A view from Dave Trott: We all use semiotics all the time
A view from Dave Trott

We all use semiotics all the time

One of the most influential games of football happened in 1966.

It wasn’t the final, but it was the World Cup and it did feature England.

It was the quarter-final against Argentina.

The referee was German, Rudolf Kreitlin, and he gave a foul against Argentina.

The Argentine captain, Antoni Rattin, didn’t agree.

In fact, he didn’t agree very loudly.

He shouted and gesticulated in an angry, threatening manner.

This may have been standard behaviour in Argentina, but the German referee didn’t speak Spanish and he wasn’t having any of it.

So he sent Rattin off.

But Rattin didn’t understand – he didn’t speak German and refused to go.

He was upset that he couldn’t express himself to the referee – the referee was upset that a player wouldn’t do what he was told.

The argument dragged on for eight minutes, until Rattin was eventually persuaded to leave the field and play was resumed.

The next day the papers were full of it, plus the fact that both Jack and Bobby Charlton had been booked in that match.

This was news to the Charlton brothers – no-one had told them.

They called Fifa to clarify the situation – it turned out that Jack had been booked but not Bobby.

So the referee thought one thing, the press thought something else, and the players themselves thought something completely different.

Combined with the row with the Argentine captain, this was clearly a mess.

How could you play world-class international football when the referee couldn’t make himself understood to the players?

In short, how could you transcend the problem of different languages?

Ken Aston was in charge of all referees for the 1966 World Cup and this was the problem he was faced with.

How to communicate clearly to everyone what was happening when they all spoke different languages?

This was going through his mind as he drove from Wembley to Lancaster Gate.

He drove up to a set of traffic lights in Kensington High Street.

As he approached them they turned yellow, so he slowed down.

When he got close they went red, so he stopped.

Then something in his brain went ping.

He thought, everyone understands traffic lights in every language: yellow for "Be careful, slow down" and red for "Stop, that’s it".

When he got home, he explained it to his wife, Hilda.

She straight away cut two pieces of card in the different colours, just big enough to fit into his shirt pocket.

Now, without saying a word, a referee could pull out a red or yellow card and everyone watching – players, fans, journalists – would know what had just happened.

Even without anyone saying anything, there couldn’t be any confusion.

That is real semiotics: communication without words.

And it works all over the world in every game of football played every day.

And it didn’t take a department of people with degrees to work it out.

All it took was someone thinking the way ordinary people think.

That, and about 30 seconds of common sense.

That’s why Bill Bernbach said: "Our proper area of study is simple, timeless, human truths."

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.