Soccer is a global language – or is it?
Three things stay in my mind from living for four years in the Netherlands. It’s a very flat country, very well organised and everyone speaks good English – from the chief executive to petrol station attendants.
At the time I was working in Paris. France has a totally different reputation: good food, glamour around every corner, and they don’t speak English.
Actually, this last one is wrong: in 18 months of constantly working as the only Englishman amongst a group of French client staff, all meetings were held in perfect English, even when the subject was the complicated calculations over the cost of running nuclear power stations.
During this period I had a one week stint in Brazil – the offer of a trip to Rio was irresistible. The people I worked with there spoke no English, I had no Portuguese, and the meetings were conducted in our only common language – French.
I came home and slept for a week; daily 14-hour meetings in a foreign language are not easy, even when you are staying at a hotel on the Copacabana Beach.
Attraction for players
The matter of language this illustrates has been highlighted recently by football. We know that the game is global, aided by the availability of frequent air travel – it seems normal that Carlos Tevez travels to Argentina when he doesn’t feel well or Wayne Rooney goes to the United States to recuperate from injury.
Then there is the attraction for players from all over the world of plying their trade for mega money in the Premiership. There is hardly a country that compares for players’ salaries, fuelled by the television payments Premiership clubs get.
What began as a few brave pioneers – like Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa coming to Tottenham after the 1978 victorious Argentina World Cup win – has now spread beyond players to managers.
The last time an English manager led a team to a victorious season in the top flight in the country was in 1991-92, before the birth of the Premiership. A lot of the reason for this is Sir Alex Ferguson and his frequent triumphs (he’s a Scotsman of course). But since Howard Wlikinson and Leeds United it has been non-English managers all the way.
The lack of an obvious outstanding English manager led the FA to appoint Sven Eriksson and, after an unhappy spell of the homegrown Steve McLaren, to put another non-native English speaker in charge, Fabio Capello.
The love affair of the English press with Capello cooled pretty fast after early favourable signs. It reached what seemed rock bottom in South Africa at the World Cup, where lack of leadership or a coherent plan seemed one of the many reasons for failure.
Focus on Capello’s English
There may have been a revived ardour with England’s promising start to Euro 2012 qualifying but the barren draw against Montenegro has seen a renewed fallout betweenCapello and journalists as well as the general public.
Much attention is focused on Capello’s English in his increasingly eccentric responses to questions at press conferences. To many observers it seems that Capello’s use of the language of his adopted country has gone backwards in the past year. He now gives answers that no one really understands.
An example from the Montenegro game: “They created one chance when the ball went to the bar. I don’t like to speak about referees and I prefer, not speak.”
It’s clearly not fair to expect someone to speak what is their third language fluently (Capello speaks Spanish from his time at Real Madrid). But you do wonder what England footballers make of his instructions and those of general manager Franco Baldini.
It must be hard enough to get often inarticulate twenty-something-year-old men to understand simple English, let alone the tortuous sentences from these two Italians.
While England internationals are having a hard time, at least this only applies to pre-match preparation and the half-time team talk. During the game, communication is more straight forward. Not so at Arsenal. There are persistent rumours that the sounds from the pitch at the Emirates aren’t all Anglo-Saxon.
Club has had a Gallic flavour
The London club has had a Gallic flavour since the arrival of Arsene Wenger and his subsequent introduction of fellow Frenchmen 14 years ago. It now appears that this includes discussions during matches.
Of particular scrutiny here is the Arsenal back four. At the time of the ‘French revolution’ at Arsenal the famed defensive line was entirely English; not even a Scotsman or Welshman was among them.
How things have changed. Notwithstanding that William Gallas has made the short journey to rivals Tottenham, many of Wenger’s compatriots remain.
A line-up that includes Clichy, Squillaci, Koscielny and Sagna (all Frenchmen) is supplemented when fit by Vermaelen from the partly French-speaking Belgium. Communication is more natural in French for these players.
How Kieran Gibbs feels as an Englishman amongst this group (even if the manager gives instructions in English) is anyone’s guess. The best defence operates as a cohesive whole, working seamlessly in unison. It’s argued that this can’t be easy for the one person who hasn’t spoken the language since he was a little boy.
But in the end, Arsenal’s defensive lapses can’t be all due to communication difficulties. The horror story by Fabianski in gifting a goal to Newcastle’s Andy Carroll last week was a goalkeeping blunder in any language.
Likewise, you don’t have to speak Italian to recognise the uninspired play of the national team. England’s inability to break down supposedly modest opposition seems to have become a trademark, even when the sound is turned down on the television.
Talent (or lack of it), whatever words are used, will shine through, whether as a player or as a coach. Or perhaps even as the advisor to a Brazilian electricity company.
When not thinking about football, Guy Maughfling (Facebook Group: “Premiership Chat”) is a director in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Advisory Consulting business in East Africa. The views expressed here are his own