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It’s Called Soccer

The right word for the game

Spiegel Online

June 2006

“Watchin’ some footie, mate?”

“Hah?”

“Watchin’ a game a footie are ya.”

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

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

Americans live on what amounts to an enormous island, defended on two shores by the sea, and we’ve evolved a few marsupial traditions that nobody else understands. One is “American football.” Another is the word “soccer” — which Americans apply to the World Game for reasons that have more to do with the history of elite British schools than most of us know or might want to admit.

“Well,” the American in the pub said earnestly to the British 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.”

This American may have been dim-witted, but he wasn’t wrong. “Soccer” is the right word for the game. It 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 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.”

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 endless variations of soccer have existed around the world for centuries, so 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 — “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 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.

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 may account 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 — compared with the UK and Ireland’s 65 million. But the word is solidly associated with the United States, and many Americans, perversely denigrate the game as effeminate and “European.” They hold up American football as the “real man’s” game. A semantic reaction from Britain is only to be expected.

But Americans are also wrong about their own version of football. It’s not a tough or blue-collar game. It’s almost a pure hand-me-down from snooty, upper-crust schools in England, via snooty, upper-crust schools on the American East Coast. Global soccer — learned by scrappy kids around the world on beaches, cow pastures, and ghetto lots — is something else.

Michael Scott Moore


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Michael Scott Moore is a literary journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist. He was kidnapped in 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage for two and a half years. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.

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My review of Ingrid Betancourt's first novel, The Blue Line, is up at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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A version of what happened in Somalia is available as a Long Read at The Guardian, and, in somewhat shorter form, for German readers, in Der Spiegel. It’s not even near complete. Enormous parts of the story have been left untold.

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