As an American, I think I’m fairly typical in not paying much attention to soccer except when the World Cup comes around every four years, at which point I root mainly for Argentina, where I went to high school — I’m pleased, of course, when the U.S. wins, but in men’s soccer they have little hope of winning it all, and if I want to root for a hopeless cause I’ll stick with my Mets (currently battling it out for last place in the NL East). I’m certainly typical in calling it “soccer” rather than “football.” I’ve always been a little puzzled by the vitriol people who are not Americans can exhibit over this terminological difference, vitriol they do not usually expend over (say) “trunk” vs. “boot” or “eggplant” vs. “aubergine.” After all, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone that the Italians call it calcio, and the word “soccer” was, after all, created by Brits. At any rate, I was pleased to discover that Stefan Szymanski, a University of Michigan professor, has gone into the history of the difference in a paper (pdf) called “It’s Football not Soccer,” and I’m posting it to celebrate the start of the 2014 Cup; you can also read a press release about it, or watch a short video in which he summarizes the main points.
One of the things I learned from him that most surprised me was that “soccer” was quite popular in the U.K. up until the 1980s (though it never rivaled “football”); here’s a telling paragraph:
Football biographies and autobiographies are particularly interesting in this respect. Famous personalities are likely to be sensitive to the choice of name, given the intense scrutiny of the lives and actions of these individuals. Given the antipathy to the word “soccer” in the UK today, it might surprise many people to know that many of the most famous personalities of the 1960s and 70s used the word “soccer” in their autobiography. Thus Sir Matt Busby, the celebrated manager of Manchester United in the 1950s and 60s entitled his autobiography “Soccer at the top”. One biography of George Best, the most famous player of the era, was titled “George Best: the inside story of soccer’s superstar”. Jimmy Hill, one of the most influential figures in the development of English football entitled his autobiography as a player “Striking for Soccer” in 1961, while the autobiography of John Charles, a great player of the 1950s was titled “King of Soccer”.
From his conclusion:
The main purpose of this article has been to illustrate the trends in usage. It is possible to offer some speculations in explanation of these trends. One key difference in the usage of “soccer” in Britain and the US seems to have to do with social status. In Britain the word seems carried both an elitist connotation – the language of the ruling class – and an air of informality. It was, possibly, just a little too colloquial in the first half of the twentieth century for use in high-brow newspapers such as The Times of London or to be used in the title of a book. In the US it seems to have had a more democratic flavor – everyone used it – and more easily shifted from a colloquialism to a proper name because of the utility of distinguishing it from the other “football”.
There are lots of good details in the paper, which I commend to your attention. If you have any interest in Russian soccer/futbol, I also recommend Robert Edelman’s Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers’ State, which I’m reading with great enjoyment; it’s teaching me a great deal about the history of working-class Moscow (especially the Presnya district from which Spartak grew) as well as that of the soccer team whose long rivalry with Dinamo is comparable to those of Real Madrid with Barcelona and Celtic with Rangers. Anyway, my apologies to those who are already fed up with all things Cup-related; regular non-sports-related programming will resume tomorrow!
Update. I just got a timely delivery from Amazon, the copy of David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer I ordered after realizing from the Edelman book that I needed to read it. Looks great, and will be perfect reading over the next month!