Paul Rouse: Football or soccer - abuse will also trump facts

The online debate over what the game is called quickly descents into ugly rancour online
Paul Rouse: Football or soccer - abuse will also trump facts

STARS AND STRIPES: USA fans gather outside the stadium ahead of thegame against Iran. Picture: Photo by Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images

“It’s called soccer! It’s called soccer!” 

American soccer fans before the recent match against England in the World Cup.

So as chants go, it was a harmless bit of fun. Or banter (“bantz!”).

But, in the way of these things, the Internet is alive with people who can make anything into a fight with a nasty little edge to it on the margins.

And for some years now, there has been a fight on the Internet about whether the proper name for the game is “soccer” or “football”. As with so many fights, it becomes not just about the thing it is supposed to be about, but about a whole load of other things as well.

Naturally, as well, this is a fight in which mere facts are discarded or ignored and which people say anything they feel like saying.

Among the false claims that surface at the core of this is the one that the word “soccer” was invented in America. This is simply not true. The word is now also considered usually only in connection with America. This, too, is a mistake. It is as word whose usage is dispersed widely across Australia, Canada, South Africa, Ireland and beyond.

There is a great book which has traced the history of the use of “soccer” to describe the game of Association football: it’s by Stefan Szymanski and Silke-Maria Weineck, and is called It’s Football, Not Soccer (And Vice-Versa). This book is concise (just over 100 pages) and roots its opinions in hard research and evidence. This, of course, immediately gives it an advantage on all the other nonsense that has been spewed on the subject.

Where does the word “soccer” come from? And why is it used?

As Szymanski and Weineck explain, the word “football” was used as a catch-all for all manner of folk football games that were played across the centuries before the codification of modern football games in the second half of the nineteenth century.

This codification saw the creation of the various forms with which we are all familiar. These include Association Football and Rugby Football in England; Gaelic Football in Ireland; as well as Australian Football and American Football.

In the varieties of the game played in Ireland, America and Australia, the local game was ordinarily popularly known as “football” across large swathes of those countries. This was obviously more complicated in areas in Ireland where soccer and rugby were also played.

In England, where Association Football and Rugby Football dominated, this was also not quite so straightforward. A certain clarity came into the equation with the shorthand that was used in public schools and in the leading universities. This shorthand basically involved the use of -er at the end of a word.

In this respect, Rugby football was shortened not just to “rugby” but also to “rugger”, and Association football was shortened to “soccer”.

The origins of the word were laid out in articles published in the 1890s and the early 1900s. The story was reduced to the pithy explanation that “soccer” was just “Oxford slang”.

And it made its way from here out into the sporting sphere where it offered a certain clarity about which football game a person was referring to.

There are many examples of this extending across the decades that followed. The word can be found in the title of a book written by one of the iconic personalities of the sport in England – Jimmy Hill – who published Striking for Soccer in 1961.

In England, for most of the 20th century, the words “soccer” and “football” were used interchangeably. Perhaps the best example of this is the title of the former Manchester United manager Matt Busby’s autobiography in 1973, Soccer at the Top: My Life in Football.

On another level, of 75 Annuals listed in a compendium as being published for the children’s market in England between 1949 and 1995, 29 contained the word “soccer” in the title and 32 contained the word “football”.

The basic point here is that both words were used apparently without rancour or anyone getting agitated as to their usage.

And then it all began to change by the 1990s, with the usage of the word “soccer” in England retreating into the margins to the point almost of invisibility.

Partly it is related to the fact that language changes all the time; partly it is anti-Americanism; partly it is rooted in class perceptions of “football” as “The People’s Game” and a related rejection of language that is the product of public schoolboys; and partly it is bound into the extraordinary impact of the branding of the game by Sky Sports from the early 1990s onwards.

If truth be told, though, such explanations are not particularly convincing, nor is it enough to say that the Internet is responsible in the way it provides a platform for the spread of ideas and fads and trends.

Does any of this matter?

Not in terms of the substance of the debate itself, it doesn’t. Whether people call a game one thing or another is so far down the list of things that matter that it is simply inconsequential.

We, of course, have our own disputes on this island too in terms of sporting words: one person’s hurl is another person’s hurley. It should not need to be noted how unimportant this is as a matter of dispute.

But the manner in which the debate of “soccer” or “football” is conducted online is a brilliant window on the way social media can descend into the sort of argument that leaves your mouth hanging open.

Firstly, there is the issue of facts. What is clear is that people contributing to the soccer/football debate are saying things that are manifestly wrong. It is not clear where they got their information from. It is not clear if they have got it from anywhere in particular or are just making things up. Either way, it is apparent that facts and evidence are generally in short supply when people are expressing their opinions. For example, there appear to be quite a few people who think American football is called “football”, because the ball is a foot long.

Secondly, there is the abuse and emotional irrationality that is all over this debate. Predictably, there is the sort of anti-Americanism that considers all Americans to be stupid (“Americans are idiots”, posts ‘Chavo Guerrero’) or devoid of culture (“it’s not about cultural differences because you Americans have no culture”, posts ‘Peter Mayer’), but there is also rank homophobia and misogyny. There is no need to repeat here the examples quoted by Szymanski and Weineck in their book; it is enough to say that the sentiments are appalling.

There are people who will suggest that – on an issue as trivial as this – rage and abuse of the type and scale reported is just people saying things because they wish to be “controversial”, or just for the sake of it, or to be “humorous”. This doesn’t hold water; the language is just plain wrong.

What’s more, the people making such comments appear to be genuinely exercised about the issue and the fact that they take recourse to such language and such sentiments reveals much about the open sewer that runs through modern life.

It should be great fun to watch what happens when the World Cup is played in North America in 2026 – Soccer’s Coming Home!

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin

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