft back-heel. “I was already running to the near post and I let the ball go between my legs and I hit it with the back of my heel,” he told the Uefa website in 2012. “There was a defender on the line, so if I had controlled the ball, I’d never have scored.” Three minutes later Madjer returned the compliment by setting up Juary for the winning goal, making Porto the first Portuguese side to lift the European Cup since Benfica 25 years earlier. Later that year Madjer scored the winner as Porto beat Peñarol of Uruguay to win the Intercontinental Cup and in 1990 he captained Algeria to glory on home soil at the Africa Cup of Nations. But it’s for his back-heel that he is best remembered in the French-speaking world, where back-heeled goals are routinely referred to as ‘madjers’.
mouiller le maillot (v) – wet the jersey
When discussing the physical effort put in by either himself or his team, there’s only one phrase that will spring to a French footballer’s lips and it’s not a particularly attractive one. Where British players will speak of “giving 110%” (if not more) or “leaving everything out there”, the French player is likely to the employ the phrase mouiller le maillot, or “wet the jersey”. As Marseille’s notoriously demanding supporters are fond of chanting: ‘Mouille le maillot ou casse toi!’ (“Wet the jersey or sod off!”)
neuf et demi (n) – nine and a half
The French share many of our expressions for football’s various subtly different attacking positions – renard des surfaces for fox in the box, pivot for target man – but they can also lay claim to a few coinages of their own. One of those is the neuf et demi, used to describe a player, perhaps like Wayne Rooney, who is not quite a number nine but not quite a number 10 either.
papinade (n) – papinade
As demonstrated by the YouTube video that shows Mark Hughes hammering a shot into the top-left corner with arresting crispness during a Manchester City training session a few years back, some players never lose the ability to time a volley. The Welshman accumulated armfuls of sugar-sweet volleys during his playing career, but if any player in the recent history of European football is synonymous with the art of meeting the airborne ball on the full it is Jean-Pierre Papin. The Marseille great scored over 300 goals in his club career, as well as 30 in 54 games for France (a better scoring rate than any French international apart from Platini and Just Fontaine), but what set him apart was less his strike rate, more what his goals were liable to do to the onlooker’s heart rate. He specialised in scorching right-foot volleys, struck with the laces and invariably lashed high into the net past goalkeepers who knew what was coming but could do nothing about it. Even when his form deserted him, his ability to strike a flying ball did not. He scored only three league goals for Bayern Munich during a disappointing two-season stint in Bavaria, but one of those – an encyclopaedia-entry scissors kick against KFC Uerdingen in August 1995 – is remembered as one of the most spectacular goals in Bundesliga history. Noticing the uncanny similarities between a pair of Papin volleys scored in December 1986, against Racing Paris, and May 1988, against Niort, the Le Provençal sports journalist Alain Pécheral coined the term “papinade”. “It came out spontaneously, in a manner just as sudden as the technique itself,” Pécheral would later explain. These days it is used to describe any heart-stopping volley, further enshrining France’s most explosive striker in his country’s cultural history.
passe décisive (n) – decisive pass (assist)
Each season, the Ligue 1 player who has provided the most assists is rewarded with the Trophée du meilleur passeur.
patate (n) – potato
Used to describe a particularly emphatic goal scored from long range. “Quelle patate de Paul Scholes!”
petit filet (n) – side-netting
For British football fans, there are few things more likely to induce a wince than hearing an American commentator refer to the side-netting as being inside the goal, but our trans-Atlantic cousins are not alone in that respect. The French do it, too – in this case using the phrases petit filet and petit filet extérieur to distinguish between the two sides of the netting. Which rather provokes the question, why doesn’t British football writing have a specific phrase for the inside of the side-netting?
petit pont (n) – little bridge (nutmeg)
The little sister of the grand pont, the petit pont is the French name for a nutmeg.
petit poucet (n) – little thumb (underdog)
The name given to unfancied teams, typically amateur or semi-professional sides in cup competitions. Effectively the French equivalent of the English “minnow”.
pieds carrés (n) – square feet
In an insult/term of endearment that recalls the famous 'Blame it on the Boogie' chant sung by Liverpool fans about their Malian dangerman Djimi Traoré (chorus: “He just can’t/He just can’t/He just can’t control his feet!”), useless players in France are said to have pieds carrés or square feet.
roulette (n) – roulette
Synonymous with Zinedine Zidane, the roulette or roulette Marseillaise is a dainty piece of skill used by a player to circumnavigate an opponent moving in to attempt a tackle. In one fluid motion, the player performs a drag-back with his lead foot, spins away from his opponent and then performs a drag-back with the other foot to bring the ball into his direction of travel.
rush (n) – (solo) run
An expression borrowed from English, the rush is a brazen dribble past a posse of opponents (sample YouTube video title: “Le rush INCROYABLE de Lucas Moura!!!”). It can also be described as a raid solitaire.
sentinelle (n) – sentinel
Name given to the midfield player who sits just in front of the back four. Also known as a numéro six.
troisième poteau (n) – third post
Whereas in English we refer to the ‘near post’ and ‘far post’ when describing the relative positions of the uprights during a team’s attack, in French they use premier poteau (first post) and deuxième poteau (second post). Troisième poteau refers to an imagined spot roughly a goal’s width beyond the far post, where an attacker might ghost in to meet a deep cross.
tueur (n) – killer
Used to describe clinical finishing, either by a player or a team. A striker struggling for goals might be heard to say that he needs to be “plus tueur” (“more killer”) in front of goal.
ventre mou (n) – soft belly (mid-table)
Mid-table teams are said to be in the ventre mou of the league standings.
Zlataner (v) – to Zlatan
Charles de Gaulle spoke, famously, of having a “certain idea of France” and in France there is also a certain idea of sport. Winning is all well and good, but nothing quickens the French heart like an artistic flourish. It’s why Roger Federer is liable to receive the backing of the crowds at Roland Garros even when he’s playing against French opponents. It’s why le French flair continues to resonate as the standard towards which all French rugby union teams must aspire. And it’s why Zlatan Ibrahimović was the ideal marquee signing for Paris Saint-Germain following the Qatari takeover in 2011. When Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund set its sights on buying a major European club in 2010, PSG had gone 16 years without a league title and were more famous for fan violence than football. What the Qatar Investment Authority saw was a club with an enormous catchment area, as the only top-flight football team in one of the western world’s most iconic cities, and vast untapped sporting and commercial potential. Having landed their quarry, they set about conferring some of the glamour of Paris the city upon Paris the team. You could conceivably spend your life in Paris without knowing that there is a major football club nestled in its southwest corner, but the Qataris have done what they can to change that, planting their flag in the city centre one sunny afternoon in July 2012 when Ibrahimović, 30 and at the peak of his powers, was presented to a crowd of over-excited teenagers and bemused tourists in front of the Eiffel Tower following his transfer from AC Milan. Here was a player with a bigger trophy collection than the club he had just joined, a natural haughtiness to rival even the snootiest Parisian waiter and, crucially, a playing style that allied elegance and individual skill with jaw-dropping panache. When Ibrahimović brought down a high ball, disdainfully dispatched a penalty or left an opponent trailing with an audacious wiggle of the hips, the purrs from the Parc des Princes could be heard from Sacré Coeur. He did not speak French, but he did not need to. His cocky soundbites were instantly comprehensible to young football fans raised on Hollywood films, American TV shows and gangster rap and seemed tailor-made for rapid dissemination on social media. It did not take long for Les Guignols de l’Info, the satirical puppetry show seen as France’s answer to Spitting Image, to notice the colossal ego in their midst. In his first appearance on the Canal+ programme, Ibrahimović was depicted as the voice of Fifa 13, informing a befuddled teenage gamer who had chosen to play as PSG that he would be playing as “Zlatan” because “PSG is Zlatan”. He continued, “Which opponent do you want to Zlatan?” “OM,” came the reply. “Bravo, you have Zlataned Marseille 2-0.” “But I’ve not even played!” protested the gamer. “No need to play,” replied Ibrahimović. “With Zlatan you’re sure to win.” Embarrassingly, PSG had been beaten to the title by Montpellier the previous season, the first since the Qatar takeover, but the Guignols sketch was to prove prescient. PSG have won every Ligue 1 title since it aired. PSG have Zlataned France and the verb coined by the Guignols has taken on a life of its own. It was added to the Swedish dictionary later in 2012 (zlatanera, meaning ‘to dominate’) while Nike ran a ‘Dare to Zlatan’ advertising campaign in 2014. The City of Love had wrought another perfect match – a dream of a footballer propelling a slumbering club into the sporting firmament.