14

You can see this for instance when players discuss a free kick, or talk to the referee, or when talking to a colleague on the pitch. I understand the fear of being spied on by someone and communicating information to the opponent. But really? Has this ever been a thing? I mean, no one can pass such quickly passed information to anyone. For example, when two players discuss a free-kick, no one will be able to inform the goalkeeper of anything.

And also, can untrained people really read the lips of other players so easily, especially if it is in another language? Players might suspect a translator off the pitch, perhaps looking with binoculars, could help with the translation, but again, this information, if ever accurate, could be very slow to transmit, and hence become useless.

So, the real question is, why bother? Has such information ever been used against a team? This trend in covering the mouth became widespread, in my experience, around 5 years ago. Thus, for example, in most World Cups ever played, this was not a thing. Why the sudden concern? Does FIFA have anything to say about this?

  • In a sports with millions of dollars on the line you think they are going to use an untrained lip reader that does not know the language? You can transfer information at the speed of light with a simple hand signal. – paparazzo Jul 5 '18 at 0:26
13

The general belief around this is that they do not want to give away important tactical information to their rivals on the pitch, or watching on TV. Another common belief is that actually they are hiding their mouths so that their words cannot be interpreted via lip reading from footage. But it's not only in football: this happens in many team sports.

During the 2014 FIFA World Cup some media outlets used lip reading experts to reveal insight, thoughts and strategy. From this bbc.com article:

Luiz Felipe Scolari's squad have taken to covering their mouths on the pitch to stop intrusive Brazilian television stations from gaining an unwelcome insight into their thoughts and strategy.

One programme, TV Globo's Fantastico, revealed some of Scolari's advice to his players during the World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia...

[Brazilian coach Scolari told a press conference regarding lip reading:] "We are not free to work on the pitch anymore."

Taking a line from this quora answer:

To avoid cameras, so that the media does not conjure a syllable out of thin air.

From that same BBC article, Brazil's reserve goalkeeper Jefferson stated:

"Sometimes there are tough, ugly words and this is normal. But some TV shows make a big fuss about it."

One another reason for this might be to amplify the voice - from an article in thesun.co.uk:

Renowned PR consultant Phil Hall, who has worked with some of the biggest clubs and names in the Premier League, says no-one is being advised to cover up to protect vital team plans.

Hall said: "A player once told me one of the main reasons they do it is, sometimes you are doing it when you are close to somebody, it amplifies your voice so they can hear you.

Hall again states:

"In NFL there is a whole pattern of tactics and play calls that can be read by a lip reader, but in football the game is just not that structured where it could potentially make a difference."

The articles I am referencing mention that players are not actually briefed to talk like this.


References:

  1. World Cup 2014: Brazil players cover mouths to block lip-reading
  2. Real reason players cover their mouths on the pitch...
  3. Why do footballers cover their mouths when they are talking?
  4. Why do football (soccer) players cover their mouths by hand while speaking both to the same and opposing team's players?
  5. Why do players cover their mouths?
7

The players cover their mouths so no-one can understand what they are talking about. This is not something new, but as games are covered with more cameras in more angles the mouth covering becomes more common.

You're right to point that it is unlikely to pass the info players talk about back to the pitch for that play. But teammates can talk about strategies the coaches have designed ahead of times specially during set plays. For example if the team has 3 good moves for a free kick near the penalty box, they could go over each strategy to agree on which move to make. While having someone lipread them and propagate the info back to the field is not beneficial to the opposing at that very moment, if the players don't cover their mouths they have unveiled team strategies for anyone watching the game, and hence giving advantage to their future opponents. So in our example the opposing teams in the future games will know of the 3 strategies, so the team with players who didn't cover their mouths can be at a disadvantage. While playing in high stake tournaments like the World Cup which also happens only once every 4 years, you can safely assumes teams spend such resources to find out about opponents strategies.

Another time players cover their mouths is when talking trash and insulting one another, you see these when players of opposing teams cover their mouths when talking. They do so to avoid possible suspensions and/or having to talk about what they just said in news conferences.

The covering of the mouth is also common in other sports such as basketball where the field of play is smaller and there are fewer players on the field. This means that having a camera on one player at all times is realistic and so it is much easier to lipread what they say.

3

It's because they don't want to get their lips read, not in the match but after that.

Usually when you are playing a team sport, you have various codes, more or less hideous, that are useful to communicate to your team which plays or strategies you have to use in that moment regarding the training. Maybe it's a bit exagerated but seing Neymar saying "hey we are going to do the 3.14" and then do some trained play over and over is useful for the rival team when you are preparing for the match, knowing how that sentence sounds, when they are more used to use it, etc.

Think that before every match, the team and most of all the trainers, watch several matches of the next rival several times to try and achieve the most understanding possible of how they play, what are their strategies, their favourite plays, etc. Often times the team sends a few persons to watch the rival training in order to know wich strategy will use against you in your next match by seeing what is the focus of the training. Imagine also knowing the codes and how they use it or how it sounds. That would be another advantage.

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