- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Even in an international sport, D.C. United is one of Major League Soccer’s larger melting pots, an eclectic mix of nationalities, personalities and cultures. And potential language problems.

This is where Francisco Tobar comes in.

Tobar’s title is team administrator, a job mostly anonymous to the outside world yet essential to the organization’s inner workings. He performs an assortment of duties, including the care and feeding of about 40 players, coaches and staffers on the road, and resolves countless other logistical issues.

But perhaps his most indispensable task isn’t listed in his job description. Cisco Tobar is the team’s unofficial translator, the communications link between the coaches and a large South American contingent of players who are more comfortable with their native languages than with English.

United’s 28-man roster includes a league-high eight players who were born in South America, seven of whom speak no English or have limited skills. Four were added this season, and six are considered starters. But Tobar, who was promoted from equipment manager before the season, sees to it that nothing gets lost in translation.

“It’s difficult sometimes with all these guys that come from Latin America and they don’t understand what’s going on,” he said. “I know how important it is for the coaches to make sure that they get their point across and that it’s well understood by everyone.”

A native of Santiago, Chile, he learned to speak English after he emigrated to Alexandria with his family when he was 13. He also has played a lot of soccer, which means he is proficient in that language as well.

“I often feel the game like the players do,” he said.

Tobar, 35, doesn’t do all the translating. Veteran Jaime Moreno, a Bolivian who speaks English comfortably, also helps hurdle the language barrier, especially on the field. Boris Flores, the director of Hispanic relations since 2000, is the liaison between foreign-born players and the English-speaking media, and the club recently hired a bilingual public relations staffer.

“We try to make the players feel at home from the moment they come to D.C. United, whether it’s on-field stuff or off the field issues,” said Flores, a former journalist and a native of El Salvador. “Our responsibility is to help them adjust to a new life, a new country, a new culture, a new language.”

It can be a difficult and lonely process, often taken for granted. Defender Devon McTavish, who grew up in Virginia, got a taste of being on the other side of it during a two-week tryout in Belgium, where people speak French, Dutch and Flemish.

I was the outcast there,” he said. “I couldn’t ever figure out which [language] they were speaking. It’s frustrating at times, not knowing what the coach is trying to say.”

Like Flores, Tobar helps foreign players get acclimated. His is often the first voice they hear on the phone when the club makes contact. He handles their visa and other travel arrangements and even picks them up at the airport.

Tobar said when he first spoke with rookie defender Gonzalo Martinez, the Colombian raised concerns about whether anyone would be able to speak with him in Spanish and otherwise help him get used to his new environment.

“Yeah,” Tobar told him. “Me. And we have others on the staff.”

Tobar, who began translating on a limited basis in 2003, assists when coach Tom Soehn talks to the team as a group and during one-on-one conversations. This means Tobar must have a keen insight into Soehn’s personality. He has to convey not just the coach’s words but his nuance and tone.

“I think because of my experience as an equipment guy, I was kind of like the guy behind the scenes, and I was doing a lot of observations myself,” said Tobar, a Virginia Tech graduate. “And one of the things I’ve learned is when it’s a good time to approach the head coach, to talk about certain situations. It’s important that he and I are on the same page, and it’s very important that I understand his moves and how he’s open to conversation.”

Soehn, whose German is sharper than his Spanish, knows it’s hard to translate not just what he says but how he says it.

“I’m very cautious as to what words I use to get a point across,” he said. “When a third party’s involved, some of it gets lost. But [Tobar] does a great job, and he understands the messages we’re sending.”

Basic soccer talk “we sort out on the field,” Soehn said. “But I’ve always addressed guys individually, and I’m pretty honest when I talk about someone’s strengths and weaknesses. There’s been times when I’ve had to approach some of the new guys and get down to the real nuts and bolts, and he’s got to relay some of those messages.”

Even among the seven players whose English is limited, proficiency varies. Some, such as forward and 2007 league MVP Luciano Emilio (who also speaks German) and midfielder Fred, can converse in English to some extent. Both are Brazilians, and Portuguese is their first language. Others — Martinez and midfielder Marcelo Gallardo and forward Franco Niell, both from Argentina — speak no English.

Tobar lends his assistance to anyone who needs it.

“He plays an important role on the team,” Fred said, with Flores interpreting. “I speak a little bit [of English] because I played in Australia and I’ve been here a year now, but there are certain words or phrases that I still don’t understand. It’s very helpful for Francisco to be able to transmit the message, especially when Tommy wants to communicate with us.”

Said Martinez, also through Flores: “[Tobar] helps us to understand the message the coaches gives to us in the locker room. Obviously, on the field, we have to perform. But he helps us understand the language the coaches communicate to us, and he helps us understand what the coaches want in the system. He’s helped me in every aspect. He’s been invaluable to me personally.”

Tobar said his work ultimately is directed toward helping the team play well.

“And I understand that getting these points across is critical to the team, on and off the field,” he said.


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