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Soccer vs. Football: What’s the Name of the Game?

The English (and others) like to make fun of us for calling it soccer, but the origin of the word lies within Britain.

MLS: MLS SuperDraft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Before you continue to read, open up a new tab, go to Google, and type in “it’s football not soccer.” In your search you probably found things like this:

“But I can’t help but fear for the sport of football, or might I say, for the name “football.” I do not wish to be in a world which calls it soccer. And knowing the influence that American cultural exports seem to have on the rest of the world, my fears are definitely justified.” - Priyank Chandra

“I agree, it completly winds me up when ever i gotta type soccer in Who plays soccer anyway???? the americans, thats all...the rest of the world play proper football. and american football for a national sport! WHIMPS!!! i wanna see them play the proper game of rugby, then maybe they can go and name new sports. arrgg got me all angry then lmao” - G.e.r.s.h.

It seems that there is a war between fans of the most popular sport in the world over what to call it. A war that is mainly between England and the United States.

A quick survey of the sport and it would seem obvious who is right. After all, the point of the game is to kick a ball with your foot. And that is the Brits’ argument, which, I must say, is pretty compelling and had me convinced for awhile. That is, until I looked at history.

The sport dates all the way back to the 1100s in England but as the years went on it was discouraged by various kings. The term “football” was first recorded in 1486 and, starting in the 19th century, the game started gaining popularity as universities in England started playing, each with its own set of rules.

As you could probably assume, when rivals schools wanted to play against each other there was great confusion, as each team had a different set of rules by which they played. Finally, in 1848, the first official set of rules was written in Cambridge and 15 years later the Football Association was born.

Now here is where the confusion lies, because even though there was finally an official set of rules and a Football Association, there was still conflict over the rules. The conflict surrounded how much players could use their hands. One group wanted more use of hands and the other did not want any hands.

This split the Football Association into two groups — Rugby Football and Association Football. The terms were too long for everyday use and so they were shortened — Rugby Football to “rugger” and Football Association to “Assoccer,” which led to “soccer.” At the end of each word an “-er” was added because in the 1800s it was a fad in Cambridge and Oxford to do so to various words.

To sum everything up until this point, the term “football” was first used in England in 1486. The sport ended up breaking off into two different sports — Rugby Football, or rugger, and Association Football, or soccer. This is the origin of the word “soccer.” Yes, the word “soccer” was created in England.

At this time, rugger, or rugby, was gaining popularity in the United States. On Nov. 6, 1869, Rutgers University and Princeton University met to play college football against each other, which today is considered the first ever American football game, even though what they played is more akin to rugby than today’s American football.

The game gained popularity and the rules constantly changed until President Teddy Roosevelt demanded that something needed to change due to the injuries and deaths caused from the sport. As a result of this, rules were changed and eventually the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was formed. Changes would still take place until it became what is identified as today's American football.

So what does this have to do with the world’s most popular sport? Well, England and the United States had opposite effects happen to each of them. In England, it was called soccer and played by the upper class. However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s the lower class started playing the famous sport. Because “soccer” was what the upper class called it, “football” caught on with the lower class. At the same time, the term “soccer” was used in the United States to distinguish it from American football.

In England, the two terms, “soccer” and “football,” were used interchangeably from the end of World War II until about 1980 in most publications. It was not until after 1980 that “football” started to become prevalent and “soccer” was used less and less. There are questions as to exactly why this happened, but one thought is that the Brits did not want to be associated with the Americans. Around 1980, the North American Soccer League (NASL) was at its peak and the term “soccer” hit a record high of times used in publications in the late 1970s in the U.S.

As the NASL started to decline in the 1980s, so did the term “soccer” in both England and America. However, in 1994 the term picked up again in the States but not in England, where “football” became the dominant term used.

Combined with the decline of “soccer” in British publications and “football” being the main word used in lower class England, “soccer” was no longer used and “football” became the name used in England.

So, in conclusion, “football” is a general term used to describe various different games. For example, there is American football, rugby football, association football, Gaelic football, and Australian Rules Football, in addition to others. Because of this, the term “soccer” was derived in England as a way to lessen the confusion, and comes from the name “Association Football.” Thus, soccer originated from England before it was brought Stateside. To distinguish between Association Football and American football, “soccer” stuck in America. As the term “soccer” became more prevalent in the U.S., the English began to use “football” to separate themselves from their one time colonies.

Today, as the sport becomes more popular each year in the United States, eventually a consensus at what to call it may have to happen. At that point what will be the official name of the sport? Soccer or football? Or perhaps the Italians will win this war, who use “calcio,” which translate to “kick.”