By Jack George
Football is truly the world game, being played by over 250 million people in more than 200 countries worldwide. Fans travel all over the world to watch their team play, and many players rotate in between countries regularly to join new teams.
But within these countries, there are different languages that players and coaches have to learn to communicate with one another.
Australian football is no stranger to foreign players and coaches. A-League clubs combined have employed thirty-seven foreign coaches, and for eighteen of them, English isn’t their first language.
The A-League clubs combined have also fielded three hundred and ninety-seven foreigners, with three hundred and twenty-two of them not coming from native English speaking backgrounds.
I was intrigued by how these players navigate around language barriers to communicate with their peers and coaches and how non-English speaking coaches get their instructions across.
Former Central Coast Mariners midfielder Milan Duric could speak little English before coming to Australia. However, according to Duric, Alen Stajcic can speak fluent Serbian, meaning if he couldn’t understand tactics or team talks, Stajcic would be able to translate it for him.
“On the field I understand everything, if I make a mistake he will explain it to me in my language,” says Duric.
For Stajcic, then, recruiting Duric as one of his foreign players was a savvy move. It is likely that without this translation it would have taken Duric longer to settle in, impacting on the team.
So is there more to signing foreign players than we think?
NPL Victoria midfielder Anthony Duzel has represented the Melbourne Knights for almost his whole career, playing under Croatian national team legend Aljosa Asanovic in the 2017/18 season. Asanovic featured for the Vatreni fifty-seven times as a player, starring at both Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup.
Duzel recalls, “he could talk a little but it was broken English. He would sometimes say a sentence in half Croatian and half English. When he couldn’t get his point across, he would get one of the boys who was fluent in Croatian to translate for him.”
Duzel brings up another interesting point. The fact that multiple players could speak Croatian would have played a big part in the signing of Asanovic. It allows the coach to say what he wants while using players as translators.
Duzel also mentions tactics but says that there were no words lost within the translation.
“I don’t think there were any major problems with language barriers and for the players who weren’t Croatian it was a different and good experience. He had us mentally in a place where he could make you believe that you could defeat any team in the world and that was unique.”
Ramon Falzon has been the head coach at Perth Soccer Club since May 2016.
Falzon could speak fluent English before arriving in Australia due to his bilingual upbringing in Malta and “never had any issues with the English language.”
However, he told me “there was some minor terminology that was different because I was brought up in the Mediterranean style of play. For the boys, countering or a counter-attack is countering. For me, it is a positive transition.”
This is an example of a cultural difference between the two different styles of football. For me, as someone who has grown up in Australia, I have never thought of a counter-attack as a positive transition but Falzon would have always thought of it in a different context.
It is a simple difference in terminology but something that outlines differences in footballing cultures around the world.
Florin Berenguer joined Melbourne City at the beginning of the 2018/19 season, while only speaking a few words of English he remembered from school from when he was young.
When asked if he could understand Warren Joyce’s instructions Berenguer stated:
“The first few weeks were a bit hard, but they used to show us the training on the screen before going outside, so it’s easier to understand the screen. After a couple of months, I understood more about soccer vocabulary.”
He also came up with some quick ways to fix any language problems within training, by simply copying the example of his teammates.
As for Erick Mombaerts, his coach last season, Berenguer says that the French coach is “pretty good in English, so he is able to explain what is expected to all players.”
Overall, the Australian footballing landscape is forever changing, with more and more foreign players and coaches arriving.
Teams often find ways to deal with language concerns when hiring players and coaches from overseas and have shown good initiative when exploring foreign coaches and players.
As seen in this article, teams can use fellow players and coaches to help communicate with foreign players, and it’s unlikely that clubs would hire players and coaches that have no language connections to other players in the squad.