THE LANGUAGE OF FOOTBALL

THE LANGUAGE OF FOOTBALL

In Spain, football is played in Spanish. There is a necessity to find both your feet and tongue in La Liga.

Back in December, Spanish sports newspaper AS posted a video of Gareth Bale speaking about his recovery from injury under the tag 'Progress with Spanish, watch how he pronounces 'Hala' Madrid.’ The Welshman's crime? He accents the 'h' in 'Hala' when it isn't necessary.

This was just one of many thinly-veiled attacks on the ex-Spurs man from both the national and more Madrid-leaning media outlets regarding his linguistic abilities in Spanish, despite his increasing command of the language.

Headlines such as 'Bale reveals the motives behind his lack of fluency' seek to offer an explanation to the Madrid faithful, one that causes them no shortage of worry. They believe that his lack of ability with his tongue might spread down to his boots, limiting his capability on the park.

In November 2015, Bale gave an interview that offered an insight into his adaptation. He revealed that he felt completely settled in the side, and conversed freely in English with the likes of Modric, Kroos, Cristiano, and Arbeloa, as well as all of the medical team and the then boss, Rafa Benitez. His main stumbling block to making real strides with Spanish, though, was down to the fact that most of the other players wanted to practice their English.

To give an idea of the criticism levelled at Bale, here's an extract from an article published in the football paper Sport from February this year, under the headline 'Bale, suspense about his integration and ability in Castellano (Spanish)', written by journalist Francesc J. Gimeno.

"He doesn't put the effort in to learn Castellano. He has shown no interest whatsoever in communicating with his teammates in a language that isn't English, and for that reason stopped going to his (Spanish) classes. His process of adaptation has failed catastrophically."

Harsh words for a player that, to date, has returned 67 goals and 10 assists in 142 games for Real Madrid. But this treatment is nothing if not commonplace in Spain and the cry of 'hurry up and learn our language' isn't unique to the pen of journalists.

Barcelona left-back Jordi Alba was at it too, caught by TV cameras shouting insults at Real Madrid's Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovačić during the most recent edition of El Clásico.

His choice of words? - "Learn to speak Spanish, idiot!"

What Alba perhaps hadn't realised, was that Kovačić speaks Spanish with relative ease, alongside German, English, Italian and his native language, Croatian. Not to mention a little Catalan, which, unfortunately for him, he let slip during his Real Madrid presentation - much to the rancour of the Madrid faithful.

These two recent incidents help illustrate the culture that exists around and within the Spanish game. There is a culture of Spanish patriotism attached to the sport, one governed by a rule that it’s not enough to do your talking on the pitch. You have to speak the language too or make the utmost effort to do so, otherwise, you face vilification.

The biased sections of the media, in tandem with fans, will only be at complete ease with foreign players when they can demonstrate that they have mastered the language. And interestingly, until then, they have carte blanche to use a lack of fluency as an excuse for any poor performances on the park.

Toni Kroos cited match preparation, house-hunting and family issues for his 'problems with the language' not long after his arrival at Madrid. Anytime he gave an interview, the media shifted uncomfortably in their seats during his responses in his native German tongue. He also explained that his then manager, Ancelotti, would actively look for him during training and explain specific instructions in English after any team chat.

Some football fans also look back at David Beckham's farewell press conference with Real Madrid with disdain, due to his lack of fluency in the language after 4 seasons spent living in Madrid as a Real player.

The truth is, his Spanish wasn't as terrible as people may recall. He clearly had a grasp of the language and cited his own shyness for the lack of depth in his choice of words when announcing his farewell.

On the park, Beckham’s ‘lack of fluency’ didn't seem to inhibit his ability as a Madrid player. His 20 goal return in 155 appearances and ability to link up with the likes of Zidane, Ronaldo and Figo brought much joy to the team. It was only after the fulltime whistle that 'problems' became apparent - 'problems' that Zidane himself alluded to back in 2003.

"My relationship with David is little. On the pitch, we understand each other perfectly, but as I don't speak English and he doesn't speak Spanish we are a little bit lost," Zidane admitted.

Does it really matter? Or should it? As long as the player can get by in a foreign language, make life comfortable for themselves and their families, that should be enough. As Zidane said, they had zero problems on the pitch.

What Beckham lacked was the necessity to learn the language. He just didn't need to, not learning the language didn't prevent him from getting by on a day-to-day level. He undoubtedly lived a comfortable existence in his gated community mansion, which was reflected in his performances.

But for the media in Spain, this isn't enough. Foreign footballers are making a living in their country, and as a prerequisite to that, their view is that they should speak the language.

But why? The beauty in football surely lies in its capacity to allow for 11 men, perhaps all from entirely different backgrounds and countries, to understand each other in pursuit of a common goal - 3 points. Nowadays, a European elite side is made up of players from all over the world. Sevilla, as just one example, have players from France, Portugal, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Denmark and Italy alongside the Spanish contingent in their squad.

As Nelson Mandela once said, "Sport has the power to transform the world, to inspire, and to bring people together like few other things."

The Spanish media didn't get the memo, it seems. The same media that turn a blind eye when Messi or Iniesta speak Spanish instead of Catalan in interviews. The same media that has ingested, over the past few years, various anglicisms into their footballing dialect - words like 'top', 'box to box', and 'show' to name just a few.

Even those within the Spanish media themselves aren't free from criticism. Northern Irishman Michael Robinson has lived in Spain for 27 years and has worked as a pundit for Canal + for 20 years, yet still, retains a strong accent when speaking Spanish. Apparently, this isn't good enough for fans, who call him out over his way of speaking every time he appears on TV asking if he will ever lose the accent given his lengthy stay in the country.

Robinson hit back, saying that his accent is what sets him apart from others in the industry - his own 'brand' as it were. He even revealed that he was told to maintain his accent when he first signed up as a commentator - with producers bizarrely asking him to holiday in England as opposed to Marbella.

Serbian defender Duško Tošić found his lack of understanding of Spanish a barrier to his chances while on loan at Real Betis from Red Star Belgrade in 2011, when he appeared only once. Even in the face of defensive injuries, manager Pepe Mel stated that the defender’s inability to understand what was going on during training sessions was the reason behind his lack of first team action.

Tošić himself was bemused, pointing out that he had never had similar problems while playing in England, France or Germany, other countries where his ability with the language was minimal. To add to his predicament, the club neglected to contract a Spanish teacher to help him overcome the obstacle in front of him.

When Sami Khedira arrived at Madrid in 2010, the press criticism he received after his first game served as a wake-up call to his new surroundings. The blame for the slow start to both his and fellow German international Mesut Özil’s Madrid careers was put down to the fact that neither spoke a word of Spanish, which apparently complicated their integration with their teammates.

In truth, the fact that both Khedira and Ozil spoke very little English, alongside their inabilities in Spanish, was the major hindrance, as manager Jose Mourinho wasn't fully able to transmit his instructions to them as he would have liked. To quell the unrest amongst the Madrid-centred press, Khedira reminded them that he'd only been in the country for three weeks and that he was taking Spanish lessons in order to improve.

Interestingly, one of the few things both the Barcelona and Madrid-based football papers agreed on, was regarding Pep Guardiola's seemingly ‘impossible’ near fluency in German. To all in the Spanish media, he was deemed a 'superhero' when he took the reigns as Bayern Munich manager. No doubt an individual the foreign players at Spanish clubs should look up to as an example.

AS went so far as to explain how few errors he made during his presentation as boss of the Bavarians, while El Mundo labelled him, "a lover of impossible challenges" as if some sort of quasi-footballing Genghis Khan. They forget that prior to his arrival in Munich, Pep spent a full year in New York on a sabbatical, where he had classes for 4 hours every day with a German tutor.

The question remains, what happens when the likes of Bale and Kroos demonstrate full fluency? What excuses will the (biased) media dream up regarding an on park performance that they deem not to have been the 100% required in the jersey? Time will tell.

By IBWM writer Craig Williams. Full header image credit goes to DSanchez17.

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