Name a sport played with both feet, no hands and a whole lot of stamina—“Soccer?” “No, Football.” “European Football?” No, just football.
I recently looked up the history of the word soccer, and the answer to the origin of the name of this sport was indicative of this rift in language and thought that has occurred since the invention of the sport in the late 1800's.
In the early days of the sport among the upper echelons of British society, the proper term for the sport was “soccer”. Not only that, but the sport being referred to as “soccer” preceded the first recorded instance of it being called by the singular word “football” by about 18 years, with the latter happening when it became more popular with the middle and lower class. When that happened, the term “football” gradually came to dominate “soccer” and the then official name “Association Football”.
The inventor of the nickname, “soccer” is said to be Charles Wredford Brown, who was an Oxford student around the time of Association Football’s inception. Legend has it, in 1863 shortly after the creation of Association Football, Wredford-Brown had some friends who asked him if he’d come play a game of “rugger”, to which he replied he preferred “soccer”. Whether that story’s true or not, the name caught on from around that point on.
So why did the name “soccer” stick in the United States, while the rest of the world calls the beautiful game "football" or "footy" for short? I have wondered why the sport that I grew up loving and playing throughout my entire childhood is so disparaged in the country of my birth.
Let me preface this story with the disclaimer that I’m half Israeli and half American. I was indeed born here, so I tend to be more American in my mannerisms, but I was born to two Israeli parents. My father being raised on soccer, raised me with soccer in my veins. I don't know if that is a genetically transmitted passion, but I want to believe it is. I grew up fantasizing about playing in the world cup and to this day my screen names and passwords are all soccer related.
With that being said, I don't have the average Americans view of soccer. I could definitely fall in with that "foreigner, outsider" mentality when it comes to sport in general. I love soccer, and recently started watching snooker and ruby as well. I find baseball and football rather boring, and haven't watched the NBA since Michael Jordan was playing for the Bulls.
A quick look at this map pretty much summarizes my confusion as to why North America is disconnected from the rest of the world in terms of the global sport. The only other zone that is as disparaged would be Central Asia and Australia where cricket was brought over as a colonial sport. However, it can still be argued that those countries still follow the game much more closely than most Americans do.
So again, why is it that the sport literally dubbed "the beautiful game" by the rest of the world is shunned in our beloved country, the US of A? I recently asked some of my friends who don't find soccer so interesting to get an inside look at why Americans tune out when soccer fanatics world wide tune in to events such as the Champions League and World Cup. The main answers that seemed to repeat themselves were:
1. Soccer is boring, there aren't enough "points" being scored.
2. There's too much diving and drama.
3. Too many times there is a goalless draw, why isn't there penalty kicks all the time to decide?
4. There are strange rules like offsides and random handball calls, why can't you use your hands again?
5. "I don't know enough about the players or the culture, I just don't get it"
I'll try and address each issue as best I can. Some complaints are going to be harder than others to account for, due to the fact that the sport is inherently flawed due to the fact that a lot of what goes on during game play is extremely quick and hard for referees to judge.
1. Soccer isn't about the points-- or goals in this instance. It's about the gameplay. A good game could end in a 1-1 draw, or even 0-0 and be very exciting if there is a lot of dynamic passing, attacking and defending. I think that when Americans cannot quantify who is winning through a scoreboard they’re somewhat frustrated. In sports like basketball and football the score goes up rather quickly within several minutes. I think that keeps Americans captivated because they can see who is winning visually, while in soccer, the only way to know who is winning is by paying attention to possession and shots on goal.
2. Drama. We love to hate drama. However, America is probably one of the most drama-driven countries I’ve been to. We love to read and hear gossip about our celebrities. However, when it comes to our sports we look at drama in disdain. Cheating is something we as democratic Americans cannot stand for. I think this is why it's such a big complaint when it comes to soccer as well. I personally hate it when players are brushed up against and go sprawling in the air like they were just shot by a sniper. It's a huge annoyance, and it makes the game frustrating to watch at times. It's something that's been cracked down on quite a bit, with players even being booked with yellow and even red cards for such simulation, but this still happens on a regular basis in all leagues, and even in our beloved world cup. Just recently, Brazillian striker Fred flopped in the box and was awarded with a penalty kick. Such behavior is still being rewarded, even in big events such as the World Cup.
3. Goalless draws occur in soccer -- often. They occur as often as one in five games, at least. This happens due to good defense, or poor attack. Sometimes goalless draws are boring as all hell, and sometimes they are quite entertaining. It's part of the sport, and I can understand why Americans can't understand how that could be entertaining, but if you support a specific team, just watching them play is entertaining as is.
4. Offsides, handballs and throw-ins can be quite confusing to those who have never watched the game. Offsides is essentially a way to limit cherry picking and players not having to move from inside the box. The rule can be misinterpreted often due to the fact that it can be extremely scrutinized by the officials to the point that if the defender and the attacker are a whisker away from each other it gets ruled as offsides. Handballs are also a point of contention often, due to "unintentional" handballs being gifted as penalty kicks. I think the biggest complaint here from my American friends is that they don't get why one official gets all the power in these decisions. Shouldn't there be like 100 of them, like in American Football?
5. This final complaint really is the key to understanding why we as Americans fail as a soccer nation, and are unable to connect to the sport. There is just zero interest in seeing the amount of diversity that is in the soccer culture. Just reference the above chart again and see how soccer is overwhelmingly a global sport. We as Americans however, have no interest in the rest of the world, and generally only tune into international events such as the World Cup and Olympics. If you were to ask the average American who is the star player for the Cameroonian team, I'm quite sure 9 out of 10 wouldn't know. If you were in any soccer-based nation, I’m quite certain that almost everyone under the age of thirty would know.
This isn't to say that Americans are ignorant about foreign affairs outside of our borders. It's only to show that we don't really care for foreign sports. This doesn't just include soccer, it umbrellas all sports considered "foreign", which include but aren't limited to: rugby, cricket, handball, skiing, polo, and table tennis (China's strongest suit).
In conclusion, I believe that America, being a nation with many foreigners put into the melting pot, is trying to set itself apart through sport. I don't know if it's a conscious thing even. I believe that it's something that's been built into our psyches throughout the years since the split between Football, Rugby and American Football. It's something that always separated us from our colonial overlords and kept our identities intact. In essence, our disinterest in soccer is the way we define our identity as Americans, and we're not worse off for it, just more disconnected culturally than most soccer-loving countries. I say culturally disconnected because soccer is a never-ending saga that plays out year after year in the European, Asian, South American and African Leagues (I've omitted Australian, because they're bigger on Rugby and Australian Rules than soccer).
As someone who has traveled to Asia, Europe and Central America, my knowledge of soccer has often given me a certain "in" to create conversation with the locals, where I had nothing else to really relate to them with. I believe that being connected to soccer is being connected to global trends, and something that many Americans are missing out on when shunning the sport completely. So my two cents is: you don't have to be a know-it-all, but if you keep abreast of soccer (just make sure that you call it Football when you bring it up in a foreign land), you will be that much more in touch with the rest of the world.
Guest Author Nitai Vinitzky is a well-traveled native Northern Californian. He lived in Ukraine for two years while with the Peace Corps, and currently resides in New York. Nitai enjoys good hummus, fantasy novels, and of course, football.
Brazilian soccer player holding football wearing 2014 shirt in Brazil colors at Sugarloaf Pao de Acucar in Rio de Janeiro image courtesy of Shutterstock