You’ve probably heard football sometimes referred to as soccer. Ever wondered why? Do the terms refer to variants of the sport, and if so, what are they?
The main reason behind it is that in the UK and indeed most of the world people generally use the term “football” but in the USA people generally use the term “soccer”.
To uncover the reason that the two names exist, we have to dig into the origins and evolution of the “beautiful game”.
The Forerunner to Football – Cuju
While there are many ancient ball games, the one that most closely resembles modern-day football – a game that only allows controlling the ball with any part of the body but the hands and lower arms– is a game called Cuju.
It comes from China. The name “Cuju” can be roughly translated as “kicking a ball with the feet.” It was first played in the first and second centuries BC, using a ball made from stitched leather stuffed with feathers. It involved two teams playing on a square pitch with six half-moon-shaped goals at either end.
Some variants of the game also featured a raised banner strung at height between two poles. In the centre of the banner was a hole through which the ball had to be kicked to score points. Another variant had a single upright pole in the middle of the pitch. In this variant of Cuju, striking the ball against the pole was the way of scoring points.
There is an interesting video on YouTube of a man practising his Cuju skills.
The History of Association Football
For the beginning of what we here in the UK refer to as “the beautiful game, “you have to go back to 1863. That’s when the English Football Association enshrined the game’s first rules. It’s also the reason behind the game’s full name, “Association Football.”
Why bring in the word “association”? It was to define it from the other type of football played in England at the time (and, of course, still being played today)– rugby football.
Around the turn of the 19th century, university students, in their penchant for creating shortened names for things, came up with the word “socca.” Okay, that may at first not look much like an abbreviation for “association football,” but many think that it may have something to do with the imprudence of using the first three letters of association “ass,” which can often be mistaken for “arse.”
A few years later, the word “socca” evolved into “soccer”, along the lines of adding “er,” as with rugby becoming known as rugger.
Back then, and still today, here in the UK, “soccer” and “football” were and are commonly understood to be the same sport. If Brits want to talk about rugby football, they only usually refer to it as ruby, leaving “football” and “soccer” to ostensibly be used to describe the same sport – association football.
The confusion that many people experience when interpreting the terms “soccer” and “football” is because the North Americans developed their own brand of football.
The History of American Football
American football, sometimes referred to as “gridiron football,” first appeared towards the latter part of the 19th century. It was a coming together of elements of two sports – football and rugby. The reference to “gridiron” relates to the name given to the lines painted horizontally across the field at certain intervals.
The earliest versions of American football were chaotic, quite violent affairs, so much so that it was known as “mob football.” Teams were assembled with large numbers of students from early American universities such as Harvard and Yale. The rules were a pretty hotchpotch affair, and the gameplay was simply about possessing the ball and scoring points by almost any means possible.
The injury rate was alarmingly high, so much so that many institutions banned the game.
But the game started to evolve, and by 1869, Rutgers and Princeton colleges were playing what were described as the first intercollegiate football games. It was still a far cry from the American football of today, but it is significant because standardised rules were established.
It also saw the first early game coaches, and the names of player positions and strategies came into being. However, it was still early days. The game was still played mainly with the ball being kicked rather than carried, and the teams each fielded 25 players.
In 1876 when an association of Harvard, Columbia, and Yale was formed, they set about further formalising the rules. But, even at this stage, kicking was the sole way of scoring points.
In 1875, the touchdown was invented, and by 1881 it took precedence over a field goal.
Throwing the football came about in 1895. It was only developed out of desperation to score before the final whistle was blown.
In 1905/6, it was realised that the rules needed further change to minimise injuries. This proved a major changing point in the development of the game. In 1909, the six-point touchdown and three-point field goal became established.
These amendments signalled a significant change in both appearance and gameplay as American football became less like rugby and more like gridiron football.
With several deaths and many injuries in 1910, the rules underwent further changes, and the downfield catch was introduced.
Ten years later, the American Professional Football Association was created, and two years later, it was to be renamed the NFL.
The Americans seldom refer to the sport as American football. They call it simply football.
Where the Differences Occur between Football and Soccer
Despite American football using the term “football,” the majority of the game is based around throwing the ball, catching it and running, whereas in association football, the majority of the play is kicking the ball with the feet. Only the goalkeeper and players who take throw-ins are allowed to handle the ball. Players can use their hands to place the ball for free kicks or penalties of course, but that’s as far as it goes.
The difference in meaning, noun-wise, depends on location. To Brits and non-North Americans, the terms association football, football, and soccer all mean the same thing.
However, to a North American, football is only ever used to describe American football, and what we call refer to as association football, football, or soccer, is only ever referred to as soccer.