Long-time readers know that I am a huge fan of European soccer. When I have the time, there is just about nothing else that I would rather do than watch a match in one of the top leagues. Part of the reason I enjoy it so much is that the games just flow. The clock starts and play continues, without timeouts or interruptions. Quite a contrast to American football, in which eleven minutes of action are crammed into three hours of watch time. I also like the European clubs’ rivalries, their fans’ enthusiasm, and the sudden bursts of sheer athletic brilliance that frequently result in goals.
And I also like the players’ names. I know that the players are not chosen for their names, but for some reason the game attracts so many players with names that are distinctive, musical, or audacious. It starts with players like Robert Snodgrass, the Scot who now plays for Hull City in the English Championship League, and Lee Cattermole, who plays for Sunderland in the Premier League. These players’ are among those whose names I find that I can’t hear without involuntarily repeating them. Here’s what I sound like watching either of these player’s teams play: “Snodgrass!” “Cattermole!”
Other players whose names have this same compelling effect on me include Bastian Schweinsteiger, the German who now plays for Manchester United; Per Mertesacker, another German who plays for Arsenal; and Stephan Lichtsteiner, the Swiss who plays for Juventus, in the Italian Serie A.
The practice in my house of repeating these players’ names is now so well-established that when, for example, Arsenal is playing, my wife will call out “Mertesacker!”from across the house before I have even had a chance to echo the announcer’s call. In our house, by the way, the first syllable of Mertesaker’s name is said a full octave higher than the rest of the name. “MER-tuh-sack-er!” Our opportunities to say Mertesaker’s name were diminished during Arsenal’s game against Chelsea this past Sunday, because Mertesacker was hit with a red-card after Chelsea’s Diego Costa reacted to Mertesacker’s challenge as if he (Costa) had been pole-axed — even though Mertesaker appeared to make little or no contact with Costa.
Then there are the players whose names themselves provide their own repetition. Here, I am thinking of players like Yaya Touré, the Ivorian who plays for Manchester City, and the Senegalese player Demba Ba, who formerly played in the English Premier League but now plays in China. And speaking of player names with repeating syllables, who could ever top a name like Gigi Boffon, the veteran Italian goalkeeper for Juventus. O.K., I know his given name is Gianluigi, but he goes by Gigi. Buffon is a great goalkeeper, which is a very good thing, because otherwise some might assume that, with that name, he is the lead act in a cross-dresser revue.
There are also the players whose names are complete symphonies. The Bundesliga team Borussia Dortmund boasts several of these musically-named players, including the French-born Gabonese player who is scoring so many goals this year, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (pronounced “Oh-BAH-mah-yong”); his teammate, the Armenian, Henrikh Mkhitaryan (pronounced “Mick-it-tar-ee-yan”); and especially Dortmund midfielder İlkay Gündoğan (“Ilk-eye Gun-duh-wahn”). This list also includes the French-born Argentine Gonzalo Higuaín (pronounced “Eee-gwah-een”), who now plays for Napoli in the Serie A league. At the very top of this list of musical names is Benoît Assou-Ekotto (“Ben-WAH Ah-sue-ee-kah-toe”), the French-born Cameroonian who now plays for Saint-Etienne in the French Ligue 1.
For some reason, goalkeepers seem to have particularly melodious names, including Thibaut Courtois (“Tee-boh Cur-twah”), the Belgian goalkeeper who plays his club football for Arsenal; Simon Mingnolet (“See-moan Mean-you-lay”), the Belgian goalkeeper for Liverpool; and Costel Pantilimon (“Koh-stell Pan-till-ee-MOAN”), the Romanian goalkeeper for Watford, in the English Premier League.
It is not just the players; in some cases, the team names themselves vie for attention. I am particularly fond of En Avant de Guingamp, a team in the French Ligue 1 (usually referred to simply as Guingamp, pronounced “Geen-GOMP”). One team with a more mellifluous name is the Spanish second division team, Real Racing de Santander (“Ree-AHL rah-SING de Sahn-tahn-dur,” usually just referred to as Santander). And finally there is the Bundesliga team whose name sounds like a short sonata for percussion instruments, Borussia Mönchengladbach (“Boh-roos-ya Muhn-shun-glad-back” – usually abbreviated in print as M’Gladbach). Gladbach’s squad includes one of my nominees for the all-name team, the young Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Dahoud (“Mock-mood Dah-who-d”).
Within the entertaining procession of names, there are at least a couple of names that stand out because no one seems to agree how to pronounce them.
First, there is Louis van Gaal, the embattled manager for Manchester United. van Gaal is having a tough season at the club’s helm. It probably doesn’t help that there is no real consensus on how to pronounce his name. Some pronounce it “Van GALL,” while others perhaps sensing that there is more to it than that, pronounce it as “Van HALL.” Neither of these standard versions is correct. The Manchester United manager’s full name is pronounced “loo-EE vun KHAAL” – or at least the club’s manager’s name is correctly pronounced that way until van Gaal gets sacked, which could be soon, given Manchester United’s loss this past weekend to Southampton. The defeat followed United’s late stages substitution into the match of the young Belgian striker and another nominee for the all-name team, Adnan Januzaj (“Yan-oo-zigh”), who came onto the pitch and immediately committed a pointless foul, setting up a free kick from which Southampton scored the goal that gave it the winning 1-0 margin.
Then there is the German mid-field player for Arsenal, Mesut Özil. Özil is a silky smooth player, but his name gives the English-language announcers absolute fits. Different announcers call it as “oh-zool,” while others say “uh-zool,” and still others say “uhr-zuhl.” The correct pronunciation of his full name, which almost no one gets right, is “may-suit uh-zeal,” according to Özil himself. To bring this exciting episode of The Name Game to a close, here is a YouTube recording of Özil pronouncing his name: