Most countries think of the World Cup as a football tournament. Why do we call the game soccer?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 10 2010 6:56 AM

Why Do We Call It Soccer?

Most countries think of the World Cup as a football tournament. What's our problem?

US vs Australia soccer game. Click image to expand.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup kicks off on Friday, with the United States slated to play England this weekend. For the 10th time since 1950, citizens of the two countries will square off over a game they call by different names. Given that so much of the world favors football, why do Americans call the game soccer?

Advertisement

It's an abbreviation of association football. Both soccer and American football come from the same set of precursor sports, which became popular in upper-class English schools in the early 19th century and spread across the Atlantic. All these games involved advancing a ball through an opponent's territory and scoring at the far end, but the rules varied from place to place. Ultimately, the version adopted as standard in the United Kingdom came to be known as association football, while another set of rules won out in the United States. Thus the Americans took to calling their gridiron variety football, and referred to the British sport by the slang term soccer, derived from the soc in association.

The history of football goes back hundreds of years, but the modern variety can be traced to the English boarding-school athletics craze. Every school played its own version of "football," which led to confusion when players from one school met players from another. As the game spread, there were numerous attempts to devise a set of rules that everyone could follow. These tended to be hampered by acrimony between the schools and by anxiety about the fate of English masculinity. At least one impassioned advocate asserted that if English players were not allowed to hack one another in the shins, they might as well surrender to the French.

Finally, in October 1863, a group of representatives from 11 old boys' clubs convened at the Freemasons' Tavern in London to iron out a compromise. Calling themselves the Football Association, they held meetings for two months, then published The Book of Rules of Association Football, by a Group of Former English Public School Men. At the final meeting, however, the representative from Blackheath dramatically withdrew when the group voted to disallow shin-hacking and carrying the ball, longstanding traditions of the game as played at the Rugby School. Thus, at the moment when it was supposed to be unifying, English football split into two codes, association and rugby. Less official—or less English—versions of the game also continued to go their own way. Australian rules football, for instance, had been codified years before the Football Association first met; and Sheffield rules football, popular in England's industrial north, wasn't absorbed by the F.A. until 1877.

From this Victorian snarl, still more forms of football emerged. The gridiron style that now holds sway in America evolved in the later 19th century, from versions of rugby and association football that had been imported to the United States from Britain. For many years, the gridiron game was only one of many forms of football played in America.

Around the world, the F.A.'s version of the game continued to be called association football to distinguish it from the rest. In the 1880s, popular British slang took the soc from association and turned it into soccer. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, soccer, football, and soccer football were used more or less interchangeably throughout the English-speaking world. After a while, however, football began to prevail in countries where the F.A.'s rules were most popular, while soccer rose to the fore in countries (the United States, Canada, Australia) where a different version of the game predominated.

The current United States Soccer Federation was founded in 1913 as the United States of America Foot Ball Association. It was renamed the United States Soccer Football Association in 1945. The organization finally dropped the word football from its name in 1974.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Like  Slate and the Explainer on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 9:26 AM These Lego Masterpieces Capture the Fear and Humor of the “Dark” Side
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 8:46 AM The Vintage eBay Find I Wore to My Sentencing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.