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A tournament doesn’t get to be called The World Cup if it’s only played in a handful of countries. We call it the World Cup because it is played all over the world. And the sport is known by the same name everywhere. Well, almost.
While the rest of the world calls the classic round-ball game played with feet and a giant net football, Americans maddeningly and stubbornly have insisted on calling it soccer. It drives many of my friends crazy but, oh no, there is only one game called football in the United States, and that’s the sport played in the fall and early winter with a ball shaped like an inflated pig’s bladder (which, at one time, was precisely what they played the game with).
So, why do we call it soccer? As with so many things having to do with our language, this goes back to the British.
A game, or rather several games similar to what we now know as international football, existed for centuries in England. There was always a ball, feet, goals, and a playing field. In the 19th century, however, private schools in England began to form teams and leagues for competition. This necessitated formal rules and regulations. So, in October 1863, the leaders of several clubs met in a pub (naturally) to formalize the structure of the game.
Unfortunately, perhaps because of the liberal consumption of beer at the pub, some standards for the game of football remained unclear. One of the private schools, Rugby, preferred to use hands as well as feet, and running into your opponent was permitted, which may not have been the safest way to enjoy yourself while at school. So, eight years later in 1871, they met again to codify the rules. It was decided to split the types of play into two separate games. One game was named after the school which popularized the use of hands – Rugby Football. The other was named Association Football.
It was apparently a fad at the schools which played Association Football to add the suffix -er to the end of many words. These -er ending words often caught on as colloquialisms, and later entered our language as nouns. For example, if you played golf you were a golfer. If you boxed, you were a boxer. Rugby style football then was renamed rugger. Since “Associationer” sounded awkward, it was shortened to soccer. Really.
Of course, the British also called soccer “football”, and also by another diminutive, “footie”. Everyone in Britain knew what you meant – it was the game that wasn’t played at Rugby!
This managed to coincide with the rise of popularity in the United States of another game which was something of a cross between rugby and association football. To distinguish the difference, newspapers in the US elected to call that game football and the other game soccer. They were really only copying their British counterparts.
So, why did the British stop calling the game soccer? In fact, until as recently as around 1970, soccer was as common a term for the game in England as it was in the US. But anger over the Vietnam War, as well as other anti-American issues, forced the British press to chide Americans for using a silly slang name for their national sport. The split eventually became permanent and irrevocable.
Now, here’s something you may find surprising: There is also something called Australian Football. I mention this because it is a mashup of rugby football and the Irish game Caid, and Australians also call this game football (or footy). That other game? They call it soccer.
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