Raise your hand if this has happened to you: Say that you are browsing through your social media platform of choice and you come across a soccer-related post – be it an animated gif, picture or article – and decide to share it with your followers. Without fail, someone, usually with a Raheem Sterling or Harry Kane photo as their profile picture, replies in an abrasive or snarky manner “It's not soccer – it's football”.
While it feels like a personal attack, this sentiment isn't directed solely towards you. In fact, this instance has become a long running debate in social settings, pop culture references and what may hold the key to world peace – is it called soccer or football?
Before that question can be answered, one must know a little history behind both European and American football.
Although soccer, sorry, “football” has spiked in popularity in the recent decades, the sport predates much of written human history. Evidence supports that some form of football has been around as early as 400 A.D. It’s not until 1486 that the term “football” was recorded in English. Football was used to identify a game played in London on Shrove Tuesday, better known as Mardi Gras.
In 1801, antiquarian Joseph Strutt commented in writing that “foot-ball” used to be played by the common people of England, but it became more practiced by aristocratic boys of England’s top schools.
Each school had its own set of rules, which often left matches to be exclusive to the student body. The desire to compete with neighboring scholars eventually drove to the creation of unified rules. In 1848, Cambridge University penned the first set of standardized football rules that would be used as the foundation of the Football Association, formed in 1863.
Standardization, however, led to conflict due the various styles of play, whether it was the inclusion of hands and feet, the shape of the ball, or the shape of the field. This would eventually lead to the formation of the Rugby Football Association in 1871.
With the existence of two separate football associations, English men and women sought out an easier way to differentiate the two sports. This eventually led to rugby being shortened to “rugger”, whereas association football shortened to “soccer” before the turn of the century.
You read that right – the term “soccer” originated in the United Kingdom.
During the same period, American football had started to find its roots in the States’ collegiate culture. In 1869, the first, officially recorded game of American football, also known as “gridiron”, took place between Princeton University and Rutgers University. The game was played according to Rutgers Rules, which was a hybrid between rugby and soccer.
Despite America having its own “Football”, the U.K. continued to use “football” and “soccer” interchangeably in written and spoken context.
The term “soccer” became commonplace on American soil as the world’s game began to gain traction as a way to differentiate between U.S. football. The popularity of the sport grew during World War I and World War II, as U.S. and British soldiers often played in camps across Europe when time allowed for it.
The 1920’s and 30’s proved to be a fruitful time for soccer in the U.S. sports infrastructures were being built with the idea of hosting soccer in addition to American staples, such has baseball and football. The rising talent in the States saw the U.S. Men’s National Team place third in the 1930’s World Cup, its highest finish in the country’s history (aside from the Women’s National Team, that is).
Unfortunately when the Great Depression hit the U.S. in 1929, many soccer teams were forced to fold due to financial instability, leading to the development of professional soccer waning.
However, American football began to blossom in this time period with the founding of the National Football League (NFL) in 1920. This would further lead to the disassociation of “football” from the European sport and interject “soccer” in its place.
As the years went on, soccer remained the colloquial term for Yanks, presumably as a way of catering the world’s game to an American audience.
Though both “soccer” and “football” were being used interchangeably across the pond, the British audience’s naming preference started to shift towards the latter.
Tensions came to a head in the 80’s and 90’s when “soccer” was used in first division league naming conventions, such as Major League Soccer. This basically cemented that “soccer” was soccer and “football” was American football.
From the 80’s and on, the British began to take a strong stance to preserve the term “football” as a global, and formal, name for the sport. Whether it’s English elitism or American ignorance, the debate continues today.
Outside of the historical perspective of the name, much of the argument now stems from how each game is played. Sure soccer and football have different rules – some harder to understand than others (the offside rule) – but there’s one key difference that the English latch on to: European football is played with the ball at their feet, and American football is carried by hand. This has lead European football purist to refer to American football as “Hand Egg”, given the oval shape of the ball.
English comedian and actor John Cleese pokes fun at this concept in his documentary “The Art of Football”:
“Why do the Americans insist on calling it soccer? Why do they have such a problem calling it football? It's a game played with a ball that is struck with the foot; hence, ‘foot’ ‘ball’. You see? Are you following this, America? The clue is in the title; it's not that difficult.”
Forget what the rest of the world thinks. At the end of the day, regardless if you call it “soccer” or “football”, all that matters is that you are supporting the beautiful game.