Naming the Beautiful Game It's Called Soccer

The English roll their eyes when Americans talk about "soccer." But actually, it's what the game should be called. And it's a British word.

By Michael Scott Moore

“Watchin’ some footie, mate?”


“Watchin’ a game a footie are ya.”

“Oh, I’m just watching the soccer game.”

The Liverpool fan hoisted his beer. “Football, innit.”

So which is it? Football or soccer? There are roughly 6 billion people -- minus the population of the United States -- in this world who would go with the former. The damn game is played with your feet, after all. How could it be called anything other than football?

Many football fanatics merely assume that the word "soccer" is just another marsupial American tradition -- like 190-1 votes in the United Nations and men in suits driving Humvees through busy downtowns -- inevitable in a country surrounded on two sides by oceans.

A certain self-righteousness also comes with the isolated territory. “Well,” the American in the pub said to the Liverpool fan, “my kind of football’s a little more rough-and-tumble, if you know what I mean. It’s not, you know, as polite as all this.” He waved at the TV above the bar. “But I can appreciate soccer. There’s something sort of pretty about it.”

Association Rules versus Rugby

But as much as the world likes to mock Americans for their ignorance of the beautiful game, football just isn't the correct term for it in English. Soccer is right.

The world comes from 19th-century British slang for “Association Rules” football, a kicking and dribbling game that was distinct from “Rugby rules” football back when both versions were played by British schoolboys. The lads who preferred the rougher game popular in schools like Rugby and Eton seceded from Britain’s fledgling Football Association in 1871 to write their own rules, and soon players were calling the two sorts of football “rugger” and “soccer.”

“The main dispute,” writes the Australian historian Bill Murray in "The World’s Game: A History of Soccer," “was over handling (the ball) and hacking (or kicking)” each other. When rugby players seceded from the Football Association, one English club “wanted to retain hacking, claiming that its abolition threatened the essential ‘manliness’ of football, and sneered that such sissy reforms would reduce the game to something more suited to the French.”

The dispute traveled overseas to elite American schools. North American boys played two kinds of “football” until a decisive three-game series in 1874 between Harvard and Montreal’s McGill University. Harvard played the “Boston game,” which was like soccer; McGill played rugby. “The Harvard team was surprised when the McGill players kicked the ball and subsequently ran with it under their arms,” according to a page on the McGill University Web site. “The Harvard captain pointed out politely that this violated a basic rule of American football. The McGill captain replied that it did not violate any rules of the Canadian game.”

Endless variations

The teams decided to play by one set of rules, and then another. Harvard players thought handling the ball was fun. A year later they convinced Yale to play something closer to rugby, and “American football” became a tradition.

That, at least, is the modern history of the game. But given that endless variations of the beautiful game have existed around the world for centuries, the "football" fraction may have a point. Before the rules of either rugby or soccer were codified, Europeans used to kick inflated bull or sheep bladders around for fun -- “a ‘mob’ game of village against village, lacking written rules,” according to Murray. The Burmese played “chinlone” with a woven-cane ball. The Mayans, who had rubber trees, played “pok ta pok” by knocking a rubber ball around with their hips, knees, and feet. FIFA acknowledges a game developed about 2,500 years ago in China -- “cuju,” played with a feather-filled leather ball -- as the earliest prototype. “Football was an essentially popular game,” writes Murray, “and the name originally referred to any ball game played on foot rather than on horseback.”

But it took an empire to spread the modern British rules. Wherever England sent its workers and schoolboys, some version of “soccer” took hold. British rail workers brought the British kicking game to Argentina. British colonials formed soccer teams in Hong Kong to “civilize” the Chinese. British oil workers brought it to Romania, according to Murray, and it spread from there to the Ottoman and Russian empires. Privileged English students in Swiss or German schools also started soccer clubs. But after the game caught on in some of these countries -- like Germany -- there was a nationalist reaction. Throat-clearing conservatives from the German gymnastics movement of the 1870s thought Fusslümmelei (or “football loutishness”) was unhealthy for the nation’s kids. But the English tide couldn’t be turned, and Murray writes that some countries tried to save their national honor by convincing themselves that soccer was less “quintessentially English” than rugby.

Snooty and upper-crust?

Not that an empire alone could forge a universal game: Cricket has been planted just as far and wide by British colonials, after all, but it’s not nearly as popular. An age-old urge to kick a ball perhaps accounts for the world domination of “soccer.”

The grand irony is that people from the British Isles don't know what to call it. "Football" is just not as accurate a word in the English language. It's also less used. Officially or unofficially, the game is referred to as soccer in the US, Australia and Canada, a combined English-speaking population of around 350 million -- as compared with the UK and Ireland's 65 million. The word, though, is solidly associated with the United States and many Americans denigrate the game as wimpy, effeminate and European and hold up American football as the real man's game. A semantic reaction from the UK is only to be expected.

And the Americans are wrong about their beloved football anyway. Far from a blue-collar game, American tackle football is almost a pure hand-me-down from snooty, upper-crust schools on the US East Coast. Global soccer, on the other hand, is not.


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