Why do they call it ‘soccer’? Delving into the language of the occasionally attractive game
The World Cup is only a week away – a fine excuse to look at some of the language of football (the British-born, round-ball type – yes, we’ll be getting onto that). A complete glossary of the game would be more suited to a book than to a mere blog post, so I’ll just pick out some of the more interesting bits.
beautiful game, the
(Or, if we’re feeling pompous: Beautiful Game, The.)
Thanks to alphabetical order, we can get the grumpy bit out of the way right now.
Not only is this a maddeningly overused cliché – especially in titles and subtitles of football-themed articles in general-interest publications – it’s also unclear what it’s supposed to mean.
No one seems sure how and when the term was first coined, but it was popularised by Pelé in his 1977 autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game. People often assume it means football as a whole, as that title seems to suggest. Then again, there isn’t usually much beauty in, say, an English relegation battle on a wet Wednesday night in March. The term has also been used to refer to the style of play shown by a particular team or player, such as Pelé himself and his Brazil team-mates circa 1970.
I’d like to suggest that this combination of overuse and vagueness means it should be consigned to a not-very-beautiful dustbin, so we’ll see no more of that ‘Has the beautiful game been corrupted by money?’ silliness.
Centre-what? The second, er, half of this label for a central defender makes no sense – but it used to, when it meant something else.
In modern football’s formative years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most teams used a 2–3–5 formation (or 2–3–2–3 if you count the inside-forwards as a deeper-lying separate line from the other three forwards). The two at the very back were the full-backs: a right-back and left-back. In front of them were the three half-backs: a right-half, centre-half and left-half.
Then – I’m cutting a long story short here – a change in the offside law in 1925 led to a deluge of goals, prompting managers (along with captains, whose role involved more than fist-pumping and trophy-lifting back then) to move their centre-half backwards into a defensive role, between the right-back and left-back. This brought about the 3–2–5 (or 3–2–2–3) formation that would be the norm for the next three decades.
The name largely stuck, though, even through the formation revolutions that came about from the 1950s onwards, which meant there were usually two or even three ‘centre-halves’. The more logical terms ‘centre-back’ and ‘central defender’ are often used as well, but ‘centre-half’ is still very much with us.
Ah, yes – the World Cup, the FA Cup, the Associate Members’ Cup and, of course, the European Cup Winners’ Cup. All cosily familiar. But what is a ‘cup’ in football terms?
Although it had predecessors in various sports, the daddy of all football ‘cups’ is the FA Cup – officially the Football Association Challenge Cup – created by the London-based FA in 1871. The name referred to both the competition and the prize – an 18-inch-high silver cup that the FA commissioned for £20 from Martin, Hall and company.
Seventeen years later, the Football League was founded. The trophy – not awarded until the end of the league’s third season in 1891 – wasn’t in the form of a drinking vessel, which probably explains why it wasn’t known as a ‘cup’. As other football competitions sprang up around the world, the same convention was mostly followed: those with a knockout format were usually known as ‘cups’, while those with a week-by-week, home-and-away format and a position table weren’t (see league, coming up).
The World Cup’s original Jules Rimet Trophy did feature a cup-type object, held aloft by Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. However, its 1974 replacement, still used today, is entirely solid (with a globe at the top), making it thoroughly useless for drinking from. As we’ve seen with ‘centre-half’, though, words don’t have to make sense in this game.
This acronym is based on the global governing body’s French name: ‘Fédération Internationale de Football Association’. This translates into ‘International Federation of Association Football’ (we’ll see where the ‘Association’ part came from soon), but the mildly comical acronym ‘IFAF’ has never been adopted – in any case, it’s now used by the International Federation of American Football.
So, in English, the all-powerful federation has ended up with an acronym only – not a name with all the words spelt out.
Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s called ‘football’ because it’s a kicking game – the foot touches the ball. Not so fast …
This explanation is widely believed here in Britain, and is often used to mock Americans (though rarely Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and the Irish) for using this word to refer to other sports. There is, though, little evidence to support it, and plenty of evidence to the contrary, as I discovered a while ago when researching for my book on the history of all football-type sports.
The earliest known use of the word is from 1314, when Nicholas Farndon, Mayor of London, issued a banning order in his ‘Preservation of the Peace’ proclamation, fretting over ‘certain tumults arising from great footballs in the fields ... from which many evils may perchance arise’.
Back then, and for centuries to come, ‘football’ was an informal, loosely defined game, played in many different forms around the British Isles. In most places, it was mainly, or even purely, a handling game – the ball was often too hard and heavy to be kicked anyway.
One common theory is that the word ‘football’ came about because the game was played on foot, rather than on horseback. This seems a bit shaky, though – it was hardly the only sport played without the aid of horses or other carriers. Another one, less common but perhaps more plausible, is that it was based on the size of the ball – about a foot long.
By the early 19th century, the game was becoming more formally regulated in some places, though it still varied wildly from one place to another. The most influential developments came at the public schools: notably Eton, Harrow and Rugby. At this stage, it was becoming more of a kicking game than before, but still featured a lot of handling, and not just at Rugby School.
Before long, many public school old boys were wanting to play the game at university and elsewhere, and some tried to agree on common rules. This wasn’t easy, especially as the Rugby contingent, unlike the others, wanted ball-carrying and hacking (yes, that means shin-kicking) to be allowed. In the end, a group of non-Rugbeians dismissed those pleas when forming the Football Association in 1863. Their version was known as ‘association football’, to distinguish it from ‘Rugby football’, which would be codified by the newly formed Rugby Football Union in 1871.
For many years to come, both were known simply as ‘football’ whenever it was obvious which version was meant. And when Rugby football reached the US via Canada in the 1870s, Americans simply called it ‘football’ – just like the British did. They soon developed it into their own game, and the name stuck. Other forms of football, all involving both kicking and handling, evolved in Ireland, Canada and Australia.
In Britain, it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that the word ‘football’ became mostly synonymous with the kicking game. The present-day Scottish Rugby Union was called the Scottish Football Union until 1924. Even today in England, rugby league people sometimes call their game ‘football’. We probably should remember this …
As we saw earlier, until the mid-1920s, the two full-backs were usually at the very rear of the ten-man outfield line-up. So ‘full-backs’ was a meaningful name for them. When the centre-half then retreated to play in between them, he should logically have become a third full-back (the ‘centre-back’). And, with today’s four- or five-man defences, all of those players should be known as ‘full-backs’.
Logic lost out, though. These players are all called ‘defenders’, with only the two on the outside labelled as ‘full-backs’, even though they’re no further back than the others. This isn’t a unique oddity, though: in American football, if there is a fullback (no hyphen, please, we’re American), he usually lines up in front of the running back – who’s sometimes known as the ‘halfback’, which makes even less sense.
Like ‘cup’, this word has come to mean a certain type of competition. It became established in football when the Football League was founded in England in 1888. William McGregor, a Scottish businessman on the Aston Villa committee, proposed that a group of leading clubs should play against each other, home and away, each season.
His suggested name, ‘Association Football Union’, was rejected because of possible confusion with both the Football Association and the Rugby Football Union. When ‘Football League’ was proposed, he worried that it might be associated with the Irish Land League – but he gave in, and ‘Football League’ it was. ‘League’ wasn’t a new term in sport, though – baseball’s National League in the US had been founded, under that name, 12 years earlier.
Once the blueprint had been set, other competitions with a similar format followed suit: the Scottish Football League and Irish Football League were formed in 1890, and other similarly named ones were soon popping up around the British Isles and elsewhere.
UEFA’s Champions League, though, is something of an oddity name-wise. Many of the entrants aren’t champions; it’s hardly a genuine ‘league’ in the sense of an ongoing alliance of clubs (teams qualify for it, year by year, on the strength of their domestic league placings in the previous season); and its format is a hybrid of group and knockout stages, much like that of the World Cup. And I won’t even mention the apostrophe thing.
Simple, this one: ‘non-League’ leagues are the leagues below League level. Got that?
This term is mostly used in England. There is some logic to it – provided that the capital ‘L’ is used, the reader takes notice of it, and we all understand that it refers to the English Football League (perhaps in combination with the Premier League, though it was all simply the Football League when the term first came into use). Otherwise, and especially for the uninitiated, it could lead to some scratching of heads.
Its significance has faded a little since the arrival of automatic promotion and relegation between the League and non-League levels in 1987, and the later spread of full-time professionalism in the latter. Still, this hasn’t stopped some media types – notably at the BBC – from hyperventilating whenever a non-League team beat a League team in the FA Cup. Even if both sides are of about the same standard, we’re told it’s a ‘giant-killing’ that typifies the ‘romance’ of the Cup. Sorry, I’m getting grumpy again.
Ah, yes – that’s what the Americans call it, isn’t it? What do they know?
Except … if you’ve read the ‘football’ piece above, you might have realised that it isn’t quite like that. As we saw, in the late 19th century, various newly formalised sports went by the name of ‘football’. None of them had a monopoly on the name. (This is still true to a large extent, but not recognised so much.)
Whenever anyone needed to be specific about the type of football they were talking about, a qualifier was needed. In Britain, the code defined by the FA in 1863 became known as ‘association football’, to, er, associate it with that association. The version derived from Rugby School’s laws was ‘Rugby football’ (later just ‘rugby’).
‘Association football’ was something of a mouthful, though, and something snappier was needed. Legend has it that the answer came from future England captain Charles Wreford-Brown, an Oxford University student in the 1880s, who, when asked one day whether he wanted to play ‘rugger’ – a typical Oxford slang term for Rugby football – said he’d rather play ‘soccer’, meaning the FA’s game. There are, however, also stories of the word evolving from other nicknames such as ‘a-soc’ and ‘socca’.
The new word soon spread around the English-speaking world, making the transition from slang to accepted usage. It came into common use in Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as a handy way to distinguish the game from other football sports. But it was also widely used in Britain – especially in areas and social groups where rugby (of either type) was popular – until the later parts of the 20th century, and still hasn’t completely vanished in those circles.
Even today, it pops up quite often in the British media, especially where it helps to make a snappier title or headline than ‘football’. Although the game’s fans often scoff at Americans for calling the game ‘soccer’, they don’t seem especially bothered that (for example) the Saturday daytime schedule on Sky Sports Premier League is dominated by programmes named Soccer AM and Gillette Soccer Saturday.
In short, there’s nothing at all wrong with calling the game ‘soccer’. But, OK, I still cringe when people do it. Funny old game, funny old world.
Any more? I’d be interested to hear about other oddities in football-speak. Look out for a similar piece on cricket in, er, just under a year’s time. (Update: here it is.)
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.