There is a tale of a football club’s recent big-money signing painstakingly waiting for installation of internet at his new house that highlights the fact money and status do not insulate footballers from hardship.
The player did not speak English and, without a reliable broadband connection, was unable to speak to friends and family back home. The telecommunications company said the wait would be over a week.
In his first few days, the player got into a lonely routine of training and then returning to his large, lavish house alone. He was unable to communicate with anybody in his new surroundings. With the help of the club’s player liaison department, a mobile dongle provided a necessary short-term solution.
The process of learning of a language is often overlooked by football supporters when discussing the settling-in period for new arrivals.
The absence of €50 million Fabinho from Liverpool’s last three matchday squads has been attributed to his need to adjust to the demands of English football. But, off the pitch, there will be a major adaptation period for the Brazilian.
Both he and fellow summer recruit Naby Keita are limited in their ability to speak and understand English. Such skills are essential in the view of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
During his first few weeks in charge, Klopp told Alberto Moreno he wanted the Spaniard to fully grasp English. The Liverpool manager was also taken aback by Alisson’s “surprisingly good” command of English.
“It’s hugely important,” Alan Redmond, Liverpool’s former language tutor and co-author of ‘Oxford English for Football’, tells ESPN FC. “Ten times out of ten I find that the best players have an appetite to learn.
“I won’t name names, but I can think of seven or eight occasions where players turned up and you could see they had no interest in learning the language.
“Usually in the first or second transfer window they were out of there on loan or permanently.”
Helping new signings settle is a routine drill for major football clubs. Clubs have staff in place to aid players find places to live, locate schools for their kids and help with other related tasks.
Learning the language, though, is entirely dependent on the player and their willingness to immerse themselves in a new culture.
The lessons begin with words and phrases that will help the player do what they have been signed to do: perform on the pitch.
“The player has got to be able to understand his coach and the player has got to be able to understand things in general life,” Redmond says.
“The priority in the initial stages was that they could understand the coach. We were giving them high-frequency words and expressions that coaches and teammates may use.
“I speak Italian, Spanish and French. The key for me with every language is verbs. You would usually find that when the players have no English, which sometimes happens, when they’re trying to understand teammates, they’re trying to usually spot one or two words in a sentence that’ll help them identify what the hell he’s talking about. Usually the verb would be the crucial word.”
Elite football matches require players to process great amounts of information quickly and over the course of 90 taxing minutes. Redmond believes that ability can aid the language-learning process.
In 2013, a study that involved the Manchester United squad — led by Professor Jocelyn Faubert from the University of Montreal — found footballers were quicker to pick up certain new skills faster than the average PhD student.
“It’s a myth that players are stupid,” Redmond, who now works as a football agent, says. “I don’t really remember meeting any stupid footballer.
“They might not have paid too much attention in physics class, but they’re usually quite switched on and they’ve had to grow up quite quickly. I’m often surprised by how mature a 20-year-old kid can be.”
Particularly in England, the packed schedule leaves little time for anything other than football. But the timing of language lessons is another factor to consider.
Jasper Cillessen moved to Barcelona from Ajax in 2016. The goalkeeper used to schedule his Spanish classes after training, but was finding it difficult to absorb anything from them. However, moving the lessons to later in the day, when he was not mentally and physically fatigued, helped massively.
“You’ve got certain players who are really driven on the pitch. That’s usually how they were in a learning environment as well,” Redmond says.
“I’d say that sometimes even in the first meeting with a player you’d know how they’re going to be as a student.
“The hard thing is with very young players, who arrive at academies. For the first time in their lives, they may be doing a lot of work in the gym and the level of training in England is a lot more severe than it was at their previous club.
“You see them after a training session and they can barely stand. They do their best but they struggle.
“I used to find that a lot of Spanish players wanted their lessons quite late — say 8 or 9 o’clock at night. That’s because they’d go home and have a sleep after training.
“Ideally you’d get the player first thing in the morning, but it never happened. Usually it would be immediately after training — where they’re still a little bit perked up before they get that slump.
“Rather than time of the day, it comes down to the attitude of the player. The time of day helps, but it’s marginal. It comes down to the player’s willingness.”
Liverpool’s Adam Lallana once said he had a relationship with Brazilian Roberto Firmino on the pitch that did not require communication. That, he believed, was a result of knowing each other’s game inside and out from the training pitches at Melwood.
The common phrase is that football is a universal language — something Redmond agrees with to a certain extent.
“If you sign a player with unbelievable talent then he’s going to perform anywhere,” he says. “What I would say, if he’s not speaking the language he’s not going adapt.
“In those hours where he’s not playing or training, if he’s just in his house and doesn’t feel like he can communicate when he goes outside, it’s a huge frustration. You may have an incredible performer, but you probably don’t have a happy person.
“I know of a couple examples at big clubs. I can think of one player who has been at his club for five or six years now and I don’t think he speaks any English. They’re quite rare examples.”
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