They say football is an international language, right up there with love and emojis. Hence a Brazilian striker can seem to settle instantly at a provincial Russian club where nobody speaks a syllable of Portuguese. When he does have to talk, he uses a salad of broken English, wonky Spanish, finger wagging and shrugging. It doesn’t really matter what he says, though. Because, at its essence, football is extra-linguistic. You can play it in the shadow of the tower of Babel.
But Babel is a tough place to live in, as all those who find themselves in a land beyond the reach of their tongues can attest. If you can’t speak properly to your local supply of human beings, you get lonely. You don’t laugh enough or express the fullness of yourself. And that hurts your heart, and football is fed by the heart.
Steve Komphela understood this when he started playing in Turkey, and being the linguistic freak he is, he immersed himself in Turkish so deeply that he eventually hosted his own TV chat show – in which he expressed the bejeezus out of himself, in Turkish, nogal.
Not everyone has Komphela’s ear, though, and South Africa’s exports have traditionally done better in countries where English is widely spoken: in England, but also in the Low Countries and Scandinavia.
Suddenly, and surprisingly, the foreign legion is migrating to Gallic territory. Some of our finest young footballers are shining at the pinnacle of Francophone football – Ligue 1, where you will find English only slightly more useful than isiZulu or Afrikaans.
And given that South African exports are enjoying little success in other major and middleweight leagues, the South African Football Association should consider making French lessons mandatory at all elite football academies in South Africa.
Striker Lebo Mothiba is in scalding form for his new club, Strasbourg, and the elegant central midfielder Bongani Zungu is excelling for Amiens. Keagan Dolly has struggled for fitness and game time at Montpellier, but he is too good to come home anytime soon. Lebogang Phiri joined the trio last year after signing for EA Guingamp.
Mothiba told New Frame that Ligue 1 is a challenging but compatible stage for South African footballers’ technical gifts. “French football is different to the PSL. There, in France, it’s more dynamic. The ball goes forward and it’s more aggressive – it’s intense. But South Africans are very technical. It’s good for us going there to learn other different styles of play … and putting it together with how we play, then you become a great player.”
Mothiba has netted four times in his first six games for Strasbourg. He made history with Bafana Bafana by becoming the first player to score three goals in his first three matches. He is a powerful, polished centre forward, strong in the air and slick on the deck – not unlike a young Benni McCarthy. France Football magazine has hailed as him as a “real talent”, rating him the third most promising player in Ligue 2 in 2017, where he was playing on loan at Valenciennes.
In short, Mothiba promises to be the best South African finisher of the next decade – but his accomplishment is not merely expressed on the pitch.
La vie en rose (Life in happy hues)
Mothiba, a product of the Johannesburg-based Diambars academy, has lived in France for nearly five years – ever since he was signed by Lille at age 18, and you can get a sense of his comfort and pleasure in speaking French from the press conference he gave upon signing for Strasbourg at the end of August.
Mothiba’s French doesn’t have the slurry pace of the fully fluent or mother-tongue speaker; instead it is clear, measured, confident. He clearly relishes the musical elegance of the language, even while recycling deadline-day clichés. “Je suis content d’arriver ici, parce que Strasbourg est un club avec un grand histoire. Je suis lá pour apprendre, parce que je suis un jeune joueur.” (I am happy to be here, because Strasbourg is a club with a great history. I’m here to learn, because I’m a young player.)
And in contrast to so many stars who sulk when compelled to acknowledge the press, Mothiba is all smiles, skilfully deploying his good looks and charisma to win support among the Strasbourg media pack. This is a player who feels entirely at home, but lacks the complacent arrogance of the hometown hero. Such comfort with the textures of a foreign society is rare. Of course it helps to have moved abroad as a teenager, when the brain can still reel in a fresh language like a big, juicy trout.
He told New Frame last weekend that he had been taking private language lessons since his arrival in France. “I’m not comfortable, but I can speak French. I’m good. I understand and I speak the language.” For Mothiba, some degree of fluency is mandatory if you want to succeed in France. “They can’t be giving you instructions and you don’t understand. If you understand, it makes it easier for you to move forward and know what they want.”
Phiri is fluent in French, said Mothiba, while Dolly and Zungu are able to understand much of what they hear. Speaking is another kettle of fish. “With time, they will also speak it, but it’s tough.”
Gifts of the gab
Black South African footballers also have an advantage in that most are multilingual before they even leave our shores. Studies have demonstrated that acquiring additional languages, whether in childhood or adulthood, has huge cognitive benefits that monolingual people don’t get.
Learning a new language builds a person’s capacity for remembering lists through the drilling of vocab and conjugations. It also improves the power of analytical observation, and provides the tools express subtle concepts by borrowing phrases and metaphors from other languages. Researchers even claim that multilinguals think more calmly and clearly about new information, thanks to the experience of interpreting other languages. They are better at seeing through political propaganda, and better at managing their personal finances because they discern real money from credit.
Mothiba’s Francophony doesn’t help him find space behind the defence. But it does give him space off the pitch in which to express his fullest self in the land of the world champions.