In Spain, football is played in Spanish – the necessity to find your feet and tongue in La Liga

On Sunday, the Spanish sports newspaper AS posted a link to their website to 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’, where it isn’t necessary.

Just one of many thinly-veiled attacks on the ex Spurs man within both the general and more Madrid leaning media outlets in the country over his lack of cohesion with respect to the language, one that now, given recent interviews, shows that he has an increasing command.

Headlines such as ‘Bale reveals the motives behind his lack of fluency’ seek to offer 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 and limit his capability on the park.

Indeed in an interview Bale gave in November last year to offer an insight into his adaptation, he advised that he felt completely settled in to the side, conversing freely in English with the likes of Modric, Kroos, Cristiano, Arbeloa, alongside all the medical team and the then boss, Rafa Benitez. His main stumbling block to making real strides with Spanish, he revealed, were down to the fact that most of the other players wanted to practice their English with him. Saves them paying for private classes one supposes.

bale

To put the criticism levelled at him in context, 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 in Castellano (Spanish)’, 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 adaption has failed catastrophically.”

Harsh words for a player that, to date, has returned 65 goals and 10 assists in 139 games for Real Madrid. But this treatment is nothing if not commonplace in Spain. And this cry of ‘hurry up and learn our language’ isn’t a cry unique to the pen of journalists.

The other day we had Barcelona left-back Jordi Alba at it, caught by TV cameras shouting insults at Real Madrid’s Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovačić during the weekend’s Clasico.

“Learn to speak Spanish, idiot” were his choice of words.

alba
What Alba perhaps didn’t know, is that Kovačić speaks Spanish with relative ease, alongside German, English, Italian and his native language, Croatian. Not to mention a little Catalan, which, unfortunately, he let slip during his Real Madrid presentation – much to the malign of the Madrid faithful.

What these two recent incidents have done is helped to illustrate the culture that exists around and within the Spanish game, a culture of perceived Spanish patriotism attached to the sport, one governed by a rule that its not enough to do your talking on the pitch. You have to speak the language too, or make the utmost effort to do so, or face certain 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, as the media shifted uncomfortably in their seats during his responses in his native German tongue any time he gave an interview. He also explained that his then manager, Ancelotti would actively look for him and explain to him his specific instructions in English after any team chat during training.

Football fans also look back at David Beckham’s farewell press conference with Real Madrid with disdain, given his lack of fluency in the language after 4 seasons spent living in Madrid while as a Real player.

The truth is, his Spanish wasn’t as terrible as people recall it, he clearly had a grasp of it, citing his own shyness for his lack of depth in his choice of words to announce his farewell.

Indeed on the park, his lack of fluency didn’t seem to inhibit his ability as a Madrid player, with his 20 goal return in 155 appearances and ability to link up with the likes of Zidane, Ronaldo and Figo bringing much joy to the team. It was only after the full time whistle were ‘problems’ apparent; ‘problems’ 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 the language, make life comfortable for themselves and their families, that should be enough. As Zidane said, they had zero problems on the pitch.
And for Beckham, what he lacked was the necessity to learn the language. He just didn’t need to, not learning the language didn’t mean he couldn’t get by on a day-to-day level. No doubt he lived a comfortable existence in his gated community mansion, one that was reflected on the park.

becks

But in Spain, for the media this isn’t enough given observations on how they report on externally born players. Foreign footballers are making a living in their country, and as a prerequisite to that, should speak the language.

And why? The beauty in football lies in its capacity to allow for 11 men, perhaps all from 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. Take Sevilla as a random example, a team with a squad of players from countries such as France, Portugal, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Denmark and Italy.

As the great 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 this memo, so 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’, ‘show’ to name a few.

toppp

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 evey time he appears on TB and ask if he will ever lose the accent given his lengthy stay in the country.

On the flip-side, Robinson himself hit back, saying that his accent is his 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 asking him to holiday in England as opposed to Marbella, bizarrely.

tosic

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. Appearing only once for the Sevillan side, even in the face of defensive injuries, manager Pepe Mel stated that the defenders inability to understand what was going on during training sessions was the reason behind his lack of first team action.

Tošić himself was bemused, responding 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.

And when Sami Khedira arrived at Madrid in 2010, the press criticism he received after only his first performance on the park served as a wake up call to his new surroundings. The blame for the slow start to his Madrid career, alongside that of fellow German international Mesut Özil, was put down to the fact that neither ‘spoke a word of Spanish’, and as a result complicated their integration with their teammates.

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The real issue lay in the fact that both Khedira and Ozil spoke very little English, and as such – in conjunction with zero Spanish – 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.

Interestingly, and in one of the few things in recent years that both the Barcelona and Madrid based football papers agreed with each other on, was regarding Pep Guardiola’s seemingly impossible near fluency in German when he took the reigns as Bayern Munich manager. To all in the Spanish media he was deemed a ‘superhero’, and no doubt a person the foreign players with Spanish teams should look up to as an example.

AS went as far 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 Pep spent one full year in New York on a sabbatical, where he had class for 4 hours every day with a German tutor, prior to his arrival in Munich.

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.

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