How do World Cup referees communicate with players?

June 27, 2018
How do World Cup referees communicate with players?

The recent FIFA World Cup has already seen a host of intense and exhilarating matches take place, and there’s plenty more excitement still to come. But what goes on behind the scenes in order to deliver the action on the pitch? In particular, how do the referees communicate with players from around the world, who may not speak the same language as them, without relying on translation services?

Basic World Cup communication

There are gestures in place in order that the most basic elements of a football game can be delivered without the need for spoken language. The hand and arm gestures that referees use, along with blows of the whistle, are understood around the world. So too are the yellow and red cards that are used when players break the rules. Englishman Ken Aston, in fact, invented the cards as a means of overcoming international language barriers during the ‘beautiful game.’  

World Cup communication – the next level

While the gestures, whistle and cards allow a game to be played by ensuring that the players can understand the referee, they do not allow players to communicate with that referee. As such, linguistic considerations come into play as soon as a player wants to appeal a decision or attempt to explain why their foul really doesn’t deserve a yellow card. 

This year’s 36 referees and their 63 assistants hail from 46 different countries, while teams from 32 nations take part. Those 32 nations include eight that predominantly speak Spanish, four Arabic speakers, three English speakers and two each that speak French, German and Portuguese as their main language. Between them, the rest of the entrants speak Croatian, Danish, Dutch, Icelandic, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Russian, Serbian and Swedish. Clearly, both players and officials have their work cut out when it comes to clear communication. 

One of the ways that FIFA attempts to deal with this is by requiring that individuals learn to speak English before they can referee international fixtures. UEFA, the European football association, also tends to use English as a go-to language. As such, players who want to be able to argue with the ref, or even just calmly get their point across, need to be able to do so in English.  

English as the international language of football

The use of English by FIFA referees reflects English’s dominance when it comes to international communications, despite its only being the world’s third most spoken language. In many ways, it seems strange that English has eclipsed Spanish in this respect. Spanish does, after all, have a larger number of native speakers around the world. There are also more Spanish speaking teams in the 2018 World Cup than there are for any other language. For that matter, there are more Arabic speaking teams in this World Cup than there are English speaking teams. 

FIFA does give a nod to this in some of its documentation, which lists German, French and Spanish as its official languages, alongside English. However, English remains very much the lingua franca of football. 

Much of the reason behind this is likely to relate to England’s long-standing connection with football. While debate rages about which nation actually invented the game, it was the expansion of the British Empire that spread the rules of football as we know it today around the world, following the implementation of these rules at English public schools in the 19th century. England was also the first country to establish a professional football competition, in the form of The Football League in 1888. These factors have no doubt influenced the reputation of England – and its language – in the eyes of the global football community and contributed to the increasing use of English in the World Cup. 

Final thoughts

Are you surprised that English has become the World Cup’s lingua franca instead of Spanish? Or were you expecting another language to be used? Leave a comment to let us know your thoughts. While you’re here, you can also check out the new Tomedes Text Summarizer!

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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