Football Isn’t Just a Game: How Teaching English to Foreign Players at Nottingham Forest Formed Life-Changing Connections

Words: Emily Boaler
Photos: Emily Boaler
Thursday 20 July 2023
reading time: min, words

Emily Boaler was just seven years old when her mum was offered a job teaching English to foreign players at Nottingham Forest. So began a love of languages, football and life-changing connections...

Main Image (28)

In the early ‘90s there was a wave of new players to Forest, mainly from French speaking countries who spoke very little to no English. It was an exciting time. Forest had just gone back up into the Premier League and the players, over those years, included Mathieu Louis Jean, Thierry Bonalair, Bernard Allou, Jean-Claude Darcheville, Jon Olav Hjelde and Marco Pascolo. 

My mum had studied French and German at university and had used her language skills in many roles, whether it was speaking German at ZF Gears/Siemens or French while working in France and Switzerland as a tour manager. She was employed by Forest to help the players and being able to speak to them in French made it easier when it came to teaching English. 

From a very early age we had been surrounded by native speakers of French. My parents hosted students from France and after their lessons, we would show them around Nottingham, taking them to attractions like Nottingham Castle, the Galleries of Justice [now the National Justice Museum], and the caves, along with introducing them to some of the Forest players.

It was exciting as a child; sometimes we met up with the players and went out with them and their families, we received free signed photos, shirts, tickets and other merchandise, and had the opportunity to attend open days where we could meet the management and other players. 

It was also an eye opener. Football has a huge international element to it and through it I learned that the world was a very big place. We discovered young that not everybody speaks English and saw that languages can bring about interesting opportunities in the multicultural world that we live in. We met people from countries outside the UK, whether that was France, Switzerland, Norway or the Ivory Coast and this was important for us to witness growing up. 

The impact that this opportunity had on me and my sister is clear 25 years later. Being exposed to French and football from a young age not only encouraged us to study languages at university, but also to play football. We both went on to study languages at Nottingham Trent University - I took French, Spanish and Italian and my sister studied French and Spanish. Now I work in multilingual IT and my sister is a Spanish teacher, who happens to work at a school across the road from Forest Fields where the club was originally founded.  

Football has a huge international element to it and through it I learned that the world was a very big place

Every time I go abroad and I say I’m from Nottingham what I always hear back is “Robin Hood and Nottingham Forest!’’ It’s great to see that Forest are known worldwide thanks to Brian Clough and the European Cup wins.

Last weekend a French friend who I worked with at Disneyland Paris over a decade ago came to visit Nottingham. I had told him how my mother taught English to French speaking Forest players and mentioned some including Mathieu Louis Jean, who it turned out his coach was friends with. He’d been invited to Nottingham many years ago, visited the City Ground a couple of times for a guided tour and a match and had always wanted to come back and visit.

As we reached the City Ground on our walk, I thought about how we might have never met without these fantastic experiences I’d had. He may not have been so keen to visit Nottingham again, I probably wouldn't have taken an interest in French nor football and would have never studied and worked in France.

So for me, football isn’t just a game. Football has the power to bring players, managers, and fans together, regardless of gender, language, race, culture and age. Multiculturalism are omnipresent in football - in the changing room, on the pitch, within the international followings, or the numerous languages spoken between fans that might one day become friends.


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