• Mon. Mar 27th, 2023

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From Sporting Lisbon to Athletic Bilbao — why do we get the names of foreign clubs wrong?

The Athletic

After an entertaining 2-2 draw in Portugal last week, there is much to look forward to in the second leg between Arsenal and Sporting Lisbon.

Tell that to any traveling fan though and they won’t be happy.

Sports are not “Sporting Lisbon”, as they are regularly referred to in the English-speaking press. They are officially Sporting Clube de Portugal, or Sporting CP, or simply Sporting. Once this error was overlooked and forgiven, sports fans in recent years have become more militant about it. A “NOT Sporting Lisbon” social media campaign in 2016, launched by fans and supported by the club, made this clear.

Something similar happened at the club informally called Athletic Bilbao. Before their visit to Manchester United in 2012, a memorable game thanks to the Basques’ Marcelo Bielsa-inspired dominance at Old Trafford, the club released a statement reminding everyone that their The sports associationor Athletic, but not ‘Athletic Bilbao’ at all.

Wayne Rooney scores for Manchester United against Athletic Bilbao in 2012 (Image: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

But why does this happen? Is it English ignorance? Is there anything more sinister? Or is it just convenient to include the location of the club?

First, it’s worth considering the fact that for English fans, it’s unfamiliar to come across a club name that doesn’t have a geographical reference. Of the 92 Football League clubs, it is generally accepted that there are only two that do not bear the name of the place; Port Vale and Arsenal. Even then, Arsenal were once known as ‘Woolwich Arsenal’ when they played in this area of ​​south London, before moving north to Islington in 1913.

But every other English club is named after a city, town, borough, county or some sort of territory. We are not used to meeting clubs with more general names, such as Sporting Club or Athletic Club. That said, this is largely an English phenomenon – Scotland and Ireland, for example, both have some club names that don’t include geography.

So that in itself is no excuse for getting things wrong. But a further complication is that both Sporting and Athletic are English words, rather than Portuguese or Spanish or Basque. And so, while “Sporting” to someone in Lisbon absolutely means the club that plays in the green and white of the Alvalade, it’s less clear in England. There is also Sporting Gijon, across the border to Spain, for example. Although even then we could of course use Sporting Club de Portugal instead of Sporting Lisbon.

For Athletic Club, it’s even more complicated. Again, Athletic is a common word in English – see Charlton, Oldham and Wigan — but unique in Spain. It’s not hard to imagine why the Spanish see ‘Athletic’ as doing the job on its own, but the English need a bit more context, at least in certain situations.

And all of this is more common than we probably think. We often hear ‘PSV Eindhoven’, ‘Zenit Saint Petersburg’, ‘CSKA Moscow’ and ‘Partizan Belgrad’, despite the fact that none of these cities are included in the club’s official name.

That said, it’s less common than it used to be. ‘Glasgow Celtic’ and ‘Glasgow Rangers’ were commonly heard until relatively recently, although they are now frowned upon. They simply are Celtic and Rangers. There are of course several other clubs that use the word “Rangers”, particularly in Scotland. Some news on Michael Beale’s decision to join Rangers from Queens Park Rangers had the phrase “Glasgow-based Rangers”, to avoid any confusion, which was considered particularly clunky.

Elsewhere in Europe, Young Boys were once commonly called “Young Boys Bern” and it was quite common to hear for example Norwegian clubs called “Viking Stavanger” and “Rosenberg Trondheim”, the latter being a funny example because club was probably more famous than the city, at least for English football fans.

More radical usage from the 1990s occasionally saw Lazio being referred to as “Lazio Roma”, which was worrying both because it included the name of their rivals, and because Lazio is the region of Italy that includes Rome, and is considered particularly odd to list area before city.

Elsewhere in Italy is the company International or simply Inter, but the English often go by ‘Inter Milan’, although at least in this example the full name of the club is Internazionale Milano.

Not all clubs suffer this fate. We don’t feel the need to add anything geographical like JuventusGalatasaray, Real Sociedad, Real Betis or Schalke.

There are some interesting special cases. We once referred to Crvena Zvezda as “Red Star Belgrade” and not only added the city name but also translated the rest into English. Now it is more and more common to see the Serbian name.

The other is the Dutch club AZ, often referred to as AZ Alkmaar in the English media. But AZ itself stands for Alkmaar Zaanstreek, so we’re actually calling them Alkmaar Zaanstreek Alkmaar (and Zaanstreek refers to the Zaan district, just to make things more complicated). It would essentially be like referring to the French club as “PSG Paris”.

The Swedish club AIK is referred to both as ‘AIK Solna’ (which is not their name) and ‘AIK Stockholm’ (which is geographically incorrect). Perhaps this is to differentiate them from the Greek club AEK, whom we inevitably refer to as “AEK Athens”.

“Bayern Munich” is another curious position. Munich is the English word for Munich, of course. But we don’t translate Bayern the same way, which is the German region we refer to as Bavaria. So the English name of the club is half German, half English. If we were stable, we would go to the all-German Bayern Munich or the all-English Bavaria Munich. (Another complication comes when you see Italian publications refer to the German champions as Bayern Monaco. Fortunately, Bayern and Monaco have never played each other in an official competition).

That opens another can of worms as to whether the English name of a city should also be used for the name of the club. The English words for the cities of Lyon and Marseille used to be Lyon and Marseille, which are rarely used these days. Even so, one English newspaper still uses these words about the football clubs as well. Seville are sometimes still referred to as ‘Seville’, although you rarely see Roma called ‘Rome’ these days.

All of this also extends to pronunciation. Should an English speaking supporter submit AC Milan as “Mil-an”, as in the English name of the city, or “Mee-lan”, how the Italians pronounce the name of the club?

It requires a bit of a refresher. The club uses the English “Milano” rather than “Milano”, because it was founded by an Englishman and the name stuck. So really, the question is: should an English person copy the Italian pronunciation of the English name for an Italian city? The answer is debatable, but under no circumstances should they ever be simply “AC”.

Inter Milan take on Chelsea London in the 2010 Champions League (Photo: Massimo Cebrelli/Getty Images)

Historically, you would sometimes see foreign media, especially in Germany, refer to English clubs as “Chelsea London” or “Arsenal London”. This struck you as puzzling the first time you encountered it, but also felt delightfully odd and served as a reminder that these clubs were completely unfamiliar to some foreign readers, and a bit of geographical context would help them locate these clubs.

It’s increasingly rare, just as we probably see less of, say, “PSV Eindhoven” in the English media — there’s no other PSV, and we know where PSV is from. It probably speaks to our increased knowledge of foreign football in the era of global coverage. More broadly, there can be few simpler ways to learn basic geography than by being an avid football fan.

We are likely to see Sporting and Athletic’s city names used less frequently than in past decades, although those supporters may continue to be frustrated by the occasional mention.

Besides, for some of us, the word “Athletic” now mostly means the publication you’re reading right now.

(Top photo: Octavio Passos/Getty Images)

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