It's a phrase which is regularly repeated throughout the world to describe football. Ian Plenderleith looks at its numerous appearances in modern sport writing to decide if the game really is beautiful 

God curse Pelé for the beautiful game. Not for having played it, but for having said it. The cliche has become so entrenched in football writing, it’s almost as though some all-powerful totalitarian linguist had banned the word “football” from public use, and we have developed this cunning euphemism instead. Never mind that football, like any other sport, is only beautiful in rare, fleeting moments. And disregard all those other profound authors from the past two decades who’ve been telling us that football is in fact more than a game. There are numerous books, columns and websites which have co-opted the five syllables as their main moniker. We can presume they all thought they were the first.

A Google news search for one recent month revealed 268 hits for The Pelé Phrase. In the space of just 28 days, over 250 writers looked out of the window, or out of the press-box, momentarily stuck, and mused; “What was it Pelé called football again? Ah yes...” The results (without even daring to look at what a blog search would yield) can be broken down into five ways the phrase has been exploited by our finest word doctors, and reflect how the sheer volume of the internet has diluted quality and imagination in sports writing. Not to mention a blind acceptance that whatever the deity Pelé said must contain inherent truth, football’s very own three-word bible.

1. The poetic match report
“The beautiful game can be cruel at times,” John Walsh of the Workington Times and Star was moved to comment following the Workington Reds’ 1-0 defeat at Tamworth, inspired by a Gareth Sheldon goal on 75 minutes (possibly offside, and following a possible foul on Kyle May, who “lay prone” as Tamworth scored that fatal goal). Further south, for Paul Wreyford of the Barnet & Potters Bar Times, Barnet’s 4-1 victory over Bradford City “highlighted the wonderful unpredictability of the ‘beautiful game’”. That’s in unattributed quote marks by the way, showing we’ve gone beyond the need to qualify the phrase with “what Pelé once called...”. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph’s Kevin Garside, at Villa Park for the visit of Chelsea, packs his use of The Pelé Phrase inside so many other trite metaphors that you almost lose sight of it amid his description of Guus Hiddink as “this high priest of total football [who] has been helicoptered in from Moscow to tease the beautiful game out of Chelsea’s dysfunctional family”.

2. The opposite of beautiful
Culturally keen reporters can also use the phrase to cleverly invoke beauty’s opposite. “This wasn’t the beautiful game,” reports a disgusted Keith Jackson in the Daily Record’s match report of Motherwell’s 1-1 draw with Celtic. “It was more like its bastardised, mutated cousin.” Has he never seen a Scottish Premier League game before? The game “may have left a scar on Celtic’s entire season” he says, getting a bit carried away and making some tortuous analogy with Janet Street Porter too clumsy to bear repeating in full. While, in India, writes Mihir Vasavda on the Daily News & Analysis website, Mumbai FC recently played out “four dull, goalless draws that completely belied the idea of football being called the beautiful game”. Imagine.

“A Sunday league footballer turned the beautiful game into a terrifying clash when he marched onto the pitch screaming abuse and wielding a hammer,” opens a court report on the Teesside Gazette. Yes, those spectators who came to watch MCR Ltd take on Eston Villa thought they would see the sporting equivalent of a Hawaiian sun setting to the sounds of a Mozart string quartet. And what did they get? Ugly, that’s what.

3. Football as a one big global family thing
The Pelé Phrase is often used to invoke football’s one-world theory, an idea invented by FIFA’s marketing department that football alone has the power to unite the gloriously diverse peoples of the globe, end all wars, and heal all wounds. In New Zealand, “the beautiful game attracted a wealth of nations to the Global Football Festival at Bexley Park in Christchurch yesterday”, says a report at the Stuff website. It was the beauty that lured them, no doubt, and not the football. “Football-mad youngsters in part of Derby are being given the chance to enjoy the beautiful game, thanks to the work of a volunteer coach,” reports the Derby Evening Telegraph in a heart-soothing story. England is eternally “the home of the beautiful game” (ESPN). In fact, US and Australian sites are particularly keen on the phrase, perhaps too conscious of using “soccer”. Believe us, soccer’s just fine.

4. Looking like a deep thinker
The phrase also takes its place in think-pieces evoking the awfulness of modern football. That former flagship of all that was decently alternative, Pat Nevin, writes in Scotland On Sunday: “This dark era [of Wimbledon’s success and Graham Taylor in charge of England] was finally consigned to the dustbin when the likes of Brazil, France and most recently Spain showed that the beautiful game can not only be a joy to watch, it can also be successful.” For historical reasons, we’ll be generous to Mr Nevin and presume a lazy sub inserted the phrase. That’s what lazy subs do, knowing it will not be their name above the hackneyed efforts of their doubtless revered colleagues.

5. Mirror of their intellectual bankruptcy
There’s a certain kind of moribund mass-site that loves to mention football’s beauty, typified by the Bleacher Report, a retirement home to vast quantities of limping, wounded prose. “You’re very welcome for the beautiful game. There’s no need to thank us,” says a smug and pointless piece pointing out to the world how the British codified football. Where the Bleacher Report blandly goes, Soccerlens will always follow. In an exclusive but utterly dull interview with Alessandro Ponho, winner of the modelling contest at Brazilian club SC International, the site breathlessly informs us that: “Football has always been the beautiful game in Brazil, but top flight clubs have found their own unique way of combining soccer with the beauty of women!” Beautiful women at the beautiful game. What an ingenious parallel, with a loud cyber-braying phwoooargh to boot.

From WSC 266 April 2009

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