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Of game changers and moving goalposts – football idioms in the English language

Football (or soccer, for avoidance of doubt) is one of those odd sports that tend to polarize: you either love it or you hate it. No matter whether you’re a lover or a hater, you will come across plenty of football-related idioms in everyday life. This is not in the least surprising, considering that The Football League was founded in England as early as 1888, making it the world’s first professional football competition (boring fact for the haters among you).

Football has been one of the most popular sports ever since the 19th century, although I dare add that the level of popularity largely depends on the performance of your nation’s team. This means we’ve had a good 120 years to steal words and phrases from the world of football and re-purpose them. It seems that they are particularly popular in both business and political contexts. While not all of these idioms necessarily originated in football, here’s a short tour of some of the idioms in use in the English language today which sound equally at home on or off the pitch.

to keep one’s eye on (or to take one’s eye off) the ball – to keep (or fail to keep) one’s attention focused on the matter in hand: ‘If you want to be successful in this job, you have to keep your eye on the ball’. / ‘He took his eye off the ball for only one second and the rival company snatched the deal away from him’.

to watch from the sidelines – a position where someone is observing a situation rather than being directly involved in it: ‘Harry was taken off the project, because he was watching from the sidelines rather than getting involved’.

to kick something off – to begin or cause something to begin: ‘We’re meeting for the first time today to kick off the project and to determine what needs to be done’.

to move the goalposts – to unfairly alter the conditions or rules of a procedure during its course: ‘Olivia quit her job because her employer kept moving the goalposts about her promotion prospects’.

a political football – a topical issue that is the subject of continued argument or controversy: ‘Retirement age is a real political football in the European Union’.

to be on the ball – aware of and quick to respond to new ideas and methods: ‘I am not really on the ball today because I didn’t get any sleep last night’.

to kick someone around – to treat someone roughly or without respect: ‘I am really tired of John kicking me around like this’.

to score an own goal – an act that unintentionally harms one’s own interests: ‘Mary really scored an own goal when she quit her job before signing her new contract’.

at this stage in the game – at this point: ‘I don’t think there is anything we can do at this stage in the game’.

league – a class or category of quality or excellence: ‘Kat is so intelligent and good looking. She’s absolutely out of my league’.

to take sides – to support one person or cause against another or others in a dispute or contest: ‘I refuse to take sides in this argument, you will have to work this one out yourself’.

to blow the whistle on someone – to bring an illicit activity to an end by informing on the person responsible: ‘It looks like they fired her because she threatened to blow the whistle on their illegal activities’.

a game plan – a strategy worked out in advance: ‘We have to come up with a good game plan if we want to beat the competition’.

to know the score – to be aware of the essential facts about a situation: ‘I was going to update Jane on the situation, but she already knows the score’.

a game changer – an event, idea, or procedure that effects a significant shift in the current way of doing or thinking about something: ‘The recent upturn in sales could be a real game changer for the business’.

Of course this is only a small selection, but as insignificant or useless they may seem to you now, they will most definitely come in handy at some stage in the game. For more fascinating idioms, originating from all areas of life, have a leaf through the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms.

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