Does the World Cup Have a Lingua Franca?
How to curse out a referee from another country.
Frustrated Polish players complained on Wednesday that a blown call might cost them a chance to advance in the World Cup. On the same day, a Swiss referee made a questionable call that went against the team from Ukraine. What language do soccer players use when they bicker with the refs?
Any language at all, as long as they can get their point across. Many world-class players have spent time in teams around the globe and speak a variety of languages. The USA's Landon Donovan, for example, picked up some Spanish playing with Mexicans in Southern California, and then some German when he signed with Bayer 04 Leverkusen. If a player doesn't happen to share a language with the referee, he might yell in his native language just to convey that he's upset. "Any kind of fellatio comment is inevitably understood," says Alexi Lalas, who was on the U.S. World Cup roster in 1994 and 1998.
It helps to know a few choice phrases to throw at your opponents, and players sometimes brush up on their expletives for a particular game. Lalas once regaled an official in Ecuador with the Spanish translation of "son of a bitch." The resulting phrase turned out to be far more offensive than the English version, and he got a red card on the spot.
In a pinch, a player can resort to sign language. Hands together means "dive"—as in, "I didn't tackle him. He took a dive." A finger pointed at the eye tells the ref to "keep your eyes open." Opposing players might earn the international "choke" sign, or the just-as-easily interpreted "I'm a crying baby, boo hoo hoo."
Cursing out the refs may be one area where the American team has an advantage over its foreign rivals. According to a new rule, all of the referees selected for this year's tournament had to pass a test of written and spoken English. That ensures that all five officials at a given match can communicate with each other. (Each officiating team consists of three referees from the same country or region, and two more officials who might be from the other side of the world.)
For a little bonus help, players can consult the six-language dictionary of soccer-related terms that's handed out by FIFA. The book lists important phrases in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.
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Explainer thanks Fernando Clavijo of the Colorado Rapids and Alexi Lalas of the Los Angeles Galaxy.