World Cup 2022: Why Americans call it soccer

Al Jazeera looks into the origins and history of the debate around the name of the ‘beautiful game’.

Kane Pulisic
England's Harry Kane in action with Christian Pulisic, of the US, during the goalless draw between the two teams, November 25 [Paul Childs/Reuters]

In the 2022 World Cup anthem “Tokoh Taka”, US rapper Nicki Minaj proclaims: “Some say football, some say soccer.”

While many fans around the world find the term “soccer” strange, if not objectionable, that’s what Americans – as well as Canadians, South Africans and some Australians and Irish – call the sport.

As the US team took on England in their second match in Qatar, the familiar football-versus-soccer debate was reigniting off the pitch.

Ahead of the US-England game on Friday, posts and memes stressing that “it’s not soccer” flooded social media, and a video shared by the publication Sports Illustrated showed US fans chanting, “It’s called soccer”.

Here, Al Jazeera looks at the origins of the discrepancy in what the two English-speaking countries call the sport.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the term “soccer” was not originally American. Like the modern sport itself, the name originated in Great Britain.

As authors Silke-Maria Weineck and Stefan Szymanski explain in their book, It’s Football, Not Soccer (And Vice Versa), the formal name of the sport is “association football”. British university students in the late 19th century nicknamed it “soccer”, a twist on the second syllable of “association”.

But while British people stopped using the nickname decades ago, Americans stuck to it.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Szymanski, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan, stressed that as much as Britons may loathe the term “soccer”, its origins are indisputable. He tracked its use in the United Kingdom well into the second half of the 20th century.

For example, the 1973 autobiography of the legendary Manchester United coach Matt Busby is titled Soccer at the Top: My Life in Football.

Szymanski has a theory to explain the decline of the word “soccer” in England: “anti-Americanism”.

“When it became widely known in the UK that Americans called it soccer, it suddenly becomes what we call an ‘exile word’ in British English,” he said.

Throughout sports history, the term “football” has been used to describe several sports involving a ball and running, including rugby, which is formally called rugby football.

As association football and rugby football were taking shape in the UK in the 1800s, another football genre was developing in North America, combining elements from both sports. It came to be known as gridiron football.

Several versions of gridiron football would spring up, including Canadian football, but American football became the dominant one. It evolved to include an oval-shaped ball and pauses after each tackle. That sport came to be known in the US simply as “football”, and was embraced as a national pastime there.

So as the world largely moved on from the word “soccer”, for Americans, another sport had taken the honour of being called football.

“Calling soccer ‘football’ would invite confusion” in the US, said G Edward White, a law professor at the University of Virginia and author of Soccer in American Culture: The Beautiful Game’s Struggle for Status.

White pointed to gridiron football’s prevalence in many US institutions, where it is “played extensively in high schools, colleges and the professional National Football League“.

With the Hispanic population among the fastest-growing demographics in the US, an increasing number of Americans know the sport not as “soccer” but as “futbol”. The Spanish word is becoming more popular among non-Spanish speakers as well.  But efforts to rebrand “soccer” are still a long way from making a meaningful dent in the term’s use.

After all, the official name of the American team playing in Qatar is the “United States Men’s National Soccer Team”.

Szymanski dismissed the entire football-soccer debate as silly.

“In countries where you have other versions of football, the word soccer is just the most sensible word to use,” he said. “And that’s the funny thing about it. Why would you object to people trying to avoid confusing language? So it’s all part of the craziness.”

Source: Al Jazeera