Over the course of my English Soccer Travels, one conversation has been repeated just about daily. It goes pretty much like this:

  • Me: “Hi, I’m visiting from the States.”
  • English Person: “Are ya? Did you just come for this game?”
  • Me: “No, I’m traveling around on a two-week football tour, going to as many games as I can.”
  • English Person, with just a tinge of derision: “Don’t you mean soccer?”

London Stadium, home of West Ham United.

Actually, to give you the full picture, they don’t say “soccer.” They say something like “saw-kuh,” or sometimes they mock our American accent with an incredibly nasal “SOCK-errrr.” But it’s the tone you need to get: it’s equal parts annoyance, stick (an English term for giving you a hard time), and bewilderment (since in our football the ball is hardly ever kicked.)

My official answer, which is true, has so far been, “As soon as I leave American air space, I call it football.” When I wrote my book, I had to say “soccer” because it’s for an American audience – though I switch back and forth all the time.

But here’s what I want to say, but have only said to friends, about that word soccer: “It’s your bloody word! And it wasn’t that long ago you blokes were using it, as well!”

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Where Does the Word “Soccer” Come From?

The Original “Laws of the Game”

Talking to many English folks, you’d think “soccer” was some abhorrent term foisted upon the world by clueless Americans. Well, if we may trust Wikipedia, “soccer” came from the word “association,” which was used to distinguish the game where you can’t run with the ball in your hands from its sibling in which you can: rugby football.

Here’s a very brief history: for more, check out this page about football and this one about the game in America.

Folks have been kicking balls around for fun forever, and in England since at least the 8th Century. University types in the mid-19th Century started drawing up rules, no doubt to save the world from peasant chaos, and the Football Association was formed in 1863. But some people left immediately because of two rules: no running with the ball in hand, and no “hacking” somebody to the ground. Those folks went off and created rugby, and the Rugby Football Union was formed in 1871. (And I’d like to also point out that, especially in the northern parts of England, they say “roog-beh.”)

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So in the late 19th Century, there were two forms of football going around, and folks needed to distinguish them. Pretty simple, really: rugby football and association football. And then some “Oxford-er” created the shorthand terms: rugger and soccer. So “soccer” came from the word “association.” (You’ll often hear “footy” over here, as well. It’s like Americans calling basketball “hoops.”) Eventually rugby was just called “rugby” so they dropped “soccer.” For the most part.

See, we kick the damn ball! (via Wikimedia Commons)

Over in America during this time, both forms of football were getting popular, but there was this other thing happening: in rugby football they were starting to throw the ball forwards and do all sorts of other things, leading to a new game they called American Football. But this was confusing people with Association Football, so they adopted the English slang “soccer” for the latter in about 1920s, and started calling the game where they hardly ever kick it “football.”

Rugby in the States is still called rugby but is only played by drunken college students. And American football has become largely an excuse to show commercials and idiots talking about football players playing football on the football field.

And then pretty much everybody in the States quit playing soccer, anyway, for about 40 years. But we beat England in the World Cup in 1950, which I had to mention and which has to be the weirdest upset in the history of sports. In fact, the story goes that English people thought the papers had printed the score wrong!

The Word Survives in England

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this trip is seeing the word “soccer” pop up on occasion. For example, if you tour Old Trafford at Manchester United, as I did, you’ll see 1958 newspapers reporting on the Munich Air Disaster that killed many of their top players and coaches. And here is one of those papers:

Why do Americans call it "soccer"?

This headline doesn’t refer to Man United’s current season.

Here, from the same museum, is a magazine about United star Bobby Charlton:

Why do Americans call it "soccer"?

Even Football Magazine called it soccer in the 1960s!

So I’ll keep on taking stick from English people about “soccer,” and I’ll keep reminding them that they’ve never beaten us in the World Cup (we drew 1-1 in the 2010 Robert Green “Hand of Clod” game.)

And then I’ll go back to the States and tell everybody how fantastic English football is, whatever you want to call it.

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