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Diego Maradona: From foul play to word play

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JUNE 22: Diego Maradona of Argentina uses his hand to score the first goal of his team during a 1986 FIFA World Cup Quarter Final match between Argentina and England at Azteca Stadium on June 22, 1986 in Mexico City, Mexico. Maradona later claimed that the goal was scored by 'The Hand Of God'. (Photo by Archivo El Grafico/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL revisits a traumatic day in English football history to track down some etymological roots

On June 22, 1986, in a World Cup quarter-final football match played between England and Argentina in Mexico City, the Argentinian player Diego Maradona knocked the ball into the England net with his hand and claimed a goal – which was incorrectly awarded by the match officials. Argentina won the match 2-1, and England were eliminated from the tournament.

Many England football supporters might agree that what Maradona did that day constituted an act which was “grossly offensive, physically loathsome, and indicative of putridity and corruption” – which is part of the dictionary definition of the word foul. Technically speaking, of course, a foul in football is something rather less than grossly offensive. Handling the ball in soccer is simply an offence against the rules of the game. But that so-called “hand of God” goal is still capable of arousing strong feelings on the part of aggrieved England supporters: Synonyms for the adjective foul which they might agree with include tainted, filthy, noxious, gross, rank, polluted, abominable, wicked, obscene, defiled, ugly, shameful and disgraceful.

The word foul goes back to the Old English fúl – ‘dirty, offensive, morally polluted’. In modern Dutch, vuil means ‘dirty, filthy’, while in Danish ful means ‘nasty, ugly’. German faul denotes ‘rotten, decayed, putrid’ but also ‘lazy, indolent, slothful’. These words all stem from an Ancient Germanic root fulo-, derived from an earlier form fu- which was related to the Latin words pus, ‘purulent matter’, putere, ‘to stink’ and puter, ‘rotten’. Pus and putrid have now also become English words so – very fittingly, some football supporters might think in the Mexico City context – English putrid and foul have the same origin.

However, over the centuries, the meaning of foul has weakened in many situations, including in sporting contexts, where the word generally now simply means ‘against the rules’ – foul is the opposite of fair. A foul ball in baseball is one that a batter hits beyond the foul line, which is drawn from the home plate through the first and third bases. In snooker, a foul stroke occurs when a player hits the wrong ball or does not hit a ball at all. In football, foul was originally an abbreviation of foul play – the phrase foul throw is still used for a throw-in which is illegally executed.

Our English-language football term has been borrowed into a number of other languages, with various spellings. Turkish and Polish both have faul, while in Maltese it appears as fawl. In Greek it is phaoul, which also translates as ‘free kick’. Swedish has foul; and the German form Foul can also, as in English, be a verb: Shilton wurde gefoult, ‘Shilton was fouled’. The two German words, faul and Foul, have the same ultimate origin, but today they have two quite different meanings.

In Maradona’s native Spanish, the word for a foul is the much more innocent sounding falta, which has the same root as fault – these two words both come from Latin fallita, ‘failing, falling short’, from the verb fallere, ‘to fail’.

If committed by a defender in the penalty area, a foul, phaoul, faul, fawl or falta should lead to the award of a penalty, a term which came into English via French from Latin penalitas, ‘punishment’. Penalitas is derived from Classical Latin poena, ‘revenge, unpleasant consequence, suffering’, which was borrowed from Ancient Greek poiné, ‘blood money’.

In the case of football, the unpleasant consequence simply takes the form of an attacking player being allowed to take a free shot, from a distance of 12 yards, at the goal defended only by the goalkeeper. In most cases no blood is involved – but of course it is genuinely a form of vengeance, and if a goal is scored, as is the case somewhat more often than 80% of the time in the English Premier League, a certain amount of pain and suffering may ensue for the defending team.