Why Germany has a unique football vocabulary

The top German idioms for the World Cup

'Kick the cherry in, you whistle!'

German has many different names for the soccer ball. It's called everything from pill to marble, leather, egg, pock or cherry. You'll also hear on the field: "Hau die Kirsche rein, du Pfeife!" which literally translates as: "Kick the cherry in, you whistle!" Even though the referee has the whistle, he's not the one who's being encouraged to score a goal, but rather a weak player.

The top German idioms for the World Cup

Military influence: 'Marksmen' and 'canons'

Many of the soccer terms in German come from the military language of the German Empire when the game was introduced to the country. For instance, the member of the Bundesliga (the national soccer league) who "shoots" (schiessen) the most goals is called the "Torschützenkönig" (goal champion marksman) and is awarded the "Torjägerkanone" (goalgetter canon).

The top German idioms for the World Cup

'Gate' deemed prettier than 'goal'

German teacher Konrad Koch not only imported soccer from England to Germany in the 19th century, he also created the vocabulary for it. After all, the terms were originally in English. In 1903, he wrote in his "Regelheft" (rule book): "We'll replace that ugly foreign word 'goal' with 'Tor' (gate)." But that didn't help the German national team in a match against England in 1909; they lost 0:9.

The top German idioms for the World Cup

Germany's oldest club: BFC Germania 1888

Crafting special German terms for soccer was supposed to make it more popular, as many Germans were opposed to the game in the beginning. They preferred the stricter, more military-like regimen of gymnastics. Many said that the physical movement to "shoot a goal" was "ugly." Gymnastics teacher Karl Planck ranted in 1888 that it was "Fusslümmelei" (slouching or sprawling about with one's feet).

The top German idioms for the World Cup

Nationaltorhüter vs. Nati-Goalie

Many of the terms Konrad Koch wrote in his 1903 rule book are still used today in Germany. That's in contrast to Austria and Switzerland, where they use many of the original English terms. While Manuel Neuer is the German "Nationaltorhüter" (national gatekeeper), his Swiss colleague Yann Sommer (shown here in the green uniform of his Borussia Mönchengladbach club) is called "Nati-Goalie."

The top German idioms for the World Cup

A square thing called shack, hut, box

World champ coach Sepp Herberger once summed up the game: "Das Runde muss ins Eckige" (the round thing has to go into the square thing). And there are plenty of names for the "square thing": a forward scores a "Bude" (shack) or "Hütte" (hut). He may also sink the ball ("den Ball versenken"), shoot past the goal ("verballern") or bang the ball into the meshes ("den Ball in die Maschen knallen").

The top German idioms for the World Cup

An everyday expression: 'Pulling the ass card'

One may "get the short end of the stick," or have bad luck, but in German, it's a bit more crude: "die Arschkarte ziehen" is literally, "pulling the ass card." Such expressions have trickled into everyday language. In the game, so as not to mix the cards up, the ref often pulls the yellow card from his breast pocket, and the red card from his "butt" or "ass" pocket: hence the expression.

The top German idioms for the World Cup

Enthusiastic 'player women'

No, the "Spielerfrauen" are not female soccer players. They are the wives and girlfriends of the players, such as Cathy Hummels (center), the wife of German central defender Mats Hummels. It's rather derogatory, reducing the women to being their husbands' sidekicks. It's not much better in English: "WAGs" is the acronym used to refer to the wives and girlfriends of professional athletes.

The top German idioms for the World Cup

Creative with words: the 'casserole kids'

A lot of German kids love soccer, and play as often as they can. Many also dream of one day holding hands with a soccer star as they walk onto the field, as the escort kids who accompany the players into the stadium. In German, they're called "Auflaufkinder," which literally translates as "casserole kids" in English — but the verb "Auflaufen" also means walking on a football field, hence the name.

The top German idioms for the World Cup

Up and down: the 'elevator team'

Even if a whole team likely won't fit into an elevator, that is what they may be called in German. "Fahlstuhlmannschaft" (literally, an "elevator team") means one that keeps moving up and down in its division position in the soccer league system — like Cologne's 1. FC Köln, that again descended from the first to second division this past season.

The top German idioms for the World Cup

Politicians using sports terms

Politicians also like flowery soccer jargon. "We've shot some great goals, but we haven't won anything yet," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel at her CDU party's convention in 2006. Even though Germany was hosting the World Cup that year, she meant her party's politics and not the matches. But cliches can easily turn into "own goals" (Eigentor schiessen), meaning "shooting oneself in the foot."

It doesn't feel that way now, but Germans weren't enthusiastic about football in the 19th century. Christoph Marx, a World Cup historian, explains how special terms for soccer were developed to change that.

With the FIFA World Cup kicking off on June 14, historian Christoph Marx has recently published a book on the German jargon involved in the realm of soccer.

DW: Mr. Marx, you are an expert on the language of soccer. In Germany, people use the words "Torhüter"  and "Ecke,"  but in Switzerland and Austria, they use the actual English words "goalie" and "corner." Why is that?

Christoph Marx: German teacher Konrad Koch of Braunschweig introduced the game of soccer to Germany in the 19th century, but he made it his passion to create a language for the game in German. After all, at the end of that century, soccer was still considered an English sport in the German Empire. In other words, the enemy's game. Koch made it his task to "Germanize" the linguistic expressions for the game.

So "Torhüter" is used in Germany, and not "goalkeeper," as it is in other German-speaking countries. "Linesman" became "Linienrichter" and "offside" became "Abseits." These are all standard expressions in Germany, but it never came to this purist approach in Switzerland and Austria.

How did the German expressions establish themselves here?

In a typically German way, Konrad Koch wrote up a pamphlet in 1903, a long essay, which all the German soccer clubs had to approve. It was a "rule book" on the German expressions and that's how they came to be used on the soccer fields.

Things were noted down to the smallest detail, like not saying "passen" (pass), but "abgeben" (give up) the ball. A player was therefore not allowed to say "pass the ball to me," but "give it up to me."

That may sound crazy nowadays. But back then, it was a very serious business. You have to realize that there was a great deal of opposition to this game. So it was important to demonstrate that it was not only an English game. At the time, people called soccer an "English illness." It seemed "un-German," while gymnastics were "very German" at the time.

Read more: The German obsession with clubs

Gymnastics had become popular through "gymnastics guru" Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in the middle of the 19th century. Why did sports enthusiasts not welcome soccer with open arms?

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People weren't familiar with soccer yet. It started out as a kind of rugby game in the middle of the 19th century in England, at colleges, and it was considered an elitist game. It was a slow process that allowed it to become popular in Germany in the late 19th century.

There is evidence of the very first soccer game in Germany in Braunschweig in 1874. That is pretty late. And it was still considered obscure, and even into the 20th century it was not always considered a legitimate sport. There was also an educational aspect to it in the beginning — that it was part of one's upbringing and fitness training for military service.

Dresden vs. Berlin, 1892

Speaking of military service: There are a lot of military terms in the German expressions for soccer, like "Tore schiessen" (shooting goals) and "Zweikampf" (in soccer: tackle, but can also mean duel). Why is that?

The language is metaphorical because there is a resemblance in the aim of the game. Football is also about beating the opponent, to conquer and outwit them. Soccer emerged in a period when war was still relatively common. A "battle of attrition" is also a military term. In soccer, the same effect is desired: wearing down the opponent.

German football jargon comes from all sorts of areas: Sometimes it's from the animal world, such as the "Schwalbe" (literal translation: swallow, i.e. the bird; the English term for this type of foul is "diving"), or inspired by the shape of a fruit, as in the "Bananenflanke" (literally, a banana kick; refers to a curl or bend)...

Yes, the swallow… it's a rather elegant bird, and yet it stands for something rather rough in soccer. The "swallow" (the dive) is supposed to represent the movement when one feigns that a foul has been committed.

11 German football terms you should know for the World Cup


This word literally means "swallow," as in the bird, but don't be fooled by the innocent-sounding name. In soccer, a "Schwalbe" is a deliberate dive done by a player after he has either not been hit at all or only slightly touched by an opponent, seeking a penalty or free kick. Players who do this too often or too dramatically are known as a "Schwalbenkönig" — literally, "king of swallows."

11 German football terms you should know for the World Cup


This is the short form of "Schiedsrichter," which refers to one of the most important people at a soccer match: the referee. The team of refs is responsible for the game. They are the ones who decide whether a goal counts and which punishment a player deserves for a foul. Like "Schiri," many abbreviations in German are derived from the first letters of each syllable in a long word.

11 German football terms you should know for the World Cup


This is a tricky move known as a bicycle kick, or an overhead kick or scissors kick. The player throws his body backward up into the air and moves one leg in front of the other in the air in order to kick the ball backwards above head level, without resting on the ground. Its complexity and uncommon performance makes it one of football's most celebrated skills.

11 German football terms you should know for the World Cup


This is the German term for "offside." A player is "abseits" if he is in the opposing team's half of the field and is also nearer to his opponents' goal line than the ball, the defensive players from the opposing team. In case of abseits, the ref awards an indirect free kick to the other team. Impress your friends during the next abseits play with this important German word.

11 German football terms you should know for the World Cup


"Cross" would be an English term for "Flanke." This technique is a delivery from one flank or wing into the opponent's penalty area — usually lofted, although you can also cross a ball low. "Flanke" literally means "flank" or "side." The idea is to get the ball into the danger area in front of goal — and hopefully score shortly thereafter.

11 German football terms you should know for the World Cup


This is a dummy or a feint, when a footballer tries to fool his opponent into thinking he's going to pass or shoot, when his real aim is to get past the defender with the ball. A "Finte" can be a dummied pass or shot, or even a drop of the shoulder trying to send the opponent the wrong way.

11 German football terms you should know for the World Cup


This term literally means "emergency brake." In terms of football, this is the case when a player commits an intentional foul in order to prevent a goal by the opponent team. It's a risky strategy, though. If caught by the referee, the player is punished with a red card and often suspended from the following game too.

11 German football terms you should know for the World Cup


Every team cheers when they are awarded an "Elmeter," or penalty kick, because that's an easy opportunity to score. An "Elfmeter" can be decisive, especially in low-scoring games. It is awarded when a direct foul is committed within the penalty area. A penalty kick is taken from exactly 11 meters (36 feet) away from the goal, on the penalty spot.

11 German football terms you should know for the World Cup


Literally translated, this term would mean "sugary pass." On the pitch, it refers to a skilled pass that is particularly smooth, creative, or well weighted. Some passes are difficult for the receiver to control, a "sugar pass" sticks to their boot. But shouldn't all pros be delivering a "Zuckerpass" all the time?

11 German football terms you should know for the World Cup


When this word is screamed, which is usually is, it sounds more like "TORRR!" Tor, of course, means "goal," though it's otherwise used in German to mean "gate." A goal is scored when the ball crosses the goal line between the goal posts, even if a defending player last touched the ball before it crossed the goal line — in which case it would be an "Eigentor," or "own goal."

11 German football terms you should know for the World Cup

Goldenes Tor

A "Goldenes Tor" is a German term to describe the only goal of a game, in those matches where just one player finds the net. This is not to be mistaken with the now-defunct golden goal rule, which has an entirely different meaning. This rule applied only to games that go to extra time — and decreed that the first goal scored in extra time ended the match. It was broadly dropped in 2004.

Because it's known as "diving" in English, the British press called former national coach for Germany, Jürgen Klinsmann, "the diver."

Yes, exactly. There was an ironic element to all of that, and which was appealing to the British. And he would always make an ironic reference to it after scoring goals when he played himself — by sliding across the field. That really developed from the cultural context at the time. And it just established itself, without anyone being able to say who actually invented it. After that, everyone was using the expression.

Read more: 10 very German passions

Former player and national coach Jürgen Klinsmann "taking a dive"

What role do journalists and the public play in establishing terms?

Journalists have of course played a huge role in creating new terms, as well as social media. For instance, the term "Abstiegsgespenst" (specter of relegation). Such terms which journalists have coined end up sticking, and are used by everyone because they are very apt and clever.

You explained earlier that initially, German soccer jargon aimed to clearly distinguish itself from English. Are things reversing now, with terms such as "one touch soccer" or "derby" for instance being used in German?

Yes, that is the case. "Derby" is an English word, of course. It also stems from the fact that everything has become more international. It used to be that it was primarily German coaches in the Bundesliga, and they spoke German. But now there are coaches from other countries who are not fluent in German, but they still try to speak the language to integrate themselves more. And then strange new terms develop in this "globalization speak."

For instance, the phrase that former Bayern coach Giovanni Trappatoni once said: "ich habe fertig" [correct German uses the verb "sein" (am) and not "habe" (have) to express "I have finished"], which has become part of everyday language.

Read more: 

Historian Christoph Marx

Exactly. That can almost be put in the Duden dictionary: Everyone knows what it means, even though it is grammatically incorrect. Just like with "no-look pass." That's a mixture of English and German which has developed from players who speak different languages.

What is your favorite term in soccer jargon?

One of my absolute favorites in the famous "soccer god" because it expresses a bit of wisdom: the part that remains incalculable, capricious, irrational, emotional, despite all of the scientification surrounding the sport. That term expresses all that in a very ironic way and yet is very apt.

Read more:  11 of our favorite football films

What do you think? Will the upcoming World Cup see a new soccer jargon developing? Since Germany's surreal winning match over Brazil in 2014,7-1 has become a familiar phrase…

Yes, that's great. You only have to say "seven to one" and it's an immediate symbol for complete catastrophe. But there will not be another 7-1 again; I would bet on that. Who would have ever thought there would have been a 7-1 at all? But that's soccer. And it's now the phrase of all phrases.

Christoph Marx is the author of the book Der springende Punkt ist der Ball. Die wundersame Sprache des Fußballs (The springing point is the ball: The wonderful language of football), 2018.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

1930: Once upon a time…

The first football World Cup took place in Uruguay in 1930. Most teams came from North, Central and South America; only four European teams showed up, making the long journey by steamship. The host country won against its archrival, Argentina, in the final by 4-2. Aczel's illustration shows the teams' captains, Jose Nasazzi (Uruguay, at left) and Manuel Ferreira, lead their teams onto the field.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

1954: Miracle of Bern

The first World Cup after World War II took place in Switzerland. In the preliminary, Germany lost against top team Hungary and its star, Ferenc Puskas, 3-8. But the final was a different story as Germany beat Hungary 3-2, becoming world champions for the very first time. Pictured above are Fritz Walter (left) and trainer Sepp Herberger on the shoulders of enthusiastic fans.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

1966: One and only

England, largely seen as the birthplace of football, has only been World Cup champion once — in 1966, when the tournament took place on British soil. In the final, England won against Germany 4-2. Controversy still surrounds the famous "Wembley goal" that England scored in the 101st minute in extra time. Pictured above is Bobby Moore holding up the cherished cup.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

1970: Three cheers for Pele

This year, Brazil was world champion for the third time. Pele, one of the 20th century's iconic football stars, led his team to victory over Italy 4-1, after the Brazilians had scored 19 sensational goals in only six games. West Germany came in third after beating Uruguay 1-0. 1970 was also the first year that the tournament could be watched on TV in color.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

1974: Beckenbauer vs. Cruyff

The first World Cup to take place in Germany saw some premieres. Germany's top star Franz Beckenbauer played against the equally venerated Johan Cruyff of the Netherlands, and West Germany played against East Germany. It was also the first tournament to feature the new cup. In the final, Germany won against the Netherlands 2-1, with "bomber of the nation" Gerd Müller scoring the decisive goal.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

1986: Hand of God

This year's outing in Mexico is still remembered for the show put on by Argentine superstar Diego Maradona. Thanks to his ingenuity and finesse, Argentina was champion for the second time. Maradona scored breathtaking, but also controversial, goals, including one where he shot the ball into the goal by hand, and the "goal of the century," which saw him dribble past five English players.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

1990: Spit attack

Germany celebrated its third World Cup win in Italy following a 1-0 victory against Argentina. What may be best remembered, however, is when Dutch player Frank Rijkaard (right) spit on Germany's Rudi Völler as they faced off in the in the round of 16. Both players had to leave the field after a scuffle.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

2006: Zidane goes ballistic

This year's World Cup was celebrated throughout host country Germany as its "Sommermärchen," or "summer fairy tale." In the final, Italy won against France in a penalty shootout. The game's worst moment occurred when French captain Zinedine Zidane knocked down Italian player ​Marco Materazzi with a head-butt. The ensuing dismissal ended his extraordinary career.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

2010: Tiki-taka for the win

In South Africa, Spain dominated its rivals with its tiki-taka style, constantly passing the ball. In the final, Spain beat the Netherlands 1-0, celebrating the biggest success in its soccer history. The winning goal was scored by Andres Iniesta (front row, No. 6) during overtime. Germany came in third, after defeating Uruguay 3-2.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

2014: King of dribbling

The hero of the last tournament, which took place in Brazil, was Argentina's star Lionel Messi. Thanks to him, Argentina reached the final to face off against Germany — which had decisively defeated the host nation 7-1 in the semifinals.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

2014: Four-star team

Around 75,000 fans filled the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro for the final between Germany and Argentina. Germany won 1-0 in overtime — and for the very first time, a European team succeeded in taking home the trophy on South American soil.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

2018: Controversial cup

This year's host country is Russia, a controversial choice in the wake of the FIFA corruption scandal and accusations of doping. Russia will face off against Saudi Arabia on opening day in Moscow on June 14. The final will take place just over a month later, on July 15, in the same place — Luzhniki Stadium.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

Comic trip through history

World Cup 1930-2018, an illustrated history, is published by Edel Books. The book chronicles the unforgettable moments of the 88-year history of the tournament, with witty comics and humorous texts. The cover features many stars of the 2018 edition, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Manuel Neuer, Lionel Messi and Neymar.

FIFA World Cup: An illustrated history

Man with the pen

German Aczel, the Argentine artist behind the book, began his career in his hometown Buenos Aires, where he worked for the sports magazine El Grafico. He moved to Germany at age 26, and now lives in Munich. Currently, he works for British soccer magazine FourFourTwo.