This Is Why Americans Say “Soccer” Instead of “Football”

Americans and Brits have many similarities and differences. One confusing difference is we use two different names for the same sport—soccer.

A game by any other name…

When I moved from Tbilisi, Georgia to California, one of the most difficult things I had to learn was to call football soccer. How can we all speak English and disagree on the name of the world’s oldest sport? The 90-minute long game involves two goals, black and white checkered balls, goalies, and no hand use. This sport, of course, is soccer—or football as the majority of the rest of the world says. It’s confusing that some countries call this sport “football” while Americans and a few other countries say “soccer,” but apparently the British are mostly to blame. Football is one of 10 other words with very different meanings in England and America.

Why is it different?

The name confusion is actually thanks to British universities in the early 1800s who tried standardizing various sports games that had different rules and regulations to differentiate between them, according to a paper by Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports economics at the University of Michigan.

Rugby, formerly known as “rugby football” or “rugger,” is a version of “football” where you can use your hands. Soccer, originally “association football” or “asoccer,” is the traditional version of “football” where people don’t use their hands. People in England started shortening the names by dropping the “association” part of the phrase as well as the “a” in “asoccer,” per Szymanski’s paper. This is the tamest of the 100 fun, interesting facts about practically everything that you need to know.

It’s all downhill from here

Now comes the complication: in 1869, Rutgers and Princeton colleges held the first traditional, recorded, football game using a unique combination of rules from both rugby and soccer, creating what we know as “American football” and what other countries refer to as “gridiron.” Thanks to the popularity of American football, soccer players in America clung to “soccer” to help differentiate themselves, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. (There are many slight differences between the countries–this is why Americans drive automatic and Europeans drive manual.) 

If the nickname “soccer” stuck in Britain, and if Americans came up with a better nickname for American football, there would be much less confusion. So why did the “football” short version of “association football” become more popular than “soccer” in England anyway?

So what happened?

Originally, American influence on Britain during World War II, made “soccer” the popular term in England before the 1980s, the Atlantic reports. Once the sport became more popular in America around that time, the British stopped using “soccer.” (Possibly because of the American connotations, although it’s still not entirely clear.) Szymanski’s paper claims it could be thanks to American and British news outlets pushing either term in each country. Although there is no concrete explanation of why the British stopped using “soccer,” here are explanations for 30 little things you probably never thought about—until just now.

Moving on, check out the list of top football stadiums.

Gia Janashvili
Gia Janashvili is an experienced travel and sports writer. He takes his readers to the secret places of his hometown Tbilisi, and around the world to follow huge sports events and Georgian soccer.