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Football, an international language within a thousand languages

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

Going home or going Rome... One year later than expected, the UEFA Euro 2020 has given us some epic games, ending with the great final(e) between Italy and England at Wembley Stadium. But for the passionate linguists we are, this war on words is a great reminder of the linguistic battle that is often raging on and off the football pitch.

Football is about concentration, passion, physical condition, strategy… and communication. We all have seen coaches shouting instructions to their players, midfielders talking to strikers before a corner. Certain language choices are obvious: Mbappé and Pogba talk in French with each other, Shevchenko and Zinchenko in Ukrainian…

A ball in a football goal net

But what about the “red devils”? Belgium has three different official languages (French, Dutch, and German), though the country is mainly home to two linguistic communities: Dutch speakers (almost 60% of the population) are located in their majority in the region of Flanders, while French speakers (almost 40%) are mainly found in Walloon. The region of Brussels is officially bilingual in French and Dutch and there are some German-speaking communities across the country, though they are a minority. People who belong to a linguistic community do not necessarily speak the other languages (someone living in Gent might not speak French or German), so it can happen (and it does) that players playing for the same national team don’t speak the same language. For example, Kevin De Bruyne is a native speaker of Dutch, whereas Courtois or Hazard speak French as their first language. The icing on the cake? Bob Martínez, their coach since 2016, comes from Spain. So, how does the top 1 national team (according to FIFA’s most recent ranking) communicate? Well… this is an easy one to guess: English has been set as the vehicle language, not only because it is a language everybody can understand and speak fluently in the team, but also to avoid any preponderance of French or Dutch, which could be politically tinted and be a potential source of conflicts.

A man playing with a football

We can find another curious case from this Euro championship in the Swiss team. In this multicultural group, there are more than 16 different national roots: Kosovo, Albania, Croatia, North Macedonia, Spain, Chile, Cameroon… Some of these players were already born in this landlocked country, while others settled with their families at a very young age, many of them fleeing from the Balkan Conflict: this was the case of world star Ivan Rakitic (born in Switzerland), who in the end, decided to play for Croatia. This cultural mix is fostered by the multilingual character of the Swiss Confederation: German (62%), French (23%), Italian (8%), and Romanish (less than 1%) are the four official national languages. Their national coach, Vladimir Pektovic, was born in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) 56 years ago and masters 8 languages. With, in principle, fewer political tensions than in Belgium, they communicate in German, French and Italian.

As Loris Benito, left-back now playing for Girondins, says “For us (the team), this rich multicultural mix is normal. It also enriches the football culture. A Swiss person does not follow a style pattern, it is a mixture of all those countries' way of understanding it”.

A female footbal player holding a ball on her head

In Spain, apart from Spanish, there are other official languages spoken (Galician, Catalan, and Basque), although everybody in the team masters Spanish perfectly (as opposed to the Belgian case). Nonetheless, this does not mean the team cannot face linguistic barriers: interviews with international journalists, travelling abroad, arrangements in different countries… This is where Silvia Dorschnerova, the Spanish delegate, appears on the scene. You might have seen her sitting on the Spanish bench, although her profile is mostly low: raised in Germany to a German father and a Czech mother, she speaks German, English, Spanish, French, and a bit of Czech and Italian. In 1982, she became a translator for the Spanish national team during the World Cup. During that time, it may have seemed weird that someone spoke that many languages, and even stranger to see a woman working in this industry. But her diligence and hard work allowed her to become a delegate in 2002: in her role, she has acted as a link between the Spanish team and UEFA and FIFA, has drafted the minutes, has managed travel logistics, has talked to the fourth official when players needed to be swapped during a match… She can handle everything that involves talking and negotiating with people whose native language is not Spanish. Sadly, we might be saying goodbye to her soon as she might retire this year after almost 40 years of discrete and efficient work.

When we think of football and languages, there is one name that immediately comes to our mind: José Mourinho. Although he was never officially a translator or interpreter, he acted as such during his stay in Barcelona, where he was Bobby Robson’s assistant. He has also given interviews in different languages and has proven his proficiency in Spanish, English, and Italian. Other players, such as Beckham or Bale, spent years in Spain and couldn’t (or didn’t want to) properly learn Spanish. On the other hand, Joaquín Sánchez had a try with Italian during his stay in Florence.

A goalkeeper getting ready for a shot

In the end, all this is yet more evidence that football speaks to the world, but players and staff first need to find a way to be understood in such a globalised world: teams do normally count on translators and interpreters for interviews and trips, so that language barriers can be torn down. As we can see, our work is not only to translate technical texts, movies or attend important meetings, we are also present on the pitch!

Do you know any athlete fluent in many languages? Do you know more teams like the Red Devils? Have you ever worked in a sports event? If not, would you like to?

Let us know in the comments.

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