Few sports are as adored as football and soccer.
Few are as controversial, too.
The debate of “is it football or soccer?” has over one billion Google search results. It’s inspired a book along the same lines. The dispute gets particularly heated every four years when the world’s most-watched sporting spectacle, the World Cup, rolls around.
You may not be an athletic person or a sports aficionado, but you probably are curious about the tale behind the notorious names. You likely also want to know what these games are and what makes them so special.
Ready to find answers to your burning questions?
North American football is a hands-on game that has two teams of 11 players competing on a rectangular field to get the ball to the opponent’s side.
Yes, soccer is also an 11-a-side sport with the same objective, played on a goalpost-flanked field. But, the similarities end there.
Soccer is the American version of British football. Like many things that immigrated to the U.S. with Europeans, so did the word soccer.
Before we get into how the two sports differ, let’s go back to the past to understand how they came to be.
The 3rd century BC was the earliest time the game of kicking around a ball was recorded, referring to Chinese cuju. Making its way across the seven seas, it found its place in what is now the UK.
Between the 1300s and 1700s, English mayors and kings published proclamations mentioning football or “foteball.” However, it was in 1845 that football as we know it was born.
The first guidelines for the game were written at the Rugby School, lending its name to rugby football. In 1863, a newly-formed Football Associated penned down a rulebook. This feet-dominated form was called association football.
In the late 1880s, rugby football was condensed to “rugger” and association football to “asoccer” or “socker,” which eventually became soccer. Rugby and soccer stuck around in British lingo for the better part of the 20th century.
Yet, as the two sports traveled across the North Atlantic Ocean towards the end of the century, the nicknames were less favored. The rest of the planet had adopted leg-led football, while the U.S. embraced the hand-played type, called gridiron football.
Subsequently, Americans took an affinity to “soccer” to differentiate it from the existing gridiron game, which simply became football. From 1968 to 1984, the word soccer was popularized by the short-lived, but prominent North American Soccer League. The moniker has mainly been used in the American context ever since.
Walter Camp is credited as the “Father of American Football”. He was a Yale football team captain and eminent Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee member. He is acclaimed for transforming rugby into American football, and responsible for many integral rules of the game.
The aim in football is to get an oblong 11-inch ball across a line at the end of the opponent’s side. The ball is adeptly passed between 11 pairs of hands down a 100-yard field until points are scored. Slams and scrapes are part and parcel.
Each game lasts 60 minutes, divided into quarters, with a halftime break. Formations are changed throughout the duration to reach the maximum possible points for a win.
The team possessing the ball and attempting to score is the offense; the contenders are the defense. Every player on either team is assigned a position. The number on their jersey, ranging from 1-99, indicates it. Numerous players standby as substitutes. A National Football League team has a total of 53 players. There is no limit on the number of substitutions that can be made.
Without getting into too much detail, here’s some football jargon that’ll be useful to have in your back pocket:
- Kickoff – The initial kick of the ball when the first and third quarter start, and after field goals and touchdowns
- Touchdown – When a player catches the ball across the end line or crosses the end line with the ball; this is worth six points
- Crossbar – A U-shaped post erected beyond both end lines
- Field goal – A goal that is placekicked or dropkicked through the crossbar; this is worth three points
- Down – The point between the beginning and end of the ball being passed; must be within 10 yards at once
- Line of scrimmage – A width-wise imaginary line down the center of the field where the ball is placed when a down starts
- Huddle – Players gather during timeouts or between plays to discuss the plan of action
Soccer, on the other hand, is a lower-body contact sport. Apart from the goalkeeper, players can’t use their arms or hands to touch the ball. But, the head and chest are often used in defending and to score goals.
Soccer’s objective is to get a 15-ounce ball into the other team’s goalpost net. The side with the most goals within 90 minutes emerges victorious. One halftime break of up to 15 minutes is allowed. A draw results in extra time of 30 minutes.
The soccer team is comprised of forwards, midfielders, and defenders, plus the goalie. Forwards score; defenders block. Midfielders shuttle the ball between the two on a 100-yard pitch. Up to three substitutions are permitted in league matches.
Now, to enrich your vocabulary with some key soccer terminology:
- Kickoff – The first kick to set off the play at the start, after halftime, or following a goal
- Dribble – Player driving the ball forward by passing it back and forth between their feet
- Foul – Conduct during play that violates the regulations or is disrespectful
- Yellow/Red card – Former is given as a warning for minor infractions; latter is for atrocious behavior, and the player is barred from continuing the game
- Free kick – A direct or indirect shot at kicking a goal granted to a team when they endure a foul
- Penalty kick – Direct kick that must be attempted from within the penalty area, which is an 18-yard space around the rival’s goalpost
- Tackle – A player trying to snatch the ball from another using their feet and shoulders, without fouling
Governing Bodies and Leagues
The International Federation of American Football (IFAF) is the regulatory institution for football globally. The IFAF is franchised across the Americas, Europe, Oceania, Asia, and Africa. They set the guidelines, supervise the game, and bolster community development.
The pinnacle of professional football in the U.S. is the National Football League (NFL). Since its inception in 1920, the most famous league in the country has witnessed a century of seasons. Each one culminates in the Super Bowl championship, held annually on the first Sunday of February.
The Super Bowl is marked as a grand occasion on Americans’ calendars. This broadcast that gathers millions of viewers warrants parties packed with strife and celebration in equal measure. It is the only professional sport that concludes in a single “fight to the death” final, as a single game decides the champion.
Meanwhile, international soccer is primarily overseen by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Established in 1904, FIFA accredits 211 associations under six confederations.
North America’s leading professional league is Major League Soccer (MLS). In 2019, an MLS game registered an above-average live audience of over 52,000.
But, the FIFA World Cup takes the cake as a record-smashing worldwide phenomenon. Its occurrence every fourth year leaves fans eagerly awaiting the next season. The 2018 edition garnered a global viewership of 3.5 billion people. As of 2020, FIFA ranked the U.S. women’s soccer team as the world’s best.
Regardless of similarities and differences, Americans love both soccer and football. Interestingly, the distinct names are a matter of pride as much as the games themselves. No doubt that they’ll do whatever it takes to keep it that way.
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