I always see in TV referees communicating with the players in international football matches(both club and national competitions). It seems to be universal: not only in European matches, but also in Asian matches and World Cup etc. However something I don't really get is how are they supposed to communicate at all if they don't speak the same language.

I can only suppose that in this case, there exists a default lingua franca for communication, for example English, and all players more or less understand some basics of this language. (which would not be easy for professional sports players, and it's even more amazing that they can seem able to talk incessantly). If so, is it somehow specified as a rule, or just more of a custom?

Or, as an alternative, is there actually only the captain, or the few players who share languages in common with the referee doing the talking, while others express themselves more by body expressions and translation through the captain etc.?

Are international football referees (supposed to be & in reality) multilingual?

  • 2
    The main referee can talk to whoever s/he wants, but the captain is the main responsible for talking to the referee (even though noone seems to care much about that these days). Captains are usually picked based on seniority and positive influence on teammates, however, language proficiency is not the main criteria AFAIK.
    – posdef
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 13:48

3 Answers 3


FIFA referees are expected to be able to speak English. So if the referee who doesn't speak the language of a team (many international referees speak multiple languages) he will be talking English to them. Also notice that players know key words in English (if already not the same in their own language) such as sorry, foul, offside, goal...

Next thing you need to notice is that the referee will not just casually start a conversation with players. He will instruct players after fouls or controversial calls. So when a player commits a foul, he already knows what the referee will be talking about. Or when the referee makes a call that could go either way, he has a pretty good idea why the team that he made the call against them will be talking to him.

Another important fact is body language. The referees of FIFA, just like other governing bodies of international sports, use whistles and signals. So there is a distinct signal for each foul, just so everyone understands what's going on without having to translate all orders to different languages (think about the case when players of the same country speak different languages, then without use of signals, you would need multiple translators in all games). Even on top of that, referees try to use body language as much as possible to make everything clear for the players and coaches.

  • Also the chance for a referee, let's say from Austria, to get a game, let's say Madrif vs. Milan, is much bigger if he speaks in addition to English Spanish or Italian too...or in best case both.
    – Phab
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 8:17

There is a clear code based on body movement and whistles for all game-relevant calls. It does happen for various reasons but unlike in, say, rugby, players and referee(s) don't really need to talk much. When a situation escalates, people also insult each other or shout in their own language and you don't need to understand all the nuances to get the intent.

Beyond that, many top players have international careers so that many teams would include one or two people speaking German, Italian, etc. and a few people speaking English obviously. If you know their biographies, you will occasionally notice a French player who had a stint in Germany chatting with a referee from Austria, etc.


They use they hands to communicate with players because the referee tells the players if its a free kick by blowing a whistle and showing his/hers hands.

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    While this is true, a good referee (in any sport) will always do much more than just make the official signals. A gentle warning to a player is much more effective than pulling out a yellow card at every opportunity.
    – Philip Kendall
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 11:31

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