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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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  1. Prathmesh

    July 26, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Screw the ‘mericans. FIFA Football IS football and will be football and there ain’t no soccer or sh*t. I ain’t gonna use that crap word for that at all even if I’m the last person to call it football. We must not get soft on this issue so keep calling it football and not soccer. Remember the word is ‘Football’.

    Viva FIFA ! ! ! viva Football ! ! !

  2. Nuno

    July 1, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    I honest to God just dont like the word “soccer”…it just seems in a way like America is imposing something again…its been called football for years , in portuguese “futebol” , and the word just seems to take the meaning out of the sport…

    I would go crazy if people in Europe start calling it soccer …..i just would…….i just cant accept that…

  3. coachie ballgames

    June 24, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Great column. As you said, it’s not an American problem what with the Aussies, NZ, Ireland, S.Africa etc. all using soccer.

    The flip side is what NFL football gets called abroad. I see the term “gridiron” used a lot which is just awkward, but so is “American Football,” because to me that implies we don’t play soccer/football.

    While the word “footie” already has a strong meaning down under, I think it’s a good way for us Americans to refer to soccer without saying “soccer.”

  4. Eric

    June 24, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Best post yet by Thomas, and absolutley true. It’s all about culture and context, and always will be.

  5. Reason

    June 24, 2009 at 1:26 am

    This article, while rather informative, just seems like an excuse for some good ole European Elitism and American bashing.

  6. odessasteps magazine

    June 24, 2009 at 12:04 am

    I just call it “futbol” in print, to distinguish from American Football or “throwball” as some folks like to call it.

  7. thomas

    June 23, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    In every English country the dominant code of football is called football. You say football in Australia you are referring to Aussie rules or rugby league. In NZ it refers to Rugby union. In Ireland it means Gaelic football. And so on and so forth. The word football really means nothing by itself without the context of the speakers culture.

    Also note that the oldest football games like shrovetide football and whatnot don’t involve too much foot use either.

    I, for one, accept the name soccer. It’s a lot better than having to call it Association.

    Also, Ive always wondered originally pronounced SO-sher?

  8. Jake

    June 23, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    The only people who care about the word soccer are insecure Americans and Europeans who most likely work for American companies but yet hate Americans. I have my uncles back in Europe who all work for American companies and yet spout anti-American rhetoric non-stop. When they stop taking the pay check I will start taking them serious.

  9. anton

    June 23, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    soocer is a gay name and should only be used around americans. anyone who uses the term soccer to a non-american, non-australian, non-japanese should be slapped…

    • Jake

      June 23, 2009 at 10:12 pm

      Wow, were you in the special class in school? Only Americans use the term but then you go on to list other countries that use the term………..Does it make you feel better to criticize America for using the term soccer? Lets hope you don’t go raise a army that actually wants to fight and then you won’t rely on America for your defense needs.

      • It's called football

        June 23, 2009 at 10:51 pm

        Wow, you were the one in the special class, Jake. What anton said is right, it is very gay. So did that other guy who said your little word degrades the sport of football. What you American’ts call football, makes football out to be a sport for children and suburban moms. People like you tarnish our sport. Stay the hell away from our game and stick to your Gridiron game.

        I’m sick of reading these fools’ arguments defending the degradation of the name of football. The name of the sport is FOOTBALL, and if you deny that, you are an idiot.

        • Jake

          June 23, 2009 at 11:42 pm

          Ha, give me a break. I grew up right next to England in Ireland and we used soccer & football interchangeably. Next please, give me somebody with half a brain….

        • jm

          June 24, 2009 at 8:02 am

          If you are going to call us ‘idiots,’ why are you not taking the time to respond to the serious arguments that I and others have made?

  10. David

    June 23, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    sal I agree, I am not one to go for the whole everybody is anti-American belief but after living in 2 other countries where football was one of the most popular sports and was also called soccer, and then living in America where football is far from being popular and yet people seem to only criticize the Americans for using the term soccer?????

    When a football match can get a billion viewers in this country instead of 200,000 then you might have a right to bitch about the term soccer. People act like American football stole the term from football? Yet American football gets it name from rugby which was once known as rugby football.

  11. jm

    June 23, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    it’s called football,

    For one, I think your history needs some improvement. The name “soccer” is rooted in England and was imported over to the United States. In England, “football” was used to refer to both rugby and football as we know them today. The word also covered a range of variations in between. Your assertion that it has referred to football (in the modern sense) for six hundred years is false. It has referred to a wide range of sports with similar roots but which evolved very different rules over the years.

    When it was imported to the United States, the “rugby” interpretation of “football” prevailed, and American Football took the name. Because modern football caught on less, “soccer” (also a British term!) was the term picked up.

    As to your point about it being “logical,” note that “football” is not a descriptive name. It is a proper name for a particular kind of game. While descriptive content might make it easier to learn, there is no particular epistemic worth. After all, it does not affect the content of the word.

    In what way does the word “soccer” disrespect the game? It is an older term for the game (which you will find used in old some English highlight reels!). It refers to the same game as “football” and carries with it no disrespectful implicatures. Notice how this differentiates it from your compound noun “shitland” which (a) does carry with it disrespectful implicatures and (b) is not part of a linguistic convention, it does not belong to any set of social norms governing the use of language.

  12. sal

    June 23, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    what a waste of time and energy for those who really let this bother them weather we call it football, soccer or in italy its called calcio. who gives a crap.

  13. brn442

    June 23, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Sometimes it was just a word but that too got my blood boiling when some Americans would ask me “uh- why do you call it football?” only to dryly snap back “because you use your foot.”
    But it was more what the word seemingly stood for that bothered me; relatively well off US boys and girls playing a sanitized version of the sport in the suburbs – no muddy pitches, no blood on the shirts, no five a side or small goal (as we would say in the West Indies.) The word “Soccer” bleached the sport of its history, its aesthetic, its passion and working class roots – its purpose.
    I tried to fight this battle as a frustrated teenager 20 odd years ago. I thought it was a lost cause but I must say the word “football” has crept up in the vernacular of American “soccer” followers: From the naming of MLS clubs like Toronto F.C. to American commentators using the word with increasing frequency. Even I, find myself using “soccer” on occasion. Not everything is black and white anymore and that’s the way it should be.

  14. It's called football

    June 23, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    I can’t believe that there are some Englishmen here who do not want to defend the name of football. That means you, David Allison. Are you going to let the Americans bastardise everything that we invented? It’s your cowardly attitude that will eventually render our culture extinct.

    If you don’t call football, football, then you are NOT a true fan. I don’t even wanna hear any excuses. How can you deny the name of the sport that is a)the logical name (foot to ball), b)what it’s called all over the world, c)what is was named by its creators (I’d think they’d have the right to dictate what the sport should be called), and d)what the sport has been called for 600 years!!!

    Someone here tell me just what is so great about the American term for football. It sounds ridiculous!!! It sounds like a lollipop! No wonder football is considered a girl’s and children’s game in the usa. With a name like what you call it, of course it will be!

    If you clowns feel so adamant about using the most goofy term for the world’s game, then hell, I will use my own term t o describe the usa. From now on, the usa is Shitland. Team Shitland will take on Spain tomorrow in the Confederations Cup Last year, I went to Shitland on holiday, and saw Ground Zero and Broadway. July 4th is Shitland’s independence day.

    See how that feels? Respect the sport of football. The is only ONE football- the beautiful game.

  15. Jeff

    June 23, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Hilarious post!

    As a soccer lifer, I’ve lived a peaceful coexistence with my friends from the other sport, and heck, my Sunday autumn afternoons are dedicated to the American version. We’re all sportsmen!

    But I agree- it’s a misnomer. The best sign, though, is that Footballers in the U.S. are become less shy, less apologetic, about using the proper name for our sport here in the states. Let’s keep that going and just get to a point where, if someone says Football and someone else can’t tell what they mean, decisively, by context, that 2nd someone feels like an idiot- not the one using the word!

  16. AtlantaPompey

    June 23, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    I think the whole things is silly. I use soccer when talking to people who do not follow the sport and football when talking to people who do follow the sport. Americans will not change what we call football to suit most of the rest of the world. There are countless examples of objects that have different names in England and the US: lift/elevator, car park/parking lot, boot/trunk, etc. What we call it is really not so important as to result to silly name-calling.

  17. Matt

    June 23, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Naming aside, I’d prefer American announcers use more globally accepted terminology when reviewing or broadcasting soccer/football. The underlying language is more important for building connections from American fans to the world game.

  18. uh?

    June 23, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    what a stupid post

  19. 433

    June 23, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Soccer’s just a term. It’s pretty useful in many circumstances to clarify meaning. How do people getting bent out of shape about the terms soccer versus football cope with non-English languages? For me, people are making their world too small if they’re expending energy on semantics at this level; energy that would be much better spent working out who the Arsenal could bring in to return to glory.

    Fantastic artwork in your post. Love it.

  20. Ryan

    June 23, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    I think it would do the NFL a lot of good to abandon all pretense of those letters standing for anything, at least overseas. Just call the game NFL, no need to bring football into it.

  21. Brian

    June 23, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    To my American friends (which they almost all are since I live in USA), I like to qualiy my use of the word football by using my best James Bond impersionation saying,

    “that’s football… real football”

    Everyone seems to understand perectly.

  22. Red Ranter

    June 23, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    I’ve heard — and it’s a little known fact even among americans — that the reason American football was called football because the ball was a foot long.

  23. David

    June 23, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Soccer is also used in Ireland which is right next to England

  24. Ethan Armstrong

    June 23, 2009 at 11:33 am

    For those interested, here’s a history of football which I found after I published my article. It discusses origins and variations and the ascendancy of the Rugby and Cambridge rules, the latter became the model for association football.

  25. Riley

    June 23, 2009 at 11:27 am

    I must agree with you Soccer is a terrible name for such a lovely sport. I live in Canada and have been calling it football for years, I just can’t stand the word soccer. What does the name “soccer” even mean? YUCK

  26. David Allison

    June 23, 2009 at 10:59 am

    “It won’t be long before many of the words Americans adopt are defunct and soccer will be one of them.”

    This is the kind of attitude I mentioned in my first comment that my fellow Englishmen often display.

    Tyson, I think you failed to read the article in its entirity; here’s an important excerpt:

    “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.”

    That would make your closing statement quite a way off the mark.

  27. jm

    June 23, 2009 at 10:58 am


    Language change like that between American English and British English is not only natural, but ubiquitous. Why do you ascribe it to motive? Or suppose that it will be defunct? Dialectical shift is inevitable. Far from a joke, it is an elementary observation from linguistics.

  28. Tyson

    June 23, 2009 at 10:50 am

    The US population is a bit of a joke in regards to taking the English language and changing a few words around to invent their own flavour of English and show their independance from Britain and their brilliant minds at work.

    It’s all a broken system really whether its soccer or so many other words that did not come from the founders of a language that was taken without regard for its origins.

    Fact of the matter is though the words that the Americans use are becoming more irrelevant considering as English spreads around the world it is the British version being taught in China and India and around the world.

    It won’t be long before many of the words Americans adopt are defunct and soccer will be one of them.

  29. Jason Gatties

    June 23, 2009 at 10:48 am

    A soccer ball is round. A football is pointy. I’m an American. Deal with it.

  30. David Allison

    June 23, 2009 at 10:45 am

    I was wondering when I would read this article on EPL Talk. I’m glad you covered it; It’s important to understand from where the word ‘soccer’ derives, and feel that the negativity towards it is rather arrogant and, perhaps, somewhat ignorant. It is similar to the brash comments that sometimes appear on EPL Talk slating your site’s use of the ‘EPL’ abbreviation, as if to suggest that we in England are the only country to have a ‘Premier League’.

    Further to your findings, whilst Association Football became known as ‘soccer’, Rugby Football took on the name ‘rugger’; surely because the term ‘football’ was not enough to separate them.

    • Ethan Armstrong

      June 23, 2009 at 11:17 am


      I’m glad you brought up the ‘rugger’ example. I had included a similar point in my original draft, but took it out to keep an already lengthy article from being longer.

  31. NJ

    June 23, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Football as a term makes sense as you kick the ball with your foot, however, the US population has adopted that word for the National Football League, and your not going to change that. So instead of getting on everyones high horse and refusing to use the term Soccer, lets accept the culture of the region. Who really cares, whether its called soccer or football. The important thing is the expansion of the game in the United States and the world (less of an issue with that one).

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