Language And Football: How The Beautiful Game Became Multilingual, And How The Players Cope

Football teams feature a wonderfully diverse array of players. In this multilingual environment, how do players understand one another?
A couple of kids playing soccer in the street and combining language and football

You might not think language and football are closely intertwined, but a cursory glance at any Premier League team sheet reveals an extraordinary breadth of different nationalities and native languages. At the time of this writing in 2016, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger’s starting eleven didn’t even contain a single Englishman. The team, located in the north London borough of Highbury, consists of three Frenchmen, two Germans, one Chilean, one Spaniard, one Czech, one Nigerian, one Egyptian and a Welshman. When asked how many languages he speaks, Wenger smiles charismatically and replies, “Well, it depends on the day.”

This is nothing new, of course. Nowadays, plucking talent from the four corner flags of the world is paramount to achieving success at the highest level. Twenty years ago, players like Eric Cantona (there can be no article about football and language without mentioning Cantona and his seagulls), Faustino Asprilla and David Ginola were considered exotic, flamboyant, temperamental geniuses integral to their clubs’ winning ways – Cantona was the first foreign player to captain an FA Cup winning team. They were also the exceptions in a very English league, which was not without consequence. Worshipped by the home fans in their country of residence, they were often ostracised in their counties of origin.

From Bosman To A Far-Flung Field In Four Short Years

These players began to pry open the floodgates, but it was the 1995 Bosman ruling that really blew them wide open. In 1999, just four years after Jean-Marc Bosman successfully sued his club RFC Liège for restraint of trade at the European Court of Justice, Chelsea’s Gianluca Vialli became the first Premier League manager to field a starting eleven without any English players. Vialli was left nonplussed by the awkward mix of petty isolationism and sensational fatalism espoused by the English press. This was the end of jumpers-for-goalposts football and the beginning of the beautiful game, accompanied by the vanity and transience which beauty infers.

Gus Poyet, Chelsea’s captain on the day, recalls being surprised at the number of cameramen preying by the tunnel as he entered the pitch. When he enquired why so many had turned out, one of the cameramen replied bluntly that it was because they were all foreigners. The players’ consternation at the reaction of the press was indicative of the fact that transnationalism was already the norm — it’d just taken the tabloids a while to cotton on. As midfielder Roberto Di Matteo remembers, “We all spoke English on and around the training ground, so to us the nationalities meant nothing at all.”

Wenger went one step further than Vialli in 2005, selecting an entire squad of people from outside England. Even Alex Ferguson, whose Manchester United teams had long relied on a backbone of homegrown talent (not least those famous “kids”), fielded a first eleven without any Englishmen in 2009. And, as Wenger and Vialli demonstrate, it isn’t only the players who have become more international, although the phenomenon of the foreign manager is surprisingly recent. The first foreign player in English League football was the German Max Seeburg in 1908. The first foreign manager was the Czech Dr. Jozef Vengloš at Aston Villa in 1990. Now only seven of the 20 Premier League managers originate from the British Isles, and none of them appear in the top eight. The big Sam Allardyces of the footballing world are being relegated to the lower divisions, and the super-managers with three or four top European clubs on their CVs are dominating.

Ushering In The Era Of The Transnational Manager

The changing playing field has meant that football in England is constantly crossing linguistic lines. Wenger, nicknamed le professeur, was the first non-English manager to win the Premier League, and would probably be glad to accept some of the responsibility for the other pensive, accented managers who have since made the journey over the Channel. All the current managers speak some English, among their other languages. Particularly impressive is incoming Man City boss Pep Guardiola, who learned German extraordinarily quickly at Bayern Munich, and would switch between Spanish, Catalan, English and German while communicating with his players. Others, like Leicester’s Claudio Ranieri and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino, have overcome their initial difficulties with English and the resultant jibes to become extremely successful managers. Indeed, at the time of writing, they’re sitting pretty at the top of table, assured of their Champions League places.

Pochettino was subjected to intensive English classes on his arrival at Southampton in 2013, but insisted on doing post-match interviews in his native Spanish until he was forced to switch when he took over at Tottenham. Aside from slightly jumbled sentence order, Wenger’s English was already splendid when he arrived at Highbury. This isn’t surprising — he was something of a born transnationalist, eager to leave his little French village, diligent when learning German at school, and conscious of the importance of learning English if he wanted to make it in football. He now speaks French, German and English well, and understands Spanish, Italian and Japanese. Unsurprisingly, he is a great advocate of language learning, citing the crucial insights a language gives you into a country’s culture and way of thinking, and even the peace-building benefits of the mutual understanding (he grew up near the French-German border).

How Multilingual Teams Communicate On And Off The Pitch

So how does a multinational, multicultural team like Arsenal communicate? How does Wenger ensure everyone knows who’s talking about what and why? Well, first of all, language classes are now an integral part of the training available at top clubs. It’s even factored in to the youth programs they offer, which aim to attract the Ronaldinhos of tomorrow. Secondly, it helps to have a few polyglot footballers around. Players like Arjen Robben, Edin Džecko, Cesc Fàbregas and Vincent Kompany are fluent in four languages, and there are some, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku, who speak five or six. These players contradict effortlessly and emphatically the haggard cliché of the ignorant footballer.

The Swiss defender Philippe Senderos, who represented Arsenal between 2002 and 2008, was at least partly responsible for Fabregas’ multilingualism. When Fabregas moved to England, he “didn’t speak a word of English”. He moved in with Senderos, who speaks German, French, English, Spanish and Italian, and Arsenal’s Irish landlady, Noreen. Owing to his ability to speak many languages, Senderos often acted as a mentor and mediator for new players. Now that multilingualism is the norm, this kind of mentoring is likely commonplace, with older players of the same nationality helping younger players to acclimatize and settle in. As Wenger observes, however, some players require much longer than others to get to grips with the language, and some never really do. After four years in Madrid, Beckham stumbled his way charmingly through his farewell press conference.

And here lies the problem with language learning in football — it’s not completely necessary to ensure success — football itself is a mode of communication that transcends words. Wenger concurs:

People who cannot speak together can play together because you use your body and the way you understand the game to communicate, and you can share exactly the same vision of the game. A Russian, an American and a Japanese can play together and have a fantastic time together without talking together, and that’s where football is sometimes an obstacle, because players feel they don’t need to communicate, and we have to push them to learn English well. They feel sometimes that to play together is enough.

Fluency in the language of football can hinder players in a similar way to those who get lured toward the comfortable lethargy of the expat community.

Football As A Means Of Communication

You may scoff at the notion of football as a language. Before you do, I’d recommend you learn Italian first, if only to read a short essay by Italian novelist and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini argues that football, just like any language, is a sign system. A spoken-written language, such as the English you are reading now, is built from letters and phonemes that constitute its minimum units. Pasolini termed the minimum unit of the language of football a podema (from the Ancient Greek πόδες, meaning feet), where a podema is a kick of the ball. The infinite combinations of podemi — the football words: a dribble, a pass, a long ball — are then combined into a discourse, which itself is governed and regulated by its own syntax.

This may all seem like a pretentious and needless obfuscation of the beautiful game. I would argue, however, that it provides a prism through which to appreciate the differences in style of play across countries and continents and also appreciate how expertly players of the modern game have adapted and coopted these styles of play into a globalized game. Consider the yawning chasm between the syntax of Brazilian and English football prior to the Bosman ruling — Wimbledon’s long-ball game of big men up front and hard challenges, or Liverpool’s groove of pass and move. This, Pasolini asserts, is a syntax based on geometry, on triangulation, and, crucially, on collective, organized play. This was football prose. The Brazilians were the dribblatori; aesthetically inclined individualists whose game relied on una capacità mostruosa di dribblare (a monstrous ability to dribble). This was football poetry.

Pasolini’s column on language and football was written in 1971. The triumph of modern managers and players is to understand and unite poetry and prose, geometry and aesthetics. The result is a Cantona pass to Irwin, an Arsenal diabolo of intricate passes, a Barcelona tiki-taka culminating in a mazy Messi run, or a Beckham ball beelining to a lurking Ronaldo. Beckham does not need to be able to elucidate and elaborate his intentions in fluent Spanish to communicate to Ronaldo what he’s about to do. They decipher, interpret and react to one another’s podemi. Indeed, the greater struggle is often to translate football into the common tongue, to formalize in words something that was performed instinctively through one’s body. This is illustrated every time a player summarizes clumsily a wonder goal in a cliché-ridden post-match interview — “I just kicked it and luckily it went in” — unconsciously deriding his own expertise, or a spectator refers lazily to a Cruyff turn that had nothing of the elaborate, quintessential shift of weight that so gloriously flummoxed defenders. Sometimes, I guess, we should just let the football speak for itself.

This article was originally published on June 7, 2016.

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