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Over the course of the United State’s short history, Americans invented and implemented a few characteristics that contradict the rest of the world—the US standard system of measurement, degrees in Fahrenheit, and a sport called soccer. While the popularity of soccer is rising in the United States, there is little interest in changing the name for the sake of global standardization. South America, parts of Africa, and Europe, use a phonetically similar sounding word to signify a game played with a round ball and feet. Football, or fútbol, connects different cultures, ways of life, and is a global phenomenon. As the people of the United States attempt to answer the question, "What's next for American soccer?" more wonder if its name will hold the sport back from reaching its full potential at home and abroad? Let's learn about the history of why Americans call it 'soccer' instead of 'football.'
The origins of soccer trace back to the middle ages in England. Kings banned the beautiful game a few times during the 14-17th century because it incited some of the worst riots in history amongst the commoners, although widely undocumented and never really effective. Despite its attempted prohibition, the tradition lived on. A top scholar on the history of soccer, University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski, says that a version of football based on the game of the middle ages found its way to the fields of the most prestigious schools of England in the early 1800s. The wealthiest and most educated in England at the time appropriated the common people’s game with a standardized a set of rules. The game became further standardized when the Football Association organized football on a professional level in 1863.
Forks and Deviations
The growth of football came with greater adoption and adaptations. In 1871, the Rugby Football Union founded the basis of what we consider Rugby today. This Union got influence for their rules from the Rugby School rules that allowed a player to run with the ball in their hands. "From this point onwards the two versions of football were distinguished by reference to their longer titles, Rugby Football and Association Football (named after the Football Association)," Szymanski writes. "The rugby football game was shortened to 'rugger,'" while "the association football game was, plausibly, shortened to 'soccer.'"
Quirky English Semantics
The inflection point of America’s use of the word soccer originates from a quirky trend in English semantics during the 19th century. Association football, the feet-only version of the sport, got nicknamed assoccer because there was a trend in England to end words with ‘er.’ Thus, assoccer awkwardly made a linguistic transformation to soccer. The United States eventually adopted the term soccer to differentiate between “American Football” and “Association Football.” The later term still lives on today, the Football Association administers the professional and amateur leagues of England. Following World War II, England used soccer to connote the game that we know today. However, in the late 20th century, the term fell out of favor. A possible catalyst for the drop could have been its association with the United States. Now the term's primary usage in Europe is to communicate about American soccer happenings; for example, speaking about a match that happened in Major League Soccer (MLS).
A European Export
Europeans often turn their nose at America trying to establish itself as a global player for its domestic league and international team. Its use of the word soccer certainly does not help. However, the United States is certainly not the sole party to blame. Soccer is the product of a British export! Therefore, any arguments lodged by Europeans trying to demean the United States use of the word soccer should point the finger at England for their quirky grammar.
The word football means different things to different people, and that is okay. A democratic sport such as soccer does not need to have a hegemonic name. When The United States, Mexico, and Canada host the 2026 World Cup, many people will scratch their heads and wonder why a game played with feet is not called football. America’s preference for the word soccer versus football will not impede upon the country's ability to have a prestigious domestic league or international team. Because all that matters at a soccer or football game is the magic that happens on the field.