How FIFA overcame soccer’s language barrier

Photo: eko via Flickr

Photo: eko via Flickr

Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Nina Porzucki.

The World Cup kicked off this with a match between Brazil and Croatia officiated by a Japanese referee. How do Croatians, Brazilians and Japanese communicate on the field?

After the Croatian team lost the opening match, the Croatian player, Vedran Corluka complained that he couldn’t understand the referee.

“He was speaking Japanese,” said Corluka, “so it was real difficult to communicate with him.”

This isn’t the first incident of miscommunication on the soccer field. In fact, miscommunication is what gave birth to one of the most infamous symbols of soccer.

Ever wonder what players are saying to the referee on the field?

Peter Walton has heard it all. He is a former Premier League referee. But when Walton, or any FIFA referee for that matter, talks back to players it should be in English and not Japanese or any other language.

FIFA referees take English courses to learn the basics of what they need to know to communicate on the field.

“’Off’ for example is universal and everyone knows what ‘off’ means when you red card a player,” said Walton.

Not always so. The red card was actually born out of a misunderstanding about “off” on the field.

The year was 1966. The World Cup was being hosted in England and it was a tense quarter final match between host England and Argentina. The referee for the match was German.

Around 35 minutes into the game, the referee called a foul against Argentina.

Argentina’s captain, Antonio Rattin, questioned the foul. The problem was, as he said in an interview later, he was speaking Spanish, which the referee didn’t understand.

Things got increasingly heated. There were wild gesticulations and raised voices in various languages. And then the German referee sends Rattin “off.”

“Because of miscommunication, because of some language barrier and also because of body language issues, the ref didn’t communicate to Rattin or Rattin didn’t pick it up, and [he] stayed on the field.”

The Argentine captain refused to walk, stopping the game for eight minutes – an eternity in soccer. He finally did leave the field and the game resumed but most importantly, that moment of complete breakdown in communication forced FIFA to innovate

“FIFA said look we’ve got to have a way of communicating to the players and the public at large when there’s been some disciplinary sanction,” said Walton.

The idea came from the head referee of those 1966 World Cup games, a man called Ken Aston. Aston was stopped at a traffic light one day and it suddenly occurred to him.

“Yellow, take it easy; red: stop, you’re off”

And so the red and yellow cards were born.

They were first used in the 1970 World Cup held in Mexico and have since become a symbol of soccer. As soon as the referee puts his hand in his pocket, the players, the coach and the entire crowd knows.

In fact, the act is so entrenched that you don’t even need the cards themselves. Referee Peter Walton found this out the hard during one Premier League match when in the middle of the field he reached into his pocket and there was nothing there.

“To my dismay, [I] found that I’d left my red and yellow cards in the locker room,” he said. “There I was in front of the worldwide TV audience and what did I do? I just put my hand in the pocket and pulled out this imaginary card and held my hand aloft with no card in it and said, ‘There’s your caution.’ I thought I got away with it until the TV picked it up and if you Google my name on YouTube you’ll have a laugh yourself.”

It is quite a funny video.


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