Linguistics

Underdogs, curses and ‘Neymaresque’ histrionics: what’s got us talking during this year’s World Cup?

Lauren Ward

The research team here at Cambridge have been following the language used during the World Cup closely and can reveal the top words and themes to come from this year’s tournament, including underdogs and the ‘Curse of the Holder‘. For the first time this year, our research into the language of sport also included an open call to fans to give us their own views on the national teams taking part. This resulted in ‘young’ England, Argentina’s ‘Messi’ and ‘diving’ Brazil all featuring heavily in the People’s Corpus.

On Sunday, the ‘formidable‘ France claimed victory over the ‘dark-horse’ Croatian team to become the winners of the 2018 FIFA World Cup™ in Russia. But which teams came out on top in the media? Building on similar research conducted during the 2014 World Cup, our researchers mined over 12 million words of media coverage, to analyse the language used when discussing the various teams over the course of this year’s tournament. Comparison with the language collected in 2014 shows that, whilst traditionally successful teams such as Brazil have gone from ‘stylish’ to ‘nervous’ and Argentina from having ‘flair’ to ‘struggling’, World Cup 2018 underdogs such as England have gone from being ‘inexperienced’ to ‘confident’.

Key themes from this year’s World Cup

There has been no shortage of surprises during this year’s competition, and this shines through in the language data. Expressions such as ‘premature exit’ reflect that several of the predicted favourites haven’t fared as well as expected, with the odd ‘unforgivable blunder’ making an appearance, too.

The data reflects that several teams have defied expectations – the word ‘underdogs’ features frequently in media reports, along with related language like ‘plucky’, ‘determined’, and ‘punch above their weight’ also making an appearance.

As fans ‘root‘ for their home teams, the verb ‘overcome‘ is commonly found alongside words such as ‘obstacles’, ‘hurdles‘ and ‘adversity‘. Even England’s long-standing ‘penalty curse‘ has been ‘overcome‘, whereas previous champions Germany fell victim to the ‘curse of the holders‘.

Despite the introduction Video Assisted Referee (VAR) technology for the first time, bad behaviour still abounds; the word ‘histrionics’ is prominent in the data across the media and the with the fans – often found alongside adjectives such as ‘ridiculous‘, ‘headline-grabbing‘, and ‘amateurish‘. Thanks to the particularly dramatic moves from a forward on the Brazil nation team, a new term has even been coined: ‘neymaresque’.

Top 3 words per team

As well as analysing the language used by journalists and media commentators, we’ve been asking fans to submit the words they would use to describe their national teams.

It’s been great to see the correlation between the language used by the media and the descriptive words submitted by football fans. We’ve combined these two datasets to select the three words most strongly associated with each team!

Team Words
Argentina Messi
scraped
struggled
Australia head home
bow out
failed
Belgium eased
star-studded
cruised
Brazil favourite(s)
nervous
expect
Colombia dangerous
unsporting
struggled
Costa Rica eliminated
suffered
Navas
Croatia dark horse
dominate
impress
Denmark penalty
propel
concede
Egypt happy
hope
lack
England Southgate
confident
fresh
France formidable
dramatic
lucky
Germany upset
stunned
eliminated
Iceland debutants
surprise
newcomer
Iran underdog
ambitious
VAR
Japan heartbroken
emotional
clean
Mexico thumped
thrashed
stunned
Morocco fined
eliminated
upset
Nigeria fail
struggle
kit
Panama pitiful
Minnows
bully
Peru struggle
missed
waste
Poland fail
suffer
concede
Portugal thrilling
hat-trick
Ronaldo
Russia low-ranking
host
fans
Saudi Arabia happy
defeat
thrashing
Senegal yellow cards
partying
stunned
Serbia controversial
gesture
dominate
South Korea plucky
skill
hope
Spain sack
frustrate
fail
Sweden impressive
clinched
dominate
Switzerland battle
held
secure
Tunisia redeemed
failed
keeper
Uruguay dangerous
success
defence

Find out how you can bring sport psychology into the language learning classroom by checking out this article by Christine Muir.


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