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The Big Debate: Soccer Or Football?


I'm Michel Martin. Listen up. We're going to settle something here - something important. What do you call the beautiful game? You know, the one being played at the World Cup right now in Russia? Is it football, or is it soccer? Well, as Anders Kelto reports, it might be time for some zealous British fans to take a seat.

ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: There's this talk show called "The Grand Tour" on Amazon. It's hosted by three British guys and filmed in front of an American audience. And, on an episode last year, this happened.



RICHARD HAMMOND: No, it's football.



HAMMOND: It's not soccer - it's football.

JAMES MAY: Who says that?

STEFAN SZYMANSKI: It's quite extraordinary. I mean, people are incredibly invested in asserting that the proper name of this game is football and not soccer.

KELTO: That's Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at the University of Michigan and the author of a new book called "It's Football, Not Soccer (And Vice Versa)."

SZYMANSKI: The ways in which they insult Americans and generally use this as a stick with which to beat Americans is quite extraordinary.



HAMMOND: You can moan and shout all you like, but the fact is, we're British, and we edit this show, and you'll just get cut out.

KELTO: But to Szymanski, the idea that soccer is an American phrase and that Brits have always called it football didn't make sense.

SZYMANSKI: Because I grew up in England in the '60s and '70s, and I remember soccer being a word that people used all the time.

KELTO: And it turns out he's right.

TONY COLLINS: Soccer is a 100 percent British term.

KELTO: This is Tony Collins, a professor of history at De Montfort University in the UK. Collins says, back in 19th-century England, there were two versions of football that were popular with young men. The one where you could tackle and throw the ball with your hands - that was called rugby football. And the one where you kicked the ball with your feet - that was known as association football. And students came up with nicknames for each.

COLLINS: In the elite private schools, the shortening of words was a very common habit.

KELTO: So, for example, students at Oxford liked to add the letters E-R to the end of words. Breakfast became brekker (ph), and, in a similar way...

COLLINS: Rugby football was shortened to rugger (ph), and association was also shortened in the same way to become soccer.

KELTO: Students took the S-O-C from association football and added E-R to make soccer.

COLLINS: So it was a kind of an in-language, a kind of a phrase that was - that would be known by people of the same background.

KELTO: The name started to spread, and it really caught on in countries that already had a game called football like Australia and the U.S. But it took hold in Britain, too. Stefan Szymanski, the sports economist, says the word soccer became more and more common in the British press from the early 1900s up through the 1960s and '70s. But then it started to fall out of favor.

SZYMANSKI: It was perfectly acceptable to use it up until the point where, in the 1970s, a number of big European and British soccer stars went to play in the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: His real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento. To billions of soccer fans, he is known as Pelé, number 10. He has led Brazil the three World Cup titles, scoring more goals than any professional player in history. Today, he joins the New York Cosmos and the North American Soccer League...

SZYMANSKI: And everybody in Europe and in Britain noticed that this was happening, and they suddenly realized Americans used the word soccer. And that's what seems to have triggered this aversion to it in the UK. Suddenly, because Americans called it soccer, we have to call it football.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And the crowd are going wild.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible) That would just about stop the day there. (Unintelligible).

KELTO: Since then, of course, soccer has grown in popularity. In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup. Two years later, Major League Soccer was formed. And, all the while, the term soccer kept disappearing from British newspapers.

SZYMANSKI: You start to see scare quotes being put around it as in the phrase, it's football or, as the Americans say, soccer.

KELTO: So to all my British friends out there, remember this - that word that you hate - soccer - you invented it. But, hey - if it's any consolation, at least your soccer team is in this year's World Cup. For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto.

MARTIN: Oh, harsh, Anders - true but harsh.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, Stefan Szymanski is referred to as the author of “It’s Football, Not Soccer (And Vice Versa).” In fact, he is co-author of the book with Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of comparative literature and professor of German studies at the University of Michigan.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: July 1, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, Stefan Szymanski is referred to as the author of It's Football, Not Soccer (And Vice Versa). In fact, he is co-author of the book with Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of comparative literature and professor of German studies at the University of Michigan.