During this season’s Champions League group stage, a photo circulated online of Italian club AS Roma’s “Player Languages” sheet. The list denoted the languages in which each player was comfortable giving an interview. And though most players are conversational in more languages than the ones they are comfortable using in media settings, I was surprised by both the polyglotism of some players, and the lack of overlap in many cases.
Midfielder Miralem Pjanic, for example, was born in Bosnia, spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Luxembourg, and has played professionally in France and Italy. His listed languages were Bosnian, English, French, Italian, and German. He’s also fluent in Luxembourgish, though that could be arguably classified as a dialect of German. Salih Uçan, in contrast, only listed Turkish, a language none of his teammates listed.
This got me thinking. Big European clubs tend to hire players from all over the globe, and it is certainly a common occurrence that there is no lingua franca, no common language between everyone on the field, or on the bench. So how do they communicate? There must be some common way of understanding each other.
Portuguese clubs Porto, Benfica, and Sporting, for example, tend to buy many Latin American players who either speak the clubs’ Portuguese language, or are native Spanish speakers, a very similar and intelligible language. That’s an easier route than that of, say, Bayern Munich’s Catalan coach Pep Guardiola, who apparently learned German so he could give instructions in it during games to the whole team. He also reportedly gives individual directions in English, and speaks either Spanish or Catalan to his players who understand those languages. That’s lucky and admirable, but surely not viable for every coach or every team.
Still, teams function, they play together, communicate together, connect passes, and score goals together. On a more local level, quality pickup games regularly take place around the globe involving people who don’t share the same language. All of which suggests that there is clearly a way of communicating that transcends words but still manages to create and convey meaning, at least within the confines of a soccer field.
An old column agrees with me. Italian filmmaker, novelist and activist Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote an opinion piece in which he claimed that “football is a language.” The column – which appeared in Italian newspaper Il Giorno in 1971, four years before Pasolini’s assassination – draws on Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiology to establish how the language of soccer is used to communicate.
In Pasolini’s words, each language is “a system of signs,” but this system does not necessarily have to be written or spoken. In a written-spoken language (like English), the minimum units are letters or phonemes (the sounds those letters represent). But the language of soccer has a different kind of minimum unit. Pasolini calls this unit a “podema” (or “foot-unit,” from the Ancient Greek for “feet,” “πόδες,” pronounced “POH-des”).
Pasolini defines a podema as “a man who uses his feet to kick a football” (though we should update it to “a person who uses their feet to kick a football”). The combination of various podemi creates “football words” and the combination of “football words” creates “football discourse,” regulated by its own syntax. A “football word” is, for example, a pass, a combination of two people kicking a ball. “Football discourse” is, for instance, a counterattack, a sequence full of meaning, and a meaning that needs only awareness of the code of ball-kicking feet to be understood.
This is how I believe professional soccer players truly communicate while playing. Certainly, they must understand a few common words in the spoken language. And probably they are not deep into the theory of semiotics. But through continuous training and playing they must have developed a deep understanding of the codes that govern the game of soccer: what the movements of the ball mean, what the positioning of teammates and rivals might represent, what the context of a pass, a tackle, a goal, or a formation might tell them about what is going on.
Top professional players might have learned to play in wildly different places and contexts, but soccer is, at its core, a simple game, and though there might be personal and regional differences – accents and dialects, let’s say – they are “speakers” of the same language of soccer. Yet even though fans and amateur players also understand this code and how to interpret movements on the field, it is top players at top clubs who are not only interpreters but also codifiers of this language, creators of new meanings.
And how could they not? Many of them (like Pjanic, who I mentioned above) have spent their teenage years, sometimes even their childhoods, moving to foreign countries, switching between academies, youth divisions and first teams, honing their skills and making it their main aim in life to become fluent in this language. Some of them have achieved such fluency that they are capable of bending it and re-coding it (like when some new words must be invented to describe Messi’s antics).
In Western Europe, during the Middle Ages, literate people would almost invariably be monks or monarchs, for whom writing meant “writing in Latin,” and studying meant “reading texts in Latin.” A similar thing happened in the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, but with Greek. In both cases, different nationalities who spoke different “vulgar” dialects could understand each other by resorting to the common ground of their written lingua franca. This, of course, was limited to a certain elite, those fortunate few who were afforded the privilege of being educated (men of certain social background).
And top players, it seems, form a similar elite around language, a privileged group that can communicate with each other in a way that most others can’t. It is certainly a different kind of elite — one that can be theoretically reached through hard work and the random luck of talent, one that is made up of not only those born rich and powerful, but that, at its core, incorporates kids from poor families whose best shot at life was to play this sport. Yet it is not only a matter of communicating, but also an issue of belonging. And the ability to communicate well facilitates belonging. But still, that elite level of communication is key, and once achieved, the spoils can follow — millions of dollars in wages, the attention of the general public, and even the power to distort political discourse (see Didier Drogba pleading to end a civil war in Ivory Coast).
Yet for the international nation of soccer fans, the idea of communicating at a high level, without words, may seem completely foreign because our skill set is screaming at players for failing to live up to expectations or missing wide-open headers. We can speak, but ultimately most are speechless in the way that matters, incapable of truly “speaking” the language of the game with a fluency that could translate into spoils. So our only option is to sit back, enjoy the game and “listen” to the experts.