Learning French and making an Impact in Montreal

(Eds: With AP Photo.)

Once in a while, when talking to reporters, Jesse Marsch tosses off a phrase or two in French.

The Montreal Impact coach is not fluent in the language spoken by a majority of the Major League Soccer club’s fans, but he works twice a week with a tutor and seems to be making progress.

”I can read it and understand it really well, and now I just have to work on speaking,” said Marsch, who is from Racine, Wis.

When Marsch was hired to be the MLS club’s coach last August, a few questions were raised about why the Impact didn’t bring in a French-speaking coach. It is not as if French-speaking countries like France or Belgium haven’t produced top coaches.

But it was nothing compared to the controversy that surrounded Randy Cunneyworth’s promotion to head coach of the Montreal Canadiens last season. The Toronto native, who succeeded Jacques Martin in midseason, was the NHL team’s first non-French-speaking coach in four decades.

The cries of protest even reached the Quebec Legislature and were so intense that team owner Geoff Molson apologized to fans and promised the next coach would be bilingual. At season’s end, Cunneyworth was demoted to assistant coach and the search for a new head coach began.

”I thought that was a little unfair because (Cunneyworth) was just trying to do the best job he can,” Marsch said. ”But I understand what that team means to this community and how its community takes pride in the uniqueness of it.

”That’s why I’ve tried to speak French at different times and learn it better. And whatever we do as a team I’m always trying to honor who we are as a club and who the city is.”

Impact President Joey Saputo and his staff felt it was best to build a team with a coach who knew MLS inside out, and that was Marsch. He had a long playing career in North America’s top league and was working as an assistant on the U.S. national team when he was hired.

It has worked so far. The team recovered from a slow start to post a better-than-expected 3-5-2 record, including wins in its last two league matches. Only 10,000 tickets remain to be sold for a game Saturday night against David Beckham and the L.A Galaxy at 60,000-seat Olympic Stadium.

Several of Marsch’s players also have been picking up some French, including Brazilian midfielder Felipe Martins, who Tweeted that he will begin taking classes this week.

It’s a logical first step for most of the players on the expansion team who have been brought in from around the world to a city most knew little about.

The team’s 28 players list birthplaces in 13 countries. Only two have French as their first language: midfielder Patrice Bernier of Brossard, Quebec, and defender Hassoun Camara of France.

There are more Italian speakers, including former Italy internationals Bernardo Corradi and Matteo Ferrari, and Colombian defender Nelson Rivas, who played for Inter Milan. The designated player they are chasing, striker Marco Di Viao, is Italian.

”A lot are taking French lessons,” Bernier said. ”Maybe toward the end of the season some of them will do interviews or speak in French. But I did tell them that if they start talking French, I’ll stop talking English to them because I’ve been making life too easy for them.”

Because soccer is an international game, Bernier says learning new languages comes with the territory. He knows some Danish from spending most of his career there.

”The Scandinavian countries are good in English, but if you go to France, Italy or Spain, they won’t speak to you in English,” he said. ”You have to learn. You go abroad for the football, but you also have to come out with some culture from where you went, and the language.”

That is the approach Impact fullback Jeb Brovsky has taken. He is from Lakewood, Colo., and often Tweets in French, mostly a combination of words he has picked up.

”It’s what you make it,” he said. ”If you want to get involved, learn some French and try new cuisine and stuff, it’s exciting. The character and history of the city is amazing. I can’t speak French yet but I’m learning.”