Win our Classic Final Goals prints bundle now!
Enter here
Insight

The language of football

Communication is key to players and managers. Instructions from the bench, directions between team-mates, condemnations from the referee: all need to be received and understood. We find out why learning the lingo translates to improved performance on and off the pitch

WORDS Dan Poole | ILLUSTRATION José Macena

The universal language. That’s how football is pitched by anyone in a poetic mood. Not to say that it’s fanciful – it is, after all, a game that can be played by pretty much anyone, pretty much anywhere, by people who have never previously met and have no chance of understanding the sounds coming out of each other’s mouths. Let the football do the talking.

And that’s all well and good for a kickabout on holiday; you neither need nor necessarily want to know what that tanned Italian lad is saying as he nutmegs you for the seventh time. It becomes more of an issue when you’re a professional footballer who has made a move abroad. How else are you going to settle in at your new club, feel at home in a foreign land and subsequently, so the logic goes, play your best football?

“It’s absolutely crucial for integration with the team and society as a whole,” says Peter Clark, owner and director of Clark Football Languages, which provides lessons for players and managers at some of the top teams in Europe. With former pupils including Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti, he goes by a tried-and-trusted method when he’s teaching English. “You get your really basic vocabulary that you need for everyday life, then I have Peter’s Football Vocabulary List. Simple things like ‘go on the overlap’ and ‘lead the line’ are new expressions, then you’ve got phrases like ‘handbags’, ‘gaffer’ and ‘hairdryer treatment’ that just do not make sense to a foreign player. But they love that stuff: they find it funny and they can’t wait to use it at training.”

“IT WAS A VERY SPECIAL TIME OFF THE PITCH BUT ALSO ON IT, EVEN THOUGH WE DIDN’T SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE”


Of course, not all players feel the need to speak like a native: Sergio Agüero’s English skills haven’t progressed significantly over the course of ten years at Manchester City, for example, while Gareth Bale has rarely been heard speaking Spanish in public during his time at Real Madrid. And Miroslav Klose – assistant manager at Bayern München, previously a prolific striker and still Germany’s all-time top scorer – thinks it’s possible for team-mates to have an understanding on the pitch even if they can’t fathom each other off it. He cites his time as a player at Bayern, when he arrived in the same 2007 summer as Italian forward Luca Toni and French winger Franck Ribéry. Toni scored ten goals in the first ten games; Klose seven in the first nine.

“It was great,” says Klose. “The three of us arrived together and spent the first three months at the hotel, because none of us had found a house. It was a very special time off the pitch but also on it, even though we didn’t speak the same language. That’s proof enough to show how much is possible in football without being able to communicate. If we’re aware of the right runs on the pitch and everyone looks out for each other, a lot is possible.”

Thiago Silva is now adding English to the list of languages he has mastered (above), Graham Turner in his Barça days reclining next to Gary Lineker at Camp Nou (top right), New boys Miroslav Klose, Luca Toni and Franck Ribéry discover the delights of Munich in 2007 (right)

Chelsea’s Brazilian defender Thiago Silva also thinks it’s feasible to make strides on the pitch despite dialogue deficiencies. He’s not advocating a head-in-the-sand approach to language- learning (he learnt the lingo when he was in Milan and Paris), but does think a football lingua franca is possible while everyone gets up to speed. “In football we understand a bit of the words about the game,” he says. “So we speak some English, some French, Italian, Spanish – even Portuguese – in one sentence. We make ourselves understood. The words come out and later I think, ‘How was I able to say this or that?’ But that’s my next goal, of course: mastering English like I was able to master Italian and French.”

Alas, there’s no fast track to fluency. “It depends on their application, their dedication to learning,” says Clark. He also points to a geographical trend. “If you look at a Brazilian, Argentinean or Colombian player and then a French or Italian player, the levels of education they will have had is incomparable. For northern Europeans – German, Dutch, Scandinavian players – English is so embedded in their society that often they don’t even need lessons.”

A stopgap measure is sometimes required in an industry not renowned for its patience. If you’re a manager with a message to get across beyond the borders of your motherland, a little help may be required in the early stages – and that’s where an interpreter comes in handy. It’s the role that Graham Turner occupied in the service of Terry Venables when he was in charge at Barcelona in the 1980s. “Terry’s background was very English and his vocabulary was very cockney, so the interpreting was quite challenging,” says Turner. “For some of the expressions there wasn’t an easy equivalent in Spanish.

“Right at the beginning we were working on wing play and he said to me of one player, ‘Tell him to check out!’ Well, to explain the detail of that manoeuvre I needed to use about 36 words. So Terry turned to me and said, ‘Are you telling them your system or my system?’ Afterwards I went to the players and said, ‘Is there an expression we can use for that?’ There wasn’t so we invented something.”

Turner had to be creative in the dressing room too. “I used to find myself imitating Terry’s gestures because I wanted to get across the tone of the message as well as the content. The half-time talk was probably the most important part of the job, to be honest.” That and issuing instructions from the touchline. “Terry’s modus operandi was to spend the first half up in the stands because he said he got a much better view. That meant during the first half, I was the one who had to do the shouting. Fortunately, I understood the system so it just seemed to come quite naturally – I don’t think I put many feet wrong. Though I did get the odd yellow card.”

In football we make ourselves understood. The words come out and later I think, 'How was I able to say that?'
Thiago Silva

Turner was with Venables for his entire three-and-a-half-year stint in Spain – does that mean the coach wasn’t doing his homework? “Terry is a clever guy so he really did make progress in very good time,” says Turner. “He didn’t need me after a while but we became good friends. Plus, with the media, using an interpreter gave him a bit of a breather – I’d translate questions to him that he’d already understood, but it would give him time to prepare the answer. How well he could actually speak Spanish was a fairly well-kept secret.”

Less of a secret is how much harder it is for foreign arrivals to integrate with their team-mates in times of Covid. “We have some players who don’t speak German – it’s three times as difficult for them,” says Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann. “They don’t have proper German classes. They don’t have any contact whatsoever with their team-mates outside football because they are just sitting at home. It’s always tough for new signings to integrate when you have a very established team, but this year it’s extreme.

“If you arrive in a new city you want to get settled, go out for dinner, meet people and talk to them. All of that is gone; they are totally isolated. It’s as if they’re on trial: no one knows them, no one speaks to them, they sit alone in their hotel room and yet they are expected to perform.”

For Sevilla defender Jules Koundé, performance is directly related to being able to articulate yourself. “I’ve always been told that a team that doesn’t talk is a team that doesn’t win,” says the Frenchman. “It’s part of the life of the team; that’s why the first thing I did when I got here was take Spanish lessons. First of all because of football, but also because I can’t see myself living abroad without trying to learn the language. It shows respect.”

Silva, of course, agrees with that assessment. And he should be in good shape to learn English pretty quickly thanks to his two kids: children pick up languages at a faster rate than adults. Isn’t that right, Thiago? “Yeah, but they keep laughing at their dad – they don’t teach me.”

The universal language. That’s how football is pitched by anyone in a poetic mood. Not to say that it’s fanciful – it is, after all, a game that can be played by pretty much anyone, pretty much anywhere, by people who have never previously met and have no chance of understanding the sounds coming out of each other’s mouths. Let the football do the talking.

And that’s all well and good for a kickabout on holiday; you neither need nor necessarily want to know what that tanned Italian lad is saying as he nutmegs you for the seventh time. It becomes more of an issue when you’re a professional footballer who has made a move abroad. How else are you going to settle in at your new club, feel at home in a foreign land and subsequently, so the logic goes, play your best football?

“It’s absolutely crucial for integration with the team and society as a whole,” says Peter Clark, owner and director of Clark Football Languages, which provides lessons for players and managers at some of the top teams in Europe. With former pupils including Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti, he goes by a tried-and-trusted method when he’s teaching English. “You get your really basic vocabulary that you need for everyday life, then I have Peter’s Football Vocabulary List. Simple things like ‘go on the overlap’ and ‘lead the line’ are new expressions, then you’ve got phrases like ‘handbags’, ‘gaffer’ and ‘hairdryer treatment’ that just do not make sense to a foreign player. But they love that stuff: they find it funny and they can’t wait to use it at training.”

“IT WAS A VERY SPECIAL TIME OFF THE PITCH BUT ALSO ON IT, EVEN THOUGH WE DIDN’T SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE”


Of course, not all players feel the need to speak like a native: Sergio Agüero’s English skills haven’t progressed significantly over the course of ten years at Manchester City, for example, while Gareth Bale has rarely been heard speaking Spanish in public during his time at Real Madrid. And Miroslav Klose – assistant manager at Bayern München, previously a prolific striker and still Germany’s all-time top scorer – thinks it’s possible for team-mates to have an understanding on the pitch even if they can’t fathom each other off it. He cites his time as a player at Bayern, when he arrived in the same 2007 summer as Italian forward Luca Toni and French winger Franck Ribéry. Toni scored ten goals in the first ten games; Klose seven in the first nine.

“It was great,” says Klose. “The three of us arrived together and spent the first three months at the hotel, because none of us had found a house. It was a very special time off the pitch but also on it, even though we didn’t speak the same language. That’s proof enough to show how much is possible in football without being able to communicate. If we’re aware of the right runs on the pitch and everyone looks out for each other, a lot is possible.”

Read the full story
Sign up now – or sign in – to read the rest of this feature and access all articles for free. Once you have signed up you will also be able to enter exclusive competitions and win great prizes.
Thiago Silva is now adding English to the list of languages he has mastered (above), Graham Turner in his Barça days reclining next to Gary Lineker at Camp Nou (top right), New boys Miroslav Klose, Luca Toni and Franck Ribéry discover the delights of Munich in 2007 (right)

Chelsea’s Brazilian defender Thiago Silva also thinks it’s feasible to make strides on the pitch despite dialogue deficiencies. He’s not advocating a head-in-the-sand approach to language- learning (he learnt the lingo when he was in Milan and Paris), but does think a football lingua franca is possible while everyone gets up to speed. “In football we understand a bit of the words about the game,” he says. “So we speak some English, some French, Italian, Spanish – even Portuguese – in one sentence. We make ourselves understood. The words come out and later I think, ‘How was I able to say this or that?’ But that’s my next goal, of course: mastering English like I was able to master Italian and French.”

Alas, there’s no fast track to fluency. “It depends on their application, their dedication to learning,” says Clark. He also points to a geographical trend. “If you look at a Brazilian, Argentinean or Colombian player and then a French or Italian player, the levels of education they will have had is incomparable. For northern Europeans – German, Dutch, Scandinavian players – English is so embedded in their society that often they don’t even need lessons.”

A stopgap measure is sometimes required in an industry not renowned for its patience. If you’re a manager with a message to get across beyond the borders of your motherland, a little help may be required in the early stages – and that’s where an interpreter comes in handy. It’s the role that Graham Turner occupied in the service of Terry Venables when he was in charge at Barcelona in the 1980s. “Terry’s background was very English and his vocabulary was very cockney, so the interpreting was quite challenging,” says Turner. “For some of the expressions there wasn’t an easy equivalent in Spanish.

“Right at the beginning we were working on wing play and he said to me of one player, ‘Tell him to check out!’ Well, to explain the detail of that manoeuvre I needed to use about 36 words. So Terry turned to me and said, ‘Are you telling them your system or my system?’ Afterwards I went to the players and said, ‘Is there an expression we can use for that?’ There wasn’t so we invented something.”

Turner had to be creative in the dressing room too. “I used to find myself imitating Terry’s gestures because I wanted to get across the tone of the message as well as the content. The half-time talk was probably the most important part of the job, to be honest.” That and issuing instructions from the touchline. “Terry’s modus operandi was to spend the first half up in the stands because he said he got a much better view. That meant during the first half, I was the one who had to do the shouting. Fortunately, I understood the system so it just seemed to come quite naturally – I don’t think I put many feet wrong. Though I did get the odd yellow card.”

In football we make ourselves understood. The words come out and later I think, 'How was I able to say that?'
Thiago Silva

Turner was with Venables for his entire three-and-a-half-year stint in Spain – does that mean the coach wasn’t doing his homework? “Terry is a clever guy so he really did make progress in very good time,” says Turner. “He didn’t need me after a while but we became good friends. Plus, with the media, using an interpreter gave him a bit of a breather – I’d translate questions to him that he’d already understood, but it would give him time to prepare the answer. How well he could actually speak Spanish was a fairly well-kept secret.”

Less of a secret is how much harder it is for foreign arrivals to integrate with their team-mates in times of Covid. “We have some players who don’t speak German – it’s three times as difficult for them,” says Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann. “They don’t have proper German classes. They don’t have any contact whatsoever with their team-mates outside football because they are just sitting at home. It’s always tough for new signings to integrate when you have a very established team, but this year it’s extreme.

“If you arrive in a new city you want to get settled, go out for dinner, meet people and talk to them. All of that is gone; they are totally isolated. It’s as if they’re on trial: no one knows them, no one speaks to them, they sit alone in their hotel room and yet they are expected to perform.”

For Sevilla defender Jules Koundé, performance is directly related to being able to articulate yourself. “I’ve always been told that a team that doesn’t talk is a team that doesn’t win,” says the Frenchman. “It’s part of the life of the team; that’s why the first thing I did when I got here was take Spanish lessons. First of all because of football, but also because I can’t see myself living abroad without trying to learn the language. It shows respect.”

Silva, of course, agrees with that assessment. And he should be in good shape to learn English pretty quickly thanks to his two kids: children pick up languages at a faster rate than adults. Isn’t that right, Thiago? “Yeah, but they keep laughing at their dad – they don’t teach me.”

The universal language. That’s how football is pitched by anyone in a poetic mood. Not to say that it’s fanciful – it is, after all, a game that can be played by pretty much anyone, pretty much anywhere, by people who have never previously met and have no chance of understanding the sounds coming out of each other’s mouths. Let the football do the talking.

And that’s all well and good for a kickabout on holiday; you neither need nor necessarily want to know what that tanned Italian lad is saying as he nutmegs you for the seventh time. It becomes more of an issue when you’re a professional footballer who has made a move abroad. How else are you going to settle in at your new club, feel at home in a foreign land and subsequently, so the logic goes, play your best football?

“It’s absolutely crucial for integration with the team and society as a whole,” says Peter Clark, owner and director of Clark Football Languages, which provides lessons for players and managers at some of the top teams in Europe. With former pupils including Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti, he goes by a tried-and-trusted method when he’s teaching English. “You get your really basic vocabulary that you need for everyday life, then I have Peter’s Football Vocabulary List. Simple things like ‘go on the overlap’ and ‘lead the line’ are new expressions, then you’ve got phrases like ‘handbags’, ‘gaffer’ and ‘hairdryer treatment’ that just do not make sense to a foreign player. But they love that stuff: they find it funny and they can’t wait to use it at training.”

“IT WAS A VERY SPECIAL TIME OFF THE PITCH BUT ALSO ON IT, EVEN THOUGH WE DIDN’T SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE”


Of course, not all players feel the need to speak like a native: Sergio Agüero’s English skills haven’t progressed significantly over the course of ten years at Manchester City, for example, while Gareth Bale has rarely been heard speaking Spanish in public during his time at Real Madrid. And Miroslav Klose – assistant manager at Bayern München, previously a prolific striker and still Germany’s all-time top scorer – thinks it’s possible for team-mates to have an understanding on the pitch even if they can’t fathom each other off it. He cites his time as a player at Bayern, when he arrived in the same 2007 summer as Italian forward Luca Toni and French winger Franck Ribéry. Toni scored ten goals in the first ten games; Klose seven in the first nine.

“It was great,” says Klose. “The three of us arrived together and spent the first three months at the hotel, because none of us had found a house. It was a very special time off the pitch but also on it, even though we didn’t speak the same language. That’s proof enough to show how much is possible in football without being able to communicate. If we’re aware of the right runs on the pitch and everyone looks out for each other, a lot is possible.”

Thiago Silva is now adding English to the list of languages he has mastered (above), Graham Turner in his Barça days reclining next to Gary Lineker at Camp Nou (top right), New boys Miroslav Klose, Luca Toni and Franck Ribéry discover the delights of Munich in 2007 (right)

Chelsea’s Brazilian defender Thiago Silva also thinks it’s feasible to make strides on the pitch despite dialogue deficiencies. He’s not advocating a head-in-the-sand approach to language- learning (he learnt the lingo when he was in Milan and Paris), but does think a football lingua franca is possible while everyone gets up to speed. “In football we understand a bit of the words about the game,” he says. “So we speak some English, some French, Italian, Spanish – even Portuguese – in one sentence. We make ourselves understood. The words come out and later I think, ‘How was I able to say this or that?’ But that’s my next goal, of course: mastering English like I was able to master Italian and French.”

Alas, there’s no fast track to fluency. “It depends on their application, their dedication to learning,” says Clark. He also points to a geographical trend. “If you look at a Brazilian, Argentinean or Colombian player and then a French or Italian player, the levels of education they will have had is incomparable. For northern Europeans – German, Dutch, Scandinavian players – English is so embedded in their society that often they don’t even need lessons.”

A stopgap measure is sometimes required in an industry not renowned for its patience. If you’re a manager with a message to get across beyond the borders of your motherland, a little help may be required in the early stages – and that’s where an interpreter comes in handy. It’s the role that Graham Turner occupied in the service of Terry Venables when he was in charge at Barcelona in the 1980s. “Terry’s background was very English and his vocabulary was very cockney, so the interpreting was quite challenging,” says Turner. “For some of the expressions there wasn’t an easy equivalent in Spanish.

“Right at the beginning we were working on wing play and he said to me of one player, ‘Tell him to check out!’ Well, to explain the detail of that manoeuvre I needed to use about 36 words. So Terry turned to me and said, ‘Are you telling them your system or my system?’ Afterwards I went to the players and said, ‘Is there an expression we can use for that?’ There wasn’t so we invented something.”

Turner had to be creative in the dressing room too. “I used to find myself imitating Terry’s gestures because I wanted to get across the tone of the message as well as the content. The half-time talk was probably the most important part of the job, to be honest.” That and issuing instructions from the touchline. “Terry’s modus operandi was to spend the first half up in the stands because he said he got a much better view. That meant during the first half, I was the one who had to do the shouting. Fortunately, I understood the system so it just seemed to come quite naturally – I don’t think I put many feet wrong. Though I did get the odd yellow card.”

In football we make ourselves understood. The words come out and later I think, 'How was I able to say that?'
Thiago Silva

Turner was with Venables for his entire three-and-a-half-year stint in Spain – does that mean the coach wasn’t doing his homework? “Terry is a clever guy so he really did make progress in very good time,” says Turner. “He didn’t need me after a while but we became good friends. Plus, with the media, using an interpreter gave him a bit of a breather – I’d translate questions to him that he’d already understood, but it would give him time to prepare the answer. How well he could actually speak Spanish was a fairly well-kept secret.”

Less of a secret is how much harder it is for foreign arrivals to integrate with their team-mates in times of Covid. “We have some players who don’t speak German – it’s three times as difficult for them,” says Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann. “They don’t have proper German classes. They don’t have any contact whatsoever with their team-mates outside football because they are just sitting at home. It’s always tough for new signings to integrate when you have a very established team, but this year it’s extreme.

“If you arrive in a new city you want to get settled, go out for dinner, meet people and talk to them. All of that is gone; they are totally isolated. It’s as if they’re on trial: no one knows them, no one speaks to them, they sit alone in their hotel room and yet they are expected to perform.”

For Sevilla defender Jules Koundé, performance is directly related to being able to articulate yourself. “I’ve always been told that a team that doesn’t talk is a team that doesn’t win,” says the Frenchman. “It’s part of the life of the team; that’s why the first thing I did when I got here was take Spanish lessons. First of all because of football, but also because I can’t see myself living abroad without trying to learn the language. It shows respect.”

Silva, of course, agrees with that assessment. And he should be in good shape to learn English pretty quickly thanks to his two kids: children pick up languages at a faster rate than adults. Isn’t that right, Thiago? “Yeah, but they keep laughing at their dad – they don’t teach me.”

close
To access this article, as well as all CJ+ content and competitions, you will need a subscription to Champions Journal.
Already a subscriber? Sign in
Special Offers
christmas offer
Christmas CHEER
Up to 40% off
Start shopping
50% off
game night flash sale!!!
Don't miss out
00
Hours
:
00
minutes
:
00
Seconds
Valid on selected products only. subscriptions not included
close