5 Things You Didn’t Know About Language In The World Cup

From swearing refs to minority language commentators, here are some fascinating facts about how language is used in international soccer.
soccer stadium

24 teams from countries around the world have gathered for the 2019 Women’s World Cup. The tournament is being held in Paris, France, and is hosted by the international organization FIFA. It includes teams from nations ranging from Argentina to Thailand to the United States. This raises an important question: how do all of these different people from different countries communicate with one another effectively enough to make the tournament run smoothly? What is the language of soccer, which is perhaps the only truly global sport?

Upon examining how the language of soccer — and of the World Cup in particular — works in practice, we found several fun and surprising facts.

5 Fun Facts About The Language Of Soccer

1. 2019 Women’s World Cup commentators are making history

As the tournament is broadcast all around the world, there need to be commentators who speak a variety of different languages. Minority languages are getting a big boost at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. The tournament has welcomed the first group of women commentators from the Pacific Islands, and they’re commentating in their native languages: Bislama and Fijian. The women are part of a project called Commentary for Good, which trains people to do sports commentary in underrepresented languages.

2. The referees are required to speak English, and they’re often multilingual

How do the refs communicate with players and coaches from all over the world? Well, for starters, they use a lot of hand gestures. Beyond that, they’re all required to speak English and are encouraged to also learn one of the other official FIFA languages: Spanish, French or German. In addition, many of the referees hail from non-English-speaking countries, meaning they have to be bilingual or multilingual to officiate for FIFA.

3. Or at least they’re multilingual when it comes to swear words

According to FIFA’s official Laws of the Game, “using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures” can result in immediate removal from the field. That means the referees need to know when a player is using swear words, so some of them have taken to brushing up on a few common curse words in the languages of the teams playing. When it comes to motivations for language learning, that’s one we haven’t heard before!

4. The red card originated because of a language barrier

Those infamous yellow and red cards refs use when giving a misbehaving player a warning or kicking them out of the game, respectively, actually have a language-related backstory. During a World Cup match between England and Argentina in 1966, the German ref called a foul against Argentina. The team’s captain questioned it in Spanish, but the ref couldn’t understand him, and things got heated. Eventually, the ref told him to get off the field. The captain didn’t understand and stayed on, holding up the match for eight minutes. After that incident, FIFA came up with the yellow and red card system to make the refs’ instructions very clear.

5. Interpreters are standing by at games and events

FIFA provides interpreters in their four official languages — and often in the language of the host country — at matches, events and press conferences. Sometimes they will hire additional interpreters in languages of countries that fare well in the tournament. All of these various interpreters are on hand to handle any language barriers that arise between or among players, coaches, officials, fans or the press.

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