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Learning the language of love, and football

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column.

During the Spurs-Norwich game, André Villas-Boas, Spurs’ Portugese manager, sent on their new signing, the German international Lewis Holtby. He was carrying two small pieces of paper, as if his mam was sending him to the shops, to distribute to various players – possibly the French Cameroonian Assou-Ekotto, Lloris, who is French, or perhaps the Belgians Dembele and Vertonghen.

I was screaming and shouting at the TV. I pay a bloody fortune for all my various subs, surely you’re gonna let us see who gets the notelets – and more importantly, what the fuck do they say? I do tend to use bad language on my own, in front of the box.

Presumably they were tactics, not “Two pints of milk please” or “Goodness, your hair is looking nice today”. And presumably he was writing them down because Holtby, just off the plane from Germany, did not yet know what language his colleagues speak, or who they were – or his English was not up to carrying a verbal message. He was born in Germany, his mother is German, his father English. He must have some English but from my experience, it is the mother’s tongue and where you live that matters most. Most of all, I was desperate to know what language the notes were written in. I suspect one was in English and the other French. Just guessing.

On Match of the Day two weeks running we have had interpreters helping out on post-match interviews – translating from Spanish for Southampton’s new Argentine manager, Mauricio Pochettino, and then a French translater for Newcastle’s latest wonder boy, Moussa Sussoko. Eight of Newcastle’s first team squad are now French, which means loads of work for interpreters – and not just with the French players. Steven Taylor, one of the two Englishmen who regularly gets a game, says he is thinking of taking French lessons to understand the dressing- room banter. He won’t have to, of course. All our new foreign players – and over two thirds in the Prem are non-English – very soon start speaking English, being adaptable, quick, eager.

Football reflects society, at least London society. A report last week based on the last census revealed that almost every London borough has 100 different languages being spoken. When I go on the local bus, there is often no one at all speaking English. When I go back to Carlisle, the opposite is the case. But then it was always so. When I was growing up, foreigners meant Scots.

The change has been reflected in my own family –none of them married someone they had grown up with from their own small community, as I did. One married someone from Botswana, another is married to a French Cameroonian. Our son’s wife’s background is Italian-Irish. Our four grandchildren have blood from about six different streams. Lucky them. So boring being mono – they are the rich ones. I used to put it down to them going to local multicultured comprehensives but I think such mixing now happens in all social and economic classes – even poshos marry out these days.

The Southampton manager was asked if he felt it was a handicap, not speaking English, and he burbled on – if I understood the translation correctly – that in the dressing room, everyone understands the language of football. Steam coming out of Fergie’s ears doesn’t require an interpreter. Beckham needed only to say “bonjour” to be thought fluent. Or at least charming. The language that really matters in life – in football and in marriage – is body language. Get that right and you won’t go far wrong. Even if you still have to write the odd instructions on a scrap of paper.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone