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FIFA U-17 World Cup is not just a big stage for the teenaged players and their coaches, but it has also provided a great opportunity for some Indian youths unconnected with the sport — as Team Liaison Officers (TLOs). Their job is to act as the bridge between FIFA and the teams, be the voice of the teams who don’t know English or the local Indian language, facilitate their travel around different cities, and act as interpreters at press conferences.
Most of these TLOs are from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which has a reputed foreign languages programme.
“It’s one thing to converse in Spanish, as I do with the Honduras team… But it’s a different kind of pressure when I am in front of television cameras and media, and I have to get the coach’s views across,” says Jitendra Kumar, among those from JNU.
He makes it a point to pen down the key points before translating the questions for the coach or players. Sometimes, Jose Valladares, the Honduras team’s coach, speaks in rapid Spanish. Jitendra then doesn’t get much time to collect his thoughts: cameras are rolling, media personnel waiting to understand what was said. “I have to find the appropriate English words, understand the football terms, and convey what he said,” says Jitendra.
Another factor is the various dialects within a team. “It’s tough to get all the dialects — there’s Franconian, Alsatian, Alemannic and Bavarian. So it’s not just one uniform language,” says Aditya Madan, who is with Germany.
The TLOs were selected after a careful vetting process. Earlier this year, an advertisement was put out seeking volunteers fluent in French, Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Persian, Spanish and Portuguese apart from English. The applicants had to pass language tests — spoken and written — and even their accents were scrutinised. For instance, a TLO assigned to Colombia would not only have to know Spanish, but also speak the same dialect as in Colombia. They were also subjected to thorough background checks by the police.
Acting as interpreters at press conferences is just part of the job. They take the team shopping and accompany the players everywhere — even to a hospital, as in the case of Madan. “One of them needed an MRI, and that’s when I interacted with most of the players. There are a few Turkish-origin players, who asked me about Bollywood and if I had met Shah Rukh Khan,” recalls Madan.
Ansari Abdul Rahman, who is from Azamgarh and is currently pursuing his MPhil from Delhi University, has been assigned to Iran. “I studied Persian all my life… Persian poetry has a 2000-year-old history. Iran’s coach comes from a city of great Persian poets… I don’t want to make any mistake,” he says.
For some like Mohsin, New Caledonia’s TLO, it is an opportunity to learn another language. While he is proficient in Spanish, he is picking up Arabic as well. “I would then know Spanish and Arabic… It will give me a chance to work in North African countries like Morocco, Tunisia,” he says.
Professor Vijay Rajan, who is with the Mali team, is a law professor at a Delhi University college. He speaks French, and has lived in Africa (Mali, Senegal and Nigeria) for over four years.
Veer Kartik, the Paraguay TLO who is also from JNU, has been learning Spanish since 2015. Mohammad Rizvan, a student from Uttar Pradesh who has been assigned to Turkey, is of Turkish ancestry.
Vikram Rudraksh, who learnt French, applied for the post just before his Class XII Board exams. He has been assigned to Niger. He once aspired to be a footballer, and still plays for Real Sports Club in Gurgaon. He hopes to be a part of the Indian team. “I want to do some course related to data science in college, so that I can be a part of the team as a data analyst,” he says.
For Jitendra, learning Spanish is his ticket to “travelling the world and understanding different cultures”. He spent the last two years trying to crack the civil services exam. “I shut down my phone, cut out all entertainment and just studied,” he says. He got through the prelims, but the next step proved elusive. “Language mein bahut paisa hai (There is a lot of money in language). People don’t understand that. I didn’t want a 9 to 5 job at some corporate — I want more from life,” he says.
— With inputs from Shivani Naik in Margao, Sandip G in Kochi