Language in Sports: Communication in European Football

Football (or soccer, as it’s known to North Americans) is the world’s most popular sport. In all corners of the globe, one can find football being played. It’s only natural, then, that at its highest club level ﹘ the domestic and continental competitions of Europe ﹘ there are players from a vast number of different nationalities and cultures. And with many nationalities and cultures, of course, come many languages.

The most prestigious club competition in the world is the UEFA Champions League, in which the best clubs from around the continent compete to be crowned champions of Europe. Last Saturday, the Champions League Final was held in Cardiff, Wales, between Spanish side Real Madrid, and the “Vecchia Signora,” Juventus, from Turin, Italy. The starting XI for Real Madrid consisted of three Spaniards, two French players, two Brazilians, one Portuguese, one German, one Croatian, and one Costa Rican; in the Juventus starting XI were four Italians, two Argentines, two Brazilians, one German, one Croatian, and one Bosnian. So, how do the players and coaches on highly international teams like these communicate with one another? In what language do they communicate?

The answer, by all accounts, is that it depends on the team, and the players on it. For the majority of teams, the main language spoken is that of the region where the team is located. However, in many cases where teammates come from all over the world, English is the only language they have in common, and is therefore the main language used for communication. The Italian film director, writer and activist Pier Paolo Pasolini also wrote a famous article in 1971 in which he theorized that football itself is a language, which does not necessarily have to be written or spoken, but can be understood and used for communication nonetheless.

Of course, players and coaches coming from abroad often make strong efforts to learn the language of their new club’s country or region. Language classes and interpreting both play an important role here. Two of the most famous recent examples involve the high-profile managers Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola. When Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino first arrived in England as manager of Southampton, he conducted his interviews through a Spanish-English interpreter; however, during this time he was simultaneously studying to improve his English, and he now conducts all of his interviews in English on his own. And after accepting the managerial job with Bayern München of Germany, the Catalan Pep Guardiola worked vigorously to learn German before the start of the upcoming season, studying for multiple hours per day with a personal language tutor.

The language barrier in European football can appear as an insurmountable obstacle, but through the efforts of players and managers, this obstacle can be overcome. The secret to success lies in something world-class athletes are very familiar with: hard work and persistent training.

(Photo by: Кирилл Крыжановский)