Body language is not always the most effective way to get your message across
Body language is not always the most effective way to get your message across

Making your point in the polyglot Bundesliga

Munich - Tor! Goal! Gol! Rete! But! – when the ball hits the back of the net, many words can be heard from football fans around Europe, but when more than just an exclamation of joy is required, is there a lingua franca out on the field?

Language learning

The Bundesliga has players from many different linguistic backgrounds. Integrating a team made up of Spanish, French, Italian, Czech, Croatian and Japanese speakers, to name but a few, can be a challenge in itself.

More often than not, English is used to bridge the language barrier. Failing that, there's nothing for it but to shake, rattle and move – with body language. That can work to a certain extent. Football itself is, after all, a universal language. But the more painstaking peculiarities of tactical systems, styles and even training methodology cannot so easily be expressed with a simple wave of the hand or tilt of the head.

Pep Guardiola knew as much, which is why he spent the six months before he took charge of FC Bayern München getting to grips with German. He arrived with already a fair grasp of the language, to go with his mother tongue Catalan, Castilian (Spanish), Italian and English. With that combination, he could already communicate with most of his players, to a certain extent.

'Ich habe fertig'

Some have been less well-prepared or, let's say, innovative. Former Bayern coach Giovanni Trapattoni said ich habe fertig (I've had enough) when he raged after one of his side's defeats. That neologism has gained cult status in the German language since, and he certainly made his point, perhaps less so when, as coach of the Republic of Ireland, he spoke about having a cat in the sack.

People could have asked if he had all his cups in the cupboard, but then you would have to understand German (alle Tassen im Schrank) to know what that means. However, when 80,000 fans are watching your every move and you need to make split-second decisions in the heat of the moment, it could be easy to get your tongue in a twist, what with the array of different languages spoken on the field of play. Which is why English is the preferred choice.

Lingua franca

"Run! Run! Quick! Quicker!" are simple, understandable terms which get the message across. For the more complicated explanations, there is no substitute for a fine command of German or at least linguistic harmony between player and coach. Guardiola will explain things easier to Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez than to Xherdan Shaqiri and Mario Mandzukic, for example. And with the influx of players from South Korea and Japan, the need for a lingua franca is even greater.

In 2011, Bayern paid for a Japanese German-speaking boy to move from Cologne to Munich to help Takashi Usami settle in. "He can play Playstation, he picks Takashi up in his car and is just a friend," explained Bayern's media officer Markus Hörwick." 1. FSV Mainz's Joo-Ho Park gives his post-match interviews in English, Shinji Kagawa was still struggling with German when he left Borussia Dortmund while Luca Toni got not much further than eins, zwei, drei, gewinnen and glücklich.

The flip side of polyglotism

Being polyglot does have its advantages too, however. Foreign languages can be used to polarise opponents – Thiago and Martinez will not reveal their hands in terms their rivals can understand, while when the frustration gets high, it is only natural for players to turn to their mother tongue, sometimes also to avoid punishment from otherwise oblivious referees.

Numerous languages therefore do continue to be heard on the pitch during Bundesliga matches, but when push comes to shove, only two reign supreme: German and English. Those who do not understand either of those have to step into line, or as Trapattoni once said, they will just stand 'wie Flaschen leer'. Like empty bottles, indeed.

Ben Gladwell