The Languages of the World Cup

James Rodriguez’s “poem of a goal” against Uruguay. The English commentator likened it to the cream atop strawberries on a summer night.

Borges, in an interview, once said that he didn’t like soccer. “But it’s popular,” the interviewer said. To which the author of “Emma Zunz” replied: “Stupidity is also popular.”

Too bad. He was an hombre de letras attuned to the changing nature of language. Indeed, he once wrote an eloquent defense of Argentine Spanish that was prompted by a stilted argument presented by the Iberian cultural historian Américo Castro. But Borges was allergic to popular culture—not tangos and gauchos, which he adored, but to sports, Hollywood (though he did love movies), and other forms of mass entertainment.

The just-concluded World Cup, in which Germany was once again crowned champion, has been enormously rewarding on various fronts, not the least of which is the linguistic mare magnum it symbolized. The tournament seemed to offer something for everyone, including collective hysteria, as in Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 loss in the semifinals, and the grotesque behavior (think Boris Karloff) of the Uruguayan player Luis Suárez, who bit an opposing player in the middle of an action-packed match.

I watched all 64 games. It was an exuberant and exhilarating endeavor. An average of one hour and 45 minutes for each meant I was hooked to the TV screen for 112 hours, or 4.66 days, the vast majority of which I spent with the amusing and extraordinarily creative folks of Univision. The newscasters were from all over the Spanish-speaking world, with Mexico and Argentina leading the bunch in terms of accents. It was a feast for the ear.

A couple of lines stick in my mind. “El esférico nooooo rueeeeedaaaa mááááás”—the ball (e.g., the spherical object) no longer rolls. This is the way the broadcaster would conclude the narration of a match. Or “un poema en forma de gol”—another broadcaster describing a gorgeous goal (it might have been by Colombia’s striker James Rodríguez) as a poem.

And did I feel ruffled, as some friends did, whenever these same broadcasters would react to the camera focusing on a gorgeous female fan in the stands, saying they wanted to marry her? That is, that they wanted to marry each and every one of the female fans whom the camera zoomed in on? Such verbal pyrotechnics might be unacceptable for the ESPN English-language folks, but on Univision, where, as it turns out, the portion of the female audience between 18 and 45 watching the World Cup was at times even higher than its male counterpart, this suggestive language isn’t forbidden. On the contrary, it proved to be a welcome recipe since the Spanish-language network was seeking to retain, and perhaps even to enlarge, for the five weeks of the championship, the enormous public, largely women, regularly watching telenovelas on a daily basis at the same time.

The languages of the World Cup were everywhere. I was at a Portuguese restaurant in Provincetown, Mass., for a Portugal game. I was with Chileans for the Brazil vs. Chile game, with Mexicans when Mexico played Croatia and the Netherlands. I tuned in to French TV to hear commentary on Les Bleus and Italian TV to follow the response to Suárez “going Hannibal” on defender Giorgio Chiellini. On YouTube and on the web I watched Argentine, Iranian, and Japanese World Cup-related commercials, all in their native tongues.

Of course, on the field there is only one language: fútbol. Although, what tongue do the players of one team use to communicate with the opponent and—especially—with the referee? It depends, of course. On rare occasions they share the same language but, more often than not, they resort to the lingua franca of soccer: English. In after-the-match interviews, it was astonishing to hear a handful of them (the Brazilian defender David Luiz, for instance) butcher it, which is more than forgiven since they aren’t international idols because for their talent as orators.

When I finally switched to ESPN after the round of 16, because I wanted to see some action in HD, I was mesmerized by what I found. Former players like Alexi Lalas (U.S.A.), Gilberto (Brazil), Rudi van Nistelrooy (Netherlands), Santiago Solari (Argentina) and Michael Ballak (Germany) were regular commentators. It was delicious to listen to this other salad of accents. Obviously, some were more articulate, more inspiring than others. Lalas has become a more versatile commentator than he ever was a player. In van Nistelrooy’s case, it wasn’t that he butchered the English; it is simply that he had little to say that was of interest, and what he said seemed to have used a lexicon of only about 500 different words.

Clearly, the mishmash of accents was not without a political agenda. Whenever a Latin American team was playing, at least one commentator had a Spanish accent. The husband of my editor at The Chronicle, who is a soccer ref, speculates that this is a strategy by ESPN to draw viewers from Univision. He is only partially right. Fluent Spanish speakers go automatically to a channel where their language is the primary conduit. So the strategy might be a way to court English-dominant Latinos.

Every four years during the World Cup, we all become enthusiasts. But we’re also racial and national profilers. A couple of days before the Germany-Argentina final, a friend from the Institute of English and American studies at the University of Düsseldorf asked me which side I was rooting for. I confessed to her what I also confess here: for me—and I know I’m far from being alone—rooting for a team of this global magnitude is never without historical guilt. In my house (I’m Jewish), whenever Spain is playing, someone, often me, makes a reference to the atrocities committed by Iberian soldiers in the Americas in the 16th century. The Dutch invoke images of Vermeer, Van Gogh, Anne Frank, and marijuana. The surgical precision of the German players generates comments about Auschwitz. And the Argentines? Well, after soccer, the most popular sport in Latin America is Argentina-bashing, which isn’t hard given their pomposity. (A current joke: Can you imagine an Argentine who not only becomes pope but make a profession out of his humility? It’s a biblical miracle.)

So the final between Germany and Argentina was a duel of conflicted loyalties. And a display of physical control. Whereas the Dutch had been aggressive in their body language (Arjen Robben, in particular, but also their substitute goalie, Tim Krul), the Germans and the Argentines are always controlled, careful not to abuse the ref’s mood.

(By the way, last week I wrote about “sudden death” at the World Cup. I later learned the term had been changed by FIFA to “golden goal” because of its negative connotations. Talk about politeness!)

All in all, this World Cup was, once again, a lesson in international coexistence and an opportunity to reflect on the aftermath of the Tower of Babel. Borges was wrong: fútbol has nothing in common with stupidity. It is about intelligence, strategy, equanimity, and stamina. An event of this magnitude shows the globe’s languages in collision but also seeking—or at least pretending to seek—harmony and humanity.

Sadly, it is only a game.


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