A common theory, you could say common knowledge, dictates that football players are thick.  There are probably more PC ways of saying that, but writing from the perspective of a thick person, I feel I can say that.

I’m not going to pretend I haven’t said that before myself, very often their lack of brain power is exhibited publicly, they say some stupid things in front of the cameras, have trouble stringing a sentence together, or baffle us with their decision making both on the field and when choosing how to dress…footballers are dunderbrains.

Or are they?

I happen to disagree with that perspective, and I’ll tell you why.

Think about the current NUFC squad, among the 31 players we have (excluding those on loan) there are 14 different nationalities (OK, Dan Barlaser is a Geordie, but he qualifies for Turkey, so I’m sticking to that).

Between those 14 nationalities there are 6 different languages represented, not taking into account differences between Argentinian Spanish and Spanish, or the French spoken in the Ivory Coast, Senegal or the DRC.

Bearing in mind that the majority of the squad are in their 20s, they face an incredible hurdle every time they go to training or a match, and perhaps more so in their daily lives around the Toon.  Just imagine, when you were 20, could you have rocked up in Rotterdam and conversed entirely in Dutch?

Now, we are in England, and so we would expect that training is conducted in English, especially considering our manager is English and his support staff are mostly English (one Brazilian and a Scot).  Granted, Steve McClaren speaksh Dutch, and Ian Cathro almost certainly Spanish, but it is reasonable to assume that English is the lingua franca on the training pitch.

If all the players were English, and Kenny Dalglish was still manager there would be communication problems, so imagine the potential for miscommunication with 6 different languages present.

We are still arrogant enough in this country to assume that all other nations strain at the bit to learn English, and in most cases that is true, so when a 20-year-old Serb shows up, we expect him to speak English perfectly and be able to immediately understand everything being asked of him by the gaffer.  The chances of that are slim.

He might understand the gist, he might pick up the key points, but for him to appreciate the very nuanced terms used in a professional football club would be a feat requiring excellent language skills, the hallmark of a very clever person indeed.   That is when he is speaking to an Englishman used to dealing with people of all nationalities, at other times he is speaking to a 20 year-old Spaniard or Frenchman, maybe even a broad Geordie, the opportunities for misunderstanding grow exponentially.

I’m using Mitro as an example of course, because he is in the minority, he is the only player who speaks Serbian (as far as I am aware), while all the other players have at least one language buddy.

Language isn’t simply a code through which we communicate though, it contains a wealth of other more subtle paths through which misunderstanding can occur.  Every language, every nation, every region within a nation, has its own culture, and within that its own footballing culture.  This can be a definite bonus on the pitch, the mixture of cultures can combine to create a winning formula, or it can contribute to icy stares and missed passes.

football players

Of course, the club should have its own culture, and that should influence the players.  At the moment, our culture is one of losing, and that needs to change.  To return from my digression, the point I wanted to make is that with several cultures combining in different doses (5 Dutch, 6 French, 10 British, 1 Serb, 1 Argentinian, 1 Spaniard etc…) it is very likely that miscommunication, or disagreement, occurs on a daily basis, and not only because of language.  To engage meaningfully in a work environment as pressured as a football club in these conditions, and for people so young, an incredible level of emotional intelligence is required, regardless of language.

I realise this is true of almost every Premier League club, indeed, almost every professional club in the world, but it doesn’t detract from the opinion that in order for any of these clubs to function successfully they must have staff (players) who are able to assimilate not only into a new environment in a new country with a new language, but also to fully understand and engage with colleagues from potentially any corner of the world.  To me, this is amazing.

When a new player arrives at a club, say, a 20-year-old Serbian, is it reasonable to expect him to adapt to a new way of playing football, suddenly having at least double the money he has ever had before, a new home in a new city in a new country, to play in a new stadium almost twice the capacity of the previous one he was playing in, all of this in a language he may only have a basic grasp of and with others who may not speak English in a (for him) recognisable way and in front of fans who are fed up and angry?

Probably not.

Then consider the fact that there are 4 others in his boat, several more who have only had 1 year longer to acclimatise, and beyond that a group of young lads who are only just coming to terms with their situation (however brilliant the situation is, they still need to adapt to it).

To most of these guys it’s like winning the lottery, and if I won the lottery I would have trouble keeping my head together, never mind being part of the rollercoaster ride that is professional football.

None of this is an excuse for poor performances, and they are all in the same situation, but I like to sometimes spare a thought for the mental and emotional processing that must be taking place in these young guys’ minds.

They are not thick.  They may be academically challenged, some of them, and their ability to handle money is mixed (judging by some of the awful purchases they make), their footballing ability is sometimes lacking and they can make absolutely terrible life choices/dangerous mistakes, but on the whole, they are actually very intelligent.

There are obvious exceptions.  Nile Ranger being a prime one.  He was spectacularly unable to handle the change in his situation (his fault?) and has lived up to the ‘thick footballer’ moniker perfectly.  However, considering the sheer number of professional footballers in the world, and the money they earn, I am surprised there aren’t more Titus Brambles.

These are the incoherent ramblings of a guy who spends too much time thinking, and not enough time thinking, so I reserve the right to completely change my opinion at the drop of a hat in the face of evidence to the contrary.

By the way, I approached NUFC to ask if I could conduct a study into the cultural communication at the club, but was summarily rebuffed.  I’ll try again later.

Athletic Bilbao have never been relegated and have won La Liga 8 times.  They haven’t won one since 1983-84, which was the last time they won the Copa del Ray.

Are footballers thick?  Is a culturally mixed squad an advantage?  What do you think?

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