ashthomas//blog: Should we call it football or soccer?


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Should we call it football or soccer?

Every blog seems to be required to have at least one World Cup related post, so here's mine.

In our house, when we talk about "football", we mean Australian Rules, as played by our beloved Collingwood Magpies. If I talked to my cousins in England, "football" would mean something completely different, the game played by their Manchester United. To my in-laws in the United States, "football" is different again, this time the game played by their LSU Tigers.

Every code claims to the name of football -- here in Australia, football is always AFL (unless you are in New South Wales or Queensland, where it may mean Rugby League or Rugby Union, the difference between I don't really understand), English football is soccer and American football is either gridiron or, self-explanatorily, American football.

Germany's Der Spiegel has a little article this week about what is the correct name for the game being played in the World Cup at the moment, and comes down on the side of the Aussies, Yanks and Canadians who call it soccer:

The world 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 popular in schools like Rugby and Eton 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 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 -- as compared with the UK and Ireland's 65 million. The word, though, is solidly associated with the United States and many Americans denigrate the game as wimpy, effeminate and European and hold up American football as the real man's game. A semantic reaction from the UK is only to be expected.

Of course, talk to an Australian and he'll point out that American football is not as manly as it thinks -- its players feel compelled to shield themselves behind helmets and layers of padding, the game stops every minute or so, and that any game that has to have a specialist player called a kicker come in has little claim to the name football. As the article points out, American football is more closely related to Rugby, the running game.

Now, Aussie Rules -- there's a man's game. It is probably the most athletically challenging of contact sports, requiring running, kicking, hand-balling, leaping, and tackling, and from all the players, not simply position players with a specialty. It did not take my wife long to realise that the American football that she had been following and loving all her life held nothing compared to good old AFL.


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