Soccer or Football?


(I’ve updated this post for the World Cup 2010. Click on this sentence to read it.)

Since the Euro 2008 Football Championship is coming up, I’m going to continue with the sports theme and write about the use of the words ‘soccer’ and ‘football’.

While living in the UK, I learned that British people hate the use of ‘soccer’ to describe their favorite sport. As a culturally sensitive person, I dutifully referred to the sport as ‘football’ and referred to America’s most popular sport as ‘American football’. I was cool with that. I’m in their country; I’ll follow their customs.

Just like I gave in to the use of ‘lifts’ instead of ‘elevators’, ‘trainers’ instead of ‘sneakers’, and ‘trousers’ instead of ‘pants’. Now that I’m back in an American English environment, I’ve slowly resorted back to my native dialect. Still, I find myself using ‘mobile’ instead of ‘cell phone’; it just sounds cooler. And I’ve given in to the near universal use of ‘toilet’ instead of ‘restroom’. It’s a distasteful word to American ears, but just about every country outside of the US use some form of it.

What surprised me was the anger and bitterness towards the American use of the word ‘soccer’ instead of ‘football’. It is somehow the symbol of American imperialism. And this attitude extended to some of my other European and South American friends too.

Puzzled by the vitriol, I did a little research. So I’m going to give you a little history lesson and dispel some myths about what we call that sport with a bunch of people running around kicking a ball into the opposing team’s net.

Myth 1: Soccer is an American term.

The word originated in England back in the mid 19th century. Soccer was the original shorthand expression to refer to the sport. It was shortened from association football. At the time, there were many kinds of football, so it needed to be distinguished from all the other forms. American football and rugby are some of the other forms of football that also arose from those earlier sports.

Myth 2: The US is the only country that calls it soccer.

I was surprised to find that in Ireland, they also refer to the sport as soccer, and view the use of the word with anti-British-imperialist pride. Other countries that call it soccer include Australia, Canada (including Quebec where it’s called le soccer), New Zealand, Japan (called sacca), most Pacific Islands, and South Africa, where the next World Cup will be held.

Myth 3: Americans want the rest of the world to call it soccer too, as part of an insidious imperialist plot.

I assure you, I don’t know one American who really gives a damn what anyone calls it. The widespread use of ‘football’ stems from past British colonialism. Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries tried to replace the English word with native words (balompie and ludopedio, respectively). But were unsuccessful against the onslaught of British hegemony.

Myth 4: Well, okay a few countries say ‘soccer’. But the rest of the world calls it ‘football’.

Not so. While many countries use variations of the word football, like fussball, futbol, le foot, there are many many countries who use totally different words in their own language. Here in East Asia, the Koreans call it ‘chook-gu’, and in China it’s ‘zuqiu’. In Arabic, it’s ‘kurat al-qadam’.

Even among the Euro 2008 participants, there are many other words for the sport. Football powerhouse Italy, for instance, calls it ‘calcio’, which means kick. The Czechs call it ‘kopana’, which also means kick. The Croatians call it ‘nogomet’, which means leg sweep. The Greeks call it ‘podosfero’. In Polish, it’s ‘pika nozna’.

Myth 4: Fine. But the sport came from England so it should be called whatever they want.

Games involving kicking a ball has been found in nearly all cultures throughout human history. The earliest recorded sport using a ball and feet control date from the 3rd century BC in China, and it was called ‘cuju’. Maybe we should be calling the sport ‘cuju’, instead of the insidious British imperial term.

So there you have it. I realize that the US is the top dog in the world, wreaking imperialist havoc, so it’s fashionable to bash all things American. But there are many forms of football, and association football, or soccer, is just one of them. The pattern seems to be that where other forms of football are popular, that sport has taken on that term. Thus, what looks to me like rugby is called football in Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. And what’s football to me, looks like ebbing imperial influence in Great Britain.