July 4, 2014

Here, we call it ‘soccer’

Is ‘football’ the more authentic name for the game. Only to poseurs. A brief history of the rise of soccer in our language and hearts.

Fort Adams soccer team.

Fort Adams soccer team, Newport Rhode Island, approximately 1917. The author’s great-grandfather, Sgt. James Toomey, bottom row, second from left.

In the middle of a conversation the other day about the World Cup, a friend corrected himself.

“Socc…errrrrr…football,” he said quickly, as he noticed the smug grin creep across my face.

See, my friend is an avid fan of the international game. Knows 100 times more than I. Ask me about the 1979 NASL champions, and I’ll tell you the lineup and the weather when they beat the New York Cosmos in the semis. Ask me what team Dutch star Arjen Robben plays for, and I’ll change the subject.

My friend calls it football; I call it soccer. I call him a snob; he ignores me.

He’s not the only one. Lately, clubs across North America have have adopted “football,” I guess because it sounds more authentic. The new MLS club in New York? NYFC, of course.

Rock ‘em, sock ‘em

And, “soccer,” at first blush it does sound like a bastard child born of a Warner Communications brainstorming session circa 1982: “Let’s call it socker! ‘Cause you really sock that ball! Am I right, people? OK, next agenda item, when’s my perm?”

But it’s not. Oh, it’s a bastardization alright, and Warner Communications actually played a part, but not in the way you might imagine.

Blur the camera. We’re going back in time…

As Uri Friedman said best in his recent piece in The Atlantic, “The story begins, like many good stories do, in a pub.”

The rules of the game

The root game of football has been around since the Middle Ages, but was different everywhere. Some places let you use your hands, for example, some not. Then a bunch of guys got together in that pub and wrote down a standard set of rules. That game became known as “association football.”

Quoting a recent paper by sports economist Stefan Szymanski, Friedman goes on, “In 1871, another set of clubs met in London to codify a version of the game that involved more use of the hands—a variant most closely associated with the Rugby School.”

Yes, that was rugby, the Cain to soccer’s Abel, born of the same mother, sometimes called “rugger.” See that last word? That’s what the cool kids at Oxford did at the time. Breakfast was brekkers. Rugby was ruggers. And association football… was problematic. So they shortened “association” to “‘socc,” added an “er” and invented “soccer.”

(Sound apocryphal? Might be. But the takeaway here is that the word’s got historical bones.)

When the game was exported to the colonies, it faced a problem. See, the original mother game had already migrated to those places and mutated according to local tastes. Thus, in Australia, Australian Rules football. In Canada and the U.S., American football. To differentiate between the two, folks needed a different word. “Soccer” it was.

Game name

Back in England, people were still using “soccer” but much more so after World War II due to, Friedman suggests, sporting fraternization between Allied troops. And the popularity of the term continued in England unfettered…until the ‘80s.

That’s when Warner Communications comes in. See, the Warner Communications execs wanted to make soccer a big deal in America. So they bought a semi-pro team in the ‘70s and stocked it with fading, high-priced international talent. That team? The New York Cosmos. That talent? Oh, just the greatest player to ever play, Pelé, German star Franz Beckenbauer, and plenty more.

“The Cosmos would regularly draw capacity crowds at Giants Stadium and large crowds elsewhere around the country,” reported Quartz recently. Teams around the league followed suit, overpaying for other international talent.

The result? North America went bonkers for soccer. But the NASL, over-extended, collapsed. At the same time, the English stopped using the word “soccer.” A fit of linguistic pique in reaction to the stench of American excess? Quite possibly. Purists in North America seemed to follow suit.

Another result? This burst of North American soccer energy, combined with the ‘94 World Cup in the U.S., created a generation of North American soccer players much more confident in their soccer skin.

So don’t hang your heads, North American soccer fans. Here, there be soccer. With linguistic chops. And a long and storied history. Own it. It’s who we are.


Geoffrey Michael D’Auria is an editor and sports writer, and is currently researching a book about sports and culture.