In the spring of 2003, I interviewed Arsenal midfielder Robert Pires at a French restaurant in North London.
He was charming, intelligent and articulate, but despite living in England for the previous three years, he didn’t speak a word of English and the interview was conducted through a translator.
When asked if he was learning English, Pires looked embarrassed and said, “I’d really like to learn, but in three years, I haven’t found the time. I had lessons at the beginning, but when you play so often, it’s not easy to concentrate on learning, but I know it’s a mistake.”
Though Pires regretted the decision, it clearly was not having any detrimental impact on his career.
At that moment, he was the best player in the Premier League and the reigning Footballer of the Year, having helped guide Arsenal to the Premier League and FA Cup double the previous season.
As football becomes an increasingly global sport, Pires reminds us that players don't have to learn the native language or assimilate into the local culture in order to succeed.
“I don’t need to learn English to be at Arsenal,” Pires told me. “Every day, I am seeing French players, a French coach, going to restaurants with people who speak French—it’s actually hard to learn English.
“If I had ended up at a club other than Arsenal where I was the only French player, I would have learnt English.”
In the Premier League, where players are shielded from the media and don’t actually have to speak publicly as much as one would imagine, Pires could get away with not knowing English.
When he won a Man of the Match award for another superlative display in the 2001-02 season, he appeared in front of the cameras to accept a bottle of champagne and uttered just five words: “Thank you very much. Goodbye."
Next to him, Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman was left to describe Pires’ winning goal instead of the man himself.
Ten years later, this scene is still repeated when Carlos Tevez, who has been in England for seven years, receives a post-match award and prefers to say very little, deferring to his English-speaking teammates.
The glut of goals Tevez has scored in English football for West Ham, Manchester United and Manchester City offers further definitive proof there isn’t a language barrier to overcome.
It was quite a shock to see Antonio Valencia accept his Manchester United Player of the Year award last season and be unable to deliver a short acceptance speech in English a full five years after moving to England.
However, this was on an evening when he was being hailed as United’s best player over the previous nine months, so once again, his minimal language skills clearly weren't affecting his football skills.
In the early days of the Premier League, when foreign players were still a novelty and most clubs signed athletes from abroad, players were immediately enrolled into English lessons. Now, clubs no longer see it as a necessity. If the player is performing on the pitch, that is all that matters.
On the training pitch, players and coaches often talk about the universal language of football. It can take only a couple of hours to learn the important commands and shouts needed to communicate while playing.
When Southampton surprisingly appointed Argentine Mauricio Pochettino as manager in January, Saints fans were aghast and wondered how he could have any impact when he spoke no English and had to speak to the press and players through an interpreter.
“Football is an international language,” Pochettino said. Though it sounded cliché, he proved to be right over the following two-and-a-half months by lifting Southampton to relative safety in the table while securing wins over Chelsea and Manchester City.
By speaking through an interpreter and physically showing his players what he wants, Pochettino has gotten over any language barrier.
“I feel I’m communicating well with the players, and most of the time the communication is about gestures rather than verbal communication,” he said.
“Footballers are able to understand better a gesture of positioning or movement than a word. But it is key for me as time goes, that I am able to communicate verbally better with them.”
On the international stage, even though Guus Hiddink spoke virtually no Korean, he was worshiped in South Korea for taking them to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup.
Foreign language tutors shouldn’t despair, as learning the native language can help players settle into a new country quicker. In this video, a number of foreign players, including Petr Cech, Gilberto Silva, Didier Drogba and Dirk Kuyt, all stress the importance of learning English if a player comes to the Premier League.
“If the player who comes to England, they don’t, he doesn’t speak English, my first advice is to learn English and to speak well to understand what’s going on," says Cech.
When English players have gone abroad, the ones who have made the effort to learn the language —including David Platt and Ray Wilkins becoming fluent in Italian in the 1980s and 1990s —enjoyed more success than those who didn’t, like Ian Rush at Juventus in the 1980s and, more recently, Michael Owen at Real Madrid.
There are no rules, but the advantages of learning the language of the country you are both playing and living in are obvious.
However, as the Premier League and the rest of the world's football leagues become increasingly multicultural, it is clear that players don’t always have to overcome the language barrier to enjoy success.
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