Darwin Nunez, Liverpool’s big summer signing, was the subject of some recent online ridicule. A quote was doing the rounds on social media: “The truth is, honestly, in the team talks (Klopp) gives, I don’t understand anything. I ask my teammates afterwards to find out what he said.”
This drew a range of predictably simplistic responses from the armchair pundits. “You don’t need to speak English to find the goal, mate” and “spent 90 million on a striker that doesn’t know what’s going on!” offers the general gist of the intellectual depth on show.
Rugby players will never know the pressure that comes with arriving at a new club that has paid £64m to acquire your services (and possibly rising to £85 million over time), and all the expectation that comes with it. This is particularly so for a striker, whose success or failure is largely determined by one metric – finding the back of the net.
It’s not the first time that Nunez has moved country, as he spent time in Spain and Portugal prior to his move to Merseyside. It is, however, the first time he has lived in a country where very few people can communicate with him (native Portuguese speakers can understand roughly 80% of Spanish).
Being unable to communicate in the working language of a team is an enormous hindrance to how well you can integrate. It is probably a less common issue in England than elsewhere, the ubiquity of the English language meaning most people have some grasp of the basics when they arrive.
It remains a major issue in certain countries and more specifically, certain sports. Take rugby in France, where close to half of each squad will be made up of non-French players. When I arrived in Grenoble, I quickly realised the ‘language barrier’ was very real, not just an excuse foreigners rolled out to deflect from weak efforts to assimilate.
In Grenoble, we had people at every point on the English-French spectrum. We had born-and-bred ‘Dauphinois’ (from the local Dauphiné region) who barely had a word of English and spoke French with such a ferociously strong accent that even bilingual foreigners struggled to understand them at times. We had Tongans who could speak fluent Japanese but who had a limited grasp of English and absolutely no French. And we had everything in between. This posed a number of problems, both on and off the pitch. Problems that are replicated across the board in French rugby.
From a social point of view, it meant the group was split in two from the off; the foreigners and the French guys. Certain players made a conscious effort to transcend the metaphorical – but real – barrier between the two camps. Most, however, did not. This was not done out of ignorance or spite (at least not always) but was a result of limited language ability and social awkwardness.
Because I arrived halfway through the season, the various social cliques had already been formed and were hard to penetrate. This wasn’t done deliberately; I have been on the other side of the process and in the depths of winter when you are battered and bruised and want to curl up on the couch on a Tuesday evening, it can be hard to remember to text the new fella and ask how he’s getting on.
Because the French group was younger, there was more opportunity to link up with them for dinner, coffees or pints, whatever it may have been. So I sucked it up and went for it. Anything that was on, I made an appearance. Usually being the only foreigner present, I got used to sitting there like a gormless idiot, nodding my head and smiling, hoping desperately that nobody would ask me anything.
When it happened, I would pretend I didn’t hear and someone would be kind enough to repeat what was said in English. I would feel the sweat appear on the back of my neck and pray for a swift end to the exchange. I won’t lie, it was rough. Thoroughly unenjoyable stuff. Then, after about four months, it clicked. I was able to hold my own and ultimately, start to participate as an equal.
With that came responsibility. At the start of the new season, I was designated one of the interpreters. Two or three players would be told to sit near me at every meeting so I could translate the coaches’ messages. The expertise required to translate effectively while simultaneously listening is incredible.
I am in awe of the professionals who do this with ease. I could understand about 80% of what was being said. At a push, I was able to get about half of this to the guys sitting around me. I couldn’t listen while translating, so I was missing whatever was being said while I was explaining things to the lads. So at a push, they were getting about 40% of what the coaches were trying to explain.
It was even less if there was a back-and-forth between a player and a coach as it was faster, less structured, and with more slang thrown into the mix. Anyone familiar with team environments knows how important those interactions are for clarifying detail, making slight improvements and solving problems so they don’t get repeated.
As you can imagine, some players understanding less than half of the coaching messages caused its own problems. The scrum, lineout, set plays, kicking game and general strategy are reliant on everyone being on the same page. One small error or someone getting their role wrong can ruin an attack or cause a line break in defence.
These players were not ignored completely but things would often only get repeated if they had messed something up. Sometimes, only a cursory explanation would be given and the mistake would be made again. Coaches would get annoyed that the player wasn’t getting it; the player would be annoyed that it had not been explained properly.
The language barrier also has a huge impact on the ‘micro-communications’ that happen constantly on a rugby pitch. You rarely stop talking for long during a game. You continuously chat to the men inside and outside you, announcing what position you are in the defensive line, who you are marking, or what role you have in attack. Even slight delays or misunderstandings can cause all sorts of problems.
People have been making light of the fact that Nunez has only scored two Premier League goals compared to Erling Haaland’s 15. While Haaland, a fluent English speaker, is undoubtedly a freak of nature, we shouldn’t overlook how difficult it must be for Nunez to find his feet when he can’t understand what is going on.