Berlin Coach: My Players WILL Speak German | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 21.01.2003
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Berlin Coach: My Players WILL Speak German

Bundesliga coach Huub Stevens has caused controversy by ordering a 'German only' language policy for his multinational Hertha Berlin team - but is it enforceable?


Huub Stevens has had enough of interpreters coaching his team

What started out as an attempt to achieve more cohesion on the soccer field and a closer team spirit off it has turned into a major, and heated, debate on immigration in Germany. Hertha Berlin's Dutch coach Huub Stevens has ordered his multinational squad of Bundesliga stars to speak German and German only in a bid to raise his underperforming team from mid-table mediocrity to the heights of the German league's higher echelons. But with 16 foreign players on the club's books, Stevens has got his work cut out.

After his decree last week, Stevens told reporters that it would be German only in future -- on the field, in the changing room, on the team bus and in the hotel. "From now on German is the official language. All my players are going to have to communicate with each other in German. I don't want a group to talk to each other in Portuguese any more and another group using Dutch."

Relying on interpreters

The mixture of nationalities at Hertha Berlin -- the club has players from all over Europe and as far afield as Brazil -- is only matched by the mixture of competencies when it comes to the language of their adopted homeland. Until now, the coaching staff has relied on an extensive team of interpreters to get the game plan over to the footballers.

Consider the problems that arise from coaching Hungarian goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly, Belgian striker Bart Goor, Polish midfielder Bartosz Karwan, Croatian defender Josip Simunic and Dick van Burik of the Netherlands, amongst others and you can appreciate Huub Stevens' dilemma.

Marcelo dos Santos Marcelinho

Hertha's Marcelinho (right).

Brazilian stars Marcelinho, Luizao and Alex Alves, who communicate with each other in Portuguese, continue to struggle with the German language after two years in the country. "German is very hard," said Marcelinho in a short interview with Reuters. Marcelinho at least has a limited vocabulary; his countryman Luizao speaks virtually no German at all.

Cause for debate

The demands of the Hertha coach have caused intense debate in Germany, a country with more than eight million foreigners and unemployment above 10 percent. Immigration and the integration of foreign workers is a political hot potato that Gerhard Schröder's government has been juggling along with plans to pass a law easing requirements for skilled workers to move to Germany. Meanwhile, some opposition leaders say there is no room for more foreigners.

The political and ethical questions aside, experts are currently debating whether employers could legally make such demands on their employees. Christoph Schickhardt, a leading German attorney, said in a recent interview in the German tabloid Bild Zeitung that "employers have the right to issue guidelines like this. If it is necessary for the smooth operations of an organization, employers are entitled to make such requirements of their employees."

In an official statement, the German government's Labor Ministry could not say whether such a requirement was permissible.

Talent from abroad

The Bundesliga has an abundance of foreign talent on show week in week out. Those who have foreign players in their teams have been quoted as saying that they do not intend to follow the lead of Hertha's Huub Stevens. Michael Zorc, sports director for current champions Borussia Dortmund told the news agency AFP: "We're not going to do anything like that. We won't force any players to speak only in the 'official language.'"

With a number of Brazilians, as well as other foreigners, in the Dortmund team, the most common language is sometimes not their native one. With player's plying their trade across the globe, a grasp of any common language can help. Many of Dortmund's stars communicate in Italian. "The message always gets across, somehow," Zorc said.

Lessons for sportsmen

FC Bayern München gewinnt die Champions League 2001

Bayern Munich: the league of nations

Many clubs provide teaching programs for their foreign stars but insist these are not compulsory. Bayern Munich, a team with many international players, has no language requirements, though it provides German lessons and tutors for interested players.

Bayer Leverkusen 04 even works closely with linguist Uwe Wiemann from the University of Dortmund to develop and maintain a German program suited to the soccer player's lifestyle and basic language needs.

Leverkusen's Education Manager Frank Ditgens told DW-WORLD that the Bayer players were expected to attend the specialist German course developed at the club and learn the basics of the language. He added that if the players wanted to take German learning further, they did so on their own time without a directive from the club.

On the subject of enforced 'official languages,' Ditgens refused to pass comment on the Berlin situation but said "the (Leverkusen) players and staff talk together in German off the pitch and in training, but no one is made to. They are encouraged.... It helps the team." When asked if the players communicate in German during the game, Ditgens said that they use a simpler language -- "the international language of football."

No Bundesliga club has yet come out in support of Hertha's plan to enforce German as an 'official language'.

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