Archive for June, 2014

Myths about American “football”

June 15, 2014

On the eve of the United States’ rematch against Ghana (who eliminated them in the last two World Cups), I was revisiting the US-British sports glossary, thinking about one of my main peeves, that soccer is not an American word. Then I wanted to also address the absolutely Eurocentric assumption, implicitly reinforced every World Cup, that the U.S. is alone in a sea of soccer-mad nations. And I realized there were a few other things I wanted to get off my chest.

Soccer is the most popular sport around the world, and only Americans have yet to get with the program

In India and China, the world’s most populous nations, soccer is not the sport of choice among the masses. In the first, cricket reigns supreme, and Indian football fans complain about the sport’s perennial second-fiddle status in the country, staying up late to watch live games from the top European leagues, thanks to the magic of the Internet and satellites. By some measures, field hockey may be even more popular than soccer. In China, soccer certainly picking up steam, but basketball has had a head start since the Cultural Revolution in this hoops-loving nation, with Yao Ming as the gold standard for athletes.

Thanks to the U.S.’ imperial ambitions in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, baseball is what its children play in dirt lots, not improvised games of soccer. Despite a pro players’ strike 10 years after MLB’s that definitely hurt popularity, J-League football which has made inroads into the traditionally baseball-playing nation since, and the exodus of players to the higher-paying American Major Leagues, our national pastime is still number one in Japan’s heart. Thanks to its erstwhile imperial ambitions, baseball is the sport of Taiwan and Korea as well. And the U.S. and Japan’s ambitions worked in tandem to make baseball the most popular sport on several islands throughout the Pacific.

Elsewhere in Polynesia, some form of rugby is the top game, as it is in New Zealand. Australia didn’t modify England’s summer sport, the way America developed baseball, but neither did they look to Mother England when deciding on rules by which their football matches should be played—alongside the Football Association’s and rugby rules, an indigenous code, now known as Aussie-rules football arose; now soccer is far in third place. Even where soccer is the undisputed king now, the sporting landscape tended to be a lot more diverse before television in the ’50s. And there are still countries, believe it or not, where homegrown games still get much of the press, despite the modern concept of sports coinciding with the U.S. and Britain’s top spot at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Only America (and Canada) call it “soccer”

While football is indeed the normal word among the vast majority of British society, soccer is by no means unknown on the shores of England. Popular TV shows include “Soccer AM” and “Soccer Saturday.” Nor is it an American import. By now I think many people are aware soccer is a shortening of association; the -er ending being popular in English universities at the time. In countries like Ireland and Australia, “soccer” is the normal term to avoid confusion with their native versions of football.

The rest of the world calls it “football”

In fact, even in countries that didn’t formalize their own local versions of football before the Football Association wrote up their first rules in 1886, the normal word is still “soccer”—in Zimbabwe rugby is not very popular at all, but soccer is still the normal word used to refer to the sport; also recall that the flagship venue at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was called Soccer City, and, no, Americans did not name it. New Zealand plays its national game under the same rules as in Britain, and so their football frequently refers instead to rugby. Other countries call it bóng đá, bola sepak or 蹴球 (“kick-ball”), or simply calcio (“kick”). I’m still waiting for a soccer snob to show up to Italy and try to insist they call it football like their neighbors.

It’s ridiculous for Americans to call their sport “football”

This is common from Brits, implying we somehow “stole” the word and applied it to our own sport, nonsensically, as the feet are rarely used, almost solely in specialized plays, and invented soccer to describe the authentic version. I can’t imagine this doesn’t stem largely from anti-American sentiment—I’ve never heard Australian football disparagingly called “handegg,” even though an Australian football is more egg-shaped than the obtuse spheroid of the American game. Of all the English-derived games of football, only soccer has retained the rule prohibiting handling the ball—both forms of rugby, Australian, Gaelic, American, and Canadian football all decided the game was more fun if the ball carrier could run with it.

Soccer (or American football) is “real” football

Soccer rose to prominence largely due to England’s commercial interests throughout the world in the 1800s and early 1900s. It became widely played by the working classes and then spread to other countries, mainly by expats. But it was by no means the only game of football then played in England, nor the first. The rules for the form of football played at Eton, a private school, were written down in the early 1800s, although the rules for Florence, Italy’s native calcio game may even have been documented earlier than that. The first rules of what we now call “rugby,” short for Rugby football because it was the game of another boarding school in Rugby, England, date back to 1845—almost 20 years before the birth of what we know as soccer today. So if the measure of “real” is age, a couple other flavors got soccer beat.

And if suffering such severe brain damage that you lose control of your bladder in your ’40s is the measure of what makes the gridiron game for “real” men, then I guess that’s real football. I’m not making a value judgment here; I think a case can be made that is the true measure of masculinity, but I’m just being honest about its implications.

Of course, the United States was not the only country to let its own code develop without checking with Mother England first to see what she thought. Australia, Ireland, and Canada all have their own football games. (Although closely related, Canadian football developed in tandem with, and indeed, was the father of the American sport, but is an independent evolutionary branch.)

Words like “pitch,” “boots,” “nil” are just the correct terms

(Actually they usually say “proper,” another Briticism that rankles me.) Once again, this is a reasonable assumption to have if soccer is the only non-American sport you’ve had any serious exposure to and think the Brits, having invented the sport, should have a monopoly on speech habits for the entire Anglophone world. However if you watch cricket, rugby, (field) hockey, etc. you’ll notice that these terms aren’t unique to English football. British fans who watch the NFL call the jersey and shoulder pads and helmet, etc. a “kit.” This year Penn State and University of Central Florida will open the season at Croke Park, in Dublin, Ireland; reading Irish media you’ll see reports of preparing the “pitch” for the American football “match.” This isn’t a case of foreigners not understanding our games; these are just the normal Irish words used in sports. In Australia it’s not at all odd to have a baseball match that’s two runs to nil in the third inning, nor to have an equaliser in the eighth. And so on.

The derision of some UK fans at the North America’s distinct sporting vocabulary when applied to their own sports, coupled with ignorance (e.g. telling them they’re wrong to say “soccer”), and an American inferiority complex vis-à-vis English culture with the cosmopolitan niche of European and Latin American football has led many on this side of the Atlantic to insist on using British terms for the sport. But the idea that it’s somehow “disrespectful” to use American terms for the world’s game, just because it was invented in England, is like insisting an 18-wheeler must be called a “lorry” if it was manufactured in Britain. Pretending it was completely unknown in the States until the Premier League plopped down on the shores of Fox Soccer Channel ten years ago, ignoring our own history with the sport, is a disservice to everyone who’s played in and for this country and worked to make American soccer as popular as it is today.

As you can see, every culture and people is going to put its own spin on existing games and invent its own. (Even within soccer, look at the variants that have arisen around the world—futsal, indoor soccer, beach soccer, five-a-side, etc.) And the proliferation of versions of football is testament one local group refusing to play by another’s rules. But I think it’s great that soccer can exist, played the world over, as sort of a sporting Esperanto, and we can get together once every four years to see how other countries put their own spin on “the beautiful game.” How boring would it be if football culture were the same the world over or that were the only game?