When the language of football isn’t universal
They say that football is a universal language and in many ways that is true.
But players, managers and coaches need to communicate with each other both on and off the pitch and in the modern game, that isn’t always easy.
The majority of current Premier League players do not hail from the UK.
Back in 1992 there were just 11 non-British or Irish footballers in the Premier League. Now, around 70 different nationalities and many different languages are represented.
Overseas players often arrive and start playing for their clubs before they have learnt to speak English. Some never manage to master the language. In addition, several managers have begun coaching teams while unable to issue instructions in English.
Does it matter if team members don’t understand each other and how do top football clubs address the problem? Will there ever be a universal language of football?
The language of Liverpool
You could say that language has always been an issue at Liverpool Football Club, not least because even native English speakers can struggle to understand the Scouse accent!
Then there was Sir Kenny Dalglish, a Liverpool legend, but one that teammates and journalists often struggled to understand courtesy of his pronounced Glaswegian accent. Dalglish relished this situation.
This season, there are few problems with Scouse or Glaswegian. It is a Spanish speaker that is struggling to understand his manager and to communicate with other players.
Darwin Nunez was Liverpool’s record signing when he joined the club in June 2022. The Uruguayan spoke no English then and doesn’t appear to have made much progress with learning the language.
In a recent post-match interview for television, his thoughts were translated by teammate Alisson Becker whose native language is Portuguese! Becker then encouraged Nunez to say something in English and he managed “thank you your support”. At least he tried!
Nunez admits that he cannot understand his manager Jurgen Klopp who is German and speaks excellent English but no Spanish.
Thankfully, two of Liverpool’s coaches speak Portuguese which Darwin Nunez can understand and so it is possible to communicate instructions to some extent.
The aforementioned television interview took place after Liverpool’s game against Newcastle. Whoever translated for Nunez that day certainly got it right. He came on as a late substitute when Liverpool found themselves both behind and down to ten men and then scored twice to win the game! His reactions to scoring required no translation.
When the going gets tough
Things can be much tougher when there’s nobody at a club who is able to translate for a player or manager. The clubs are addressing the challenge in a variety of ways.
Some recruit translators or liaison officers who speak the required languages. Others have favoured the appointment of multilingual coaches. The role of a translator or liaison officer varies greatly. While translators may only assist players with managerial instructions and the media, many work more closely with their charges.
Translator Phil Dickenson has assisted several top players including Eric Cantona and has now set up Premier Language Solutions, an agency that supplies translators to football clubs. He has reported that things often get tough for translators as managers can blame them rather than the player when a footballer doesn’t follow instructions.
Eddie Howe, Manager of Newcastle United, initially adopted a different approach with the club’s record signing Sandro Tonali. He decided not to work with a translator as he wanted to encourage his Italian midfielder to learn English quickly. His tactic resulted in complications that eventually forced Howe to relent and engage an interpreter.
When players never learn
There have been many leading premier league players who have never quite managed to master English. Everton and Manchester United star Marouane Fellaini apparently failed miserably in this regard.
Other superstars who never learnt to speak English include the Argentinians Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero. Given their performances on the pitch, the lack of language skills doesn’t need to be a barrier to success.
The celebrity translator
Eddie Staker joined Chelsea as a match-day steward in the 1990s. He managed to establish close relationships with senior staff at the club and then his language skills saw him utilised as a liaison officer and translator. Staker was fluent in Italian and assisted Gianluca Vialli when he was appointed Manager.
Staker came to the fore when acting as a translator for Vialli’s successor, Claudio Ranieri. The Italian manager memorably appeared on the television programme Match of the Day
following his first game in charge. He delivered a very lengthy and passionate appraisal of Chelsea’s performance without pausing to allow Eddie Staker to translate his words. Staker was clearly flustered by the situation and said only “it was a game of two halves”!
Following his appearance on match of the day, Staker became a figure of fun with the public. However, this did not hinder his career. He formed a close relationship with Ranieri whose English improved considerably. Staker subsequently worked closely with succeeding players and managers. He left Chelsea in 2019 after his role became redundant.
Ranieri went on to lead Leicester City to the Premier League title, the most surprising achievement in the history of English football. He remains famous for his bizarre English catchphrase “dilly ding dilly dong”.
Is language a barrier in football?
While Darwin Nunez claims that he has struggled to understand the instructions he has been given, many players and managers have thrived in the Premier League despite not being able to understand their colleagues.
From Marcello Bielsa to Sergio Aguero, foreign football stars have overcome their linguistic shortcomings to achieve great things. Aguero’s winning goal against QPR that sealed the Premier League title for Manchester City is perhaps the single greatest moment in the history of the competition.
Perhaps the universal language of football will always prevail.