Football or Soccer?

After the 2006 World Cup I launched a one-man campaign to change the name of American Football to All-American Pig-Pile. It was time this country embraced the sport’s true name, I thought. I received many chuckles but few converts. One who went along with it was my friend George from Manchester, England. George is a City supporter who refuses to say the word soccer aloud. It’s a horrid American word, he’d complain: The s word.

My feeling then was that the name of a sport should distill its essence. Aliens visiting this planet from sportless societies should be able to collect a basic understanding of any given sport simply by hearing the name. The details and variations can be filled in later.

Basketball: Put the ball into the basket.

Baseball: Run around the bases.

Volleyball: Volley the ball over the net.

Association Football: Move the ball with your feet with other members of your association.

Rugby Football: Plenty of foot-to-ball action while wearing a Rugby shirt.

Golf: um… Drive around a plot of land in a vehicle resembling a roofless Volkswagen Golf. Occasionally swing at balls with a club.

Okay, so it’s not a perfect formula.

But why, I reasoned, should American football get to be football when the sport has so little kicking?

In American football the kicking is merely punctuation before and after each movement of play. The real aim is to score a touchdown which takes no kicking whatsoever.  The feet are used mostly for running and jumping. But this does not set it apart from any other sport where running and jumping are also essential. In the simplest terms, the main, dominating characteristic of the sport is everybody pile on the guy with the ball.

The objective of my failed one-man campaign was to have America join most of the rest of the world in using the word football to describe association football rather than the current preferred sobriquet: soccer.

As a child the word soccer puzzled me. I figured it must come from the long socks we wore over our shin guards. I gave it little thought as I kicked the ball about. I was also puzzled by what we called football, where a man handed the ball to another man who threw it to yet another man who caught it and tucked it into his armpit and started running.

It looked more like armpitball to me.

Later, I learned the word soccer is a nickname for the association part of association football. Not American-born profanity as my Mancunian friend would have me believe, but supposedly conceived of by Oxford students. It is also used in other countries like Australia, New Zealand, the Carribean and South Africa. Australia’s national team are the Socceroos. In Japan the sport is sakkaa.

Soccer as a shortening of association makes about as much sense as carving the name Bill out of the name William, but that’s the English language, is it not?

Today, I acknowledge that football will not be accepted in America any time soon as the name of association football. Just as my dream of seeing the rise of the NPL (National Pig-Pile League) looks bleak, I accept that most Americans will continue to use the word soccer. At least they are using it more and more.

For me the word choice is now a question of context. Not of geography.

If I am writing about, say, Liverpool v. Arsenal, I’ll use the word football, aiming for an audience who knows what I mean. If I am talking to American neutrals, I’ll spare them some confusion and start off the dialogue with the term soccer, although, I will sprinkle the word football in as I go along to coax them into thinking about it in more global terms. If I am asking friends if they’d like to drive down to Gillette Stadium for the New England Revolution v. the Houston Dynamo, I’ll invite them to a soccer match. If I am in one of Boston’s Irish pubs talking about the English Premier League with a room full of die-hards: it’s football.

And we won’t be dropping the name football from American football any time soon. But that’s okay. It’s just one sibling in a world of footballs: association, rugby, Gaelic, Canadian, Australian

The essence of a sport is not always in the naming, but the naming cannot deny the sport its core qualities, the real reasons we love our game. The word soccer cannot obscure our passes, dribbles, crosses, free kicks, penalties, hat tricks, through-balls, half-volleys, bicycle kicks, sliding tackles, off-sides traps, and so on. And, meanwhile, we silently forgive the word football for making no promise of a scorching header or a cleverly chested ball.

While it remains football to me, I no longer care if my fellow Americans call it soccer. As long as they call it something. As long as they eventually accept its place amongst the world’s greatest sports, the handle is somewhat arbitrary. As the sport grows here, I suspect both names will become a part of the American dialogue and it will become a matter of preference.

Now, what the hell does tennis mean?

Tomorrow Mr Armstrong explores the all-important question: Does Video Replay Belong In Association Football? Sepp Blatter is not expected to be available for comment.


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