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La Liga’s Foreign Players are Easy Targets until They Master the Spanish Language | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Gareth Bale has scored in Champions League and Copa del Rey finals but his language skills are still critiqued. Photograph: Alex Caparros/Getty Images

n Spain, football is played in Spanish. There is a necessity to find both your feet and tongue in La Liga. In December, 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 accented the first letter in ‘Hala’ when it isn’t necessary.

This was just one of many thinly veiled criticisms of Bale from the media about his linguistic abilities, 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 fans for an issue that causes them no shortage of worry. They think 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 said he felt completely settled in the side and conversed freely in English with Luca Modric, Toni Kroos, Cristiano Ronaldo and Álvaro Arbeloa, as well as all of the medical team and his manager at the time, Rafa Benítez. His main stumbling block to making real strides with Spanish was the fact that most of his fellow players wanted to practice their English with him.

To give an idea of the criticism levelled at Bale, here’s an extract from an article published in the football paper Sport last year, under the headline “Bale: suspense about his integration and ability in Spanish.”

Harsh words for a player who has scored 67 goals in 144 games for Real Madrid. But this treatment is common 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 caught by TV cameras shouting “learn to speak Spanish, idiot!” at Real Madrid’s Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic during the clásico in December. What Alba hadn’t realised was that Kovacic speaks Spanish with relative ease, alongside German, English, Italian and his native Croatian. Not to mention a little Catalan, which, unfortunately for him, he let slip during his Real Madrid presentation – much to the annoyance of Madrid fans.

These incidents help to illustrate a culture of patriotism that exists within Spanish football. 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 ridicule. A lot of media and fans will only be at complete ease with foreign players when they demonstrate that they have mastered Spanish. Until then, their lack of fluency will be used against them if they put in any poor performances on the pitch.

Toni Kroos cited match preparation, house-hunting and family issues for his “problems with the language” not long after his arrival at Madrid. The media were uncomfortable when he spoke in German. Kroos also said that Carlo Ancelotti, his manager at the time, explained specific instructions to him in English. Some 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 his four seasons in Madrid.

The truth is, his Spanish wasn’t as terrible as people think. 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. Beckham’s supposed “lack of fluency” didn’t seem to inhibit his ability as a Madrid player. He scored 20 goals in 155 appearances and helped the club win La Liga in his final season in Madrid.

Zinedine Zidane admitted that the language barrier held them back from establishing a close friendship, but they were in tandem while playing. “My relationship with David is little,” said Zidane. “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.”

Does it really matter? Or should it? If a player can get by in a foreign language, make life comfortable for themselves and their families, that should be enough. As Zidane said, they understood each other perfectly. What Beckham lacked was the need to master the language to get by on a day-to-day level. He undoubtedly lived a comfortable existence, which was reflected in his performances.

But this isn’t enough for the Spanish media. Foreign footballers are making a living in their country and the press think they should speak the language. But why? The beauty in football surely lies in its capacity to allow for 11 people, perhaps from entirely different backgrounds and countries, to understand each other in pursuit of a common goal: victory.

The Sevilla team that beat Liverpool in the Europa League final last May, for example, featured players from Brazil, France, Portugal, Poland, Argentina, Uruguay and Ukraine – as well as a few Spaniards. As Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport has the power to transform the world, to inspire and to bring people together like few other things.” A portion of the Spanish media don’t seem to agree. The same media who have ingested various anglicisms into their footballing dialect over the past few years – words such as “top”, “box-to-box” and “show” to name just a few.

Even people working within the Spanish media 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 but he still retains a strong accent when speaking Spanish. Apparently, this isn’t good enough for some fans, who criticise his way of speaking and ask if he will ever lose his accent every time he appears on TV.

Robinson has hit back, saying his accent is what sets him apart – 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 even asking him to spend his holidays in England as opposed to Marbella.

Serbian defender Dusko Tosic 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 did not pick Tosic, citing the defender’s inability to understand what was going on during training sessions as the reason behind his lack of action.

Tosic was bemused, pointing out that he had never had similar problems while playing in England, France or Germany, where his ability with the language was minimal. To add to his predicament, the club neglected to employ a Spanish teacher to help him.

When Sami Khedira arrived at Madrid in 2010, the press criticism he received after his first game served as a wake-up call. The reason for his slow start – and Mesut Özil’s – was put down to the fact that neither spoke Spanish, which apparently complicated their integration with their team-mates. In truth, their lack of English was as important, as José Mourinho wasn’t able to fully to transmit his instructions to them. To quell the unrest among the Madrid press, Khedira reminded them that he’d only been in the country for three weeks and that he was taking Spanish lessons to help him improve.

One thing the press in Barcelona and Madrid have agreed upon in recent seasons was Pep Guardiola’s seemingly “impossible” near fluency in German when he arrived at Bayern Munich. Both sections of the Spanish media called him a “superhero” – and no doubt someone foreign players in Spain should look up to as an example. AS went as far as explaining how few errors he made during his presentation in Madrid, while El Mundo called him “a lover of impossible challenges” as if he was some sort of quasi-footballing Genghis Khan. They didn’t point out that Guardiola had spent a full year on sabbatical in New York, where he had German classes every day with a personal tutor.

The question remains, what excuses will the media use if Bale and Kroos put in poor performances once they demonstrate full fluency in Spanish? Time will tell.

The Guardian Sport