Language in Sports: Communicating With the Referee

Recently, we reviewed the ways that players and coaches interact and communicate with each other in the football leagues of Europe, a highly international setting. But what about interactions with the referee?

In international club competitions, such as the UEFA Champions League, discussed in part one of this post, referees are appointed from all over Europe. For example, the 2017 Champions League Final, played in early June in Cardiff, Wales, was played between a Spanish team (Real Madrid) and a team from Italy (Juventus). The referee was from Germany. How did players and coaches communicate with the referee in this context?

And broadening our scope beyond Europe, we can consider the FIFA World Cup as well. If the UEFA Champions League is the world’s most prestigious club competition, the FIFA World Cup is, of course, international football’s grandest stage, and the greatest spectacle in world football overall. The tournament, in which all of the nations of the world compete, culminates in a 32-team final stage to determine which nation will be crowned world champions. For this final stage, referees are selected from all over the world, to officiate matches between teams from all over the world. So, how does communication with the referee work in this even more complex setting? In a match between Germany and Algeria, with a Brazilian referee, how does an interaction with the referee play out? In that heated moment, at the peak of competition, when there’s a disputed call, when a player is in the face of a referee and the referee is talking back to him, what language(s) are being spoken (or yelled)?

The first thing to take into account is that the majority of communication between players and referees is not verbal at all. Using just his or her whistle and a variety of body language signals, the referee is able to express nearly all necessary communication on the pitch. But of course, there are situations like the one described above, when a referee’s decision is disputed, and players feel compelled to express their view of the situation (with varying degrees of hostility). How do players and referees understand each other during these verbal interactions?

FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the governing body of world football), in fact has four official languages: English, Spanish, French, and German. Although it wasn’t always the case, FIFA officials are now required to speak English in addition to their native language, and they are strongly encouraged to learn one of FIFA’s other official languages as well. As English has become one of the world’s most universal languages, most interactions between players and referees that don’t share a common language will take place in English.

But in the most heated of moments, when emotion runs highest, it will often occur that a player will scream at a referee in his own native language, regardless of whether the referee understands this language or not. In these cases, of course, it’s probably best that the referee doesn’t understand what’s being said.

(Photo: Steindy, Wikimedia Commons)