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

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

Say that to any of the traveling fans, however, and they won’t be happy.

Sporting is not, as the English-speaking press regularly calls it, “Sporting Lisbon”. They are officially Sporting Clube de Portugal or Sporting CP or simply Sporting. While this mistake was once overlooked and forgiven, Sporting fans have become more combative in recent years. A fan-launched and club-backed ‘NOT Sporting Lisbon’ social media campaign in 2016 made this clear.

Something similar happened with the club informally known as Athletic Bilbao. Ahead of their visit to Manchester United in 2012, a memorable game thanks to the Basques’ dominance at Old Trafford inspired by Marcelo Bielsa, the club released a statement reminding everyone that their name is Athletic Club or Athletic, but absolutely not Athletic Bilbao. ‘.

Wayne Rooney scores for Manchester against Athletic Bilbao in 2012 (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

But why is this happening? Is it English ignorance? Is it something worse? Or is it just convenient to provide the location of the club?

The first thing to remember is that it’s unfamiliar for English fans to come across a club name that has no geographic reference. Of the 92 Football League clubs, it is generally accepted that there are only two that do not have a place name. Port Vale and Arsenal. Even then Arsenal were once known as ‘Woolwich Arsenal’ as 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 geographic area. We’re not used to seeing clubs with more generic names like Sporting Club or Athletic Club. However, this is largely an English phenomenon – Scotland and Ireland, for example, both have multiple club names that do not include a geographical indication.

So that alone is no excuse for doing something wrong. But the further complication is that both Sporting and Athletic are English words and not Portuguese, Spanish or Basque. And while for someone in Lisbon ‘Sporting’ necessarily means the club playing green and white at the Alvalade, it’s less clear in England. There is also Sporting Gijon, for example, across the border to Spain. Although even then, of course, we could 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 is unique to Spain. It’s not hard to imagine why the Spaniards would think that “Athletic” would suffice on its own, but the English at least need a little more context 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 Belgrade’, although none of these cities feature in the club’s official name.

That means it’s less common than it used to be. ‘Glasgow Celtic’ and ‘Glasgow Rangers’ were common until relatively recently, although they are now frowned upon. They’re just Celtic and Rangers. Of course there are a number of other clubs that use the word ‘Rangers’, particularly in Scotland. Some reports of Michael Beale’s decision to join Queens Park Rangers included the phrase “Rangers from Glasgow” to avoid confusion, which felt particularly clunky.

Elsewhere in Europe, Young Boys were once routinely called “Young Boys Bern” and it was fairly common to hear, for example, Norwegian clubs being referred to as “Viking Stavanger” and “Rosenberg Trondheim”, the latter being a fun example because the club was probably better known than the city, at least for English football fans.

A more egregious usage in the 1990s was the occasional sight of Lazio being referred to as “Lazio Roma”, which was disturbing both because it included the name of their rivals and because Lazio is the region of Italy that contains Rome and it feels particularly odd listing the region before the city.

Elsewhere in Italy, the club is called Internazionale or simply Inter, while the English often choose ‘Inter Milan’, although the club’s full name is Internazionale Milano, at least in this example.

Not all clubs suffer this fate. We don’t think it necessary to add anything geographic to Juventus, Galatasaray, Real Sociedad, Real Betis or Schalke.

There are some interesting special cases. We once uniformly 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.

Another is Dutch club AZ, often referred to as AZ Alkmaar in English-speaking media. But AZ itself stands for Alkmaar Zaanstreek, so we actually call them Alkmaar Zaanstreek Alkmaar (and Zaanstreek refers to the Zaan district, just to make things more complex). It would essentially be like referring to the French club as ‘PSG Paris’.

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

“Bayern Munich” is another curious situation. Munich is of course the English word for Munich. But we don’t translate Bayern, that’s the German region we call Bayern. So the English name for the club is half German, half English. If we were consistent, we would choose all-German Bayern Munich or all-English Bayern Munich. (A further complication arises when you see that Italian-language publications refer to the German champions as Bayern Monaco. Fortunately, Bayern and Monaco have never played each other in an official competition).

This raises another question as to whether the English name of a city should also be used for the club name. The English words for the cities of Lyon and Marseille were formerly Lyons and Marseilles, which are rarely used today. Nevertheless, an English newspaper also uses these words for the football clubs. Seville is still sometimes referred to as ‘Seville’, although Roma are rarely called ‘Rome’ these days.

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

It needs a bit of untangling. The club uses the English “Milan” instead of “Milano” because it was founded by an Englishman and the name stuck. So the question really is: should an Englishman 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’ meets ‘Chelsea London’ in a Champions League match in 2010 (Photo by Massimo Cebrelli/Getty Images)

Historically, foreign-language media were occasionally seen, especially in Germany, and English clubs were referred to as “Chelsea London” or “Arsenal London”. This felt bizarre at first but also seemed delightfully quaint, a reminder that these clubs were totally unknown to some overseas readers and a little geographic context would help place these clubs.

It’s becoming less and less common, just as we probably see less of, say, ‘PSV Eindhoven’ in the English media – there is no other PSV and we know where PSV is coming from. That probably speaks to our improved knowledge of foreign football in the age of globalized reporting. In a broader sense, there can’t be an easier way to learn basic geography than being a passionate football fan.

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

Also, for some of us today, the word “Sporty” mostly means the publication you’re reading.

(Photo above: Octavio Passos/Getty Images)

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