MOSCOW — England might have gone out of the World Cup in the latest of a litany of historical heartbreaks but thankfully its fans still have one thing up its sleeve — the ability to make fun of Americans.
Because, while football might not be coming home this summer after all, gosh, at least Brits call the sport by its proper name: Football.
Everyone associated with the beautiful game in the United States runs a constant gauntlet that could see them targeted by mean-spirited Brits at any moment. Even Serena Williams, enjoying the thrills of the World Cup’s closing stages was sharply rebuked on social media for daring to use the dreaded “s” word.
Silly Americans, why do they call it soccer?
Let’s just hang on a minute here and refer the matter to the video assistant referee, or at least to the scrutiny of sporting and grammatical history. Is the matter as simple as the U.S., having long ago already adopted the word “football” for its wildly popular national pursuit that involves touchdowns and tailgating and (formerly) Tim Tebow, being forced to come up with another word for the round ball version?
After all, England was so amused by soccer’s American use that before the intrepid Yanks took on the boys from over the pond in 2010 a London newspaper urged its team to “win the soccerball World Series.”
“Get the name right, lads,” a group of good-natured England fans told some American visitors on a train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow earlier this week. “It’s not saah-cer, it’s football.”
Here, though, is where England learns that its snooty jibes are as misguided as its attempts to tackle Luka Modric and his Croatian chums in Wednesday’s semifinal.
Because, ouch, the word soccer isn’t a lazy American creation of convenience. It is as English as Worcestershire sauce, quaint pubs, talking about the weather, getting eliminated from soc…football tournaments and absurd places named Chipping Sodbury and Scratchy Bottom. Yes, those villages really exist and people actually live there.
“Shut uuuup,” said Chris Henry, 23, from Berkshire, on that same train journey – and not in an unfriendly way whatsoever. “I don’t believe you. Prove it.”
There is a reason that people of Henry’s generation don’t think that soccer is an English word, and that’s because it isn’t really – not anymore anyways. However, in the days of his grandparents, things were quite different. In post-war England, “soccer” was very much part of common parlance, used interchangeably with “football.” In 1952, Soccer Star magazine was launched in the United Kingdom and ran until the 1970s. A chain of apparel and equipment stores named Soccer Scene was popular into the 2000s, although, in fairness, usage of “soccer” had largely disappeared from British vocabulary by then.
So how was it there in the first place? The root to it all lies in the true and official name for the sport globally. It is Association Football, which is why FIFA stands for Federation Internationale de Football Association (International Federation for Association Football).
The Association part came about in the very earliest days of the game being codified into something resembling what we watch now. That was in the middle part of the 19th century, when the activity that has transfixed the planet for the past month was still a largely upper-class pursuit played occasionally by posh British schoolboys when they weren’t calling each other by their last names and learning Latin verbs.
Equally as popular in those years was rugby football, which would come to be known as what is now universally recognized as rugby (or rugby union) – largely because it was invented at the tony Rugby School. To differentiate the two, the game that would later spawn Pele and Cristiano Ronaldo and Kimble the soccer dog was given the title Association football.
Now, if there is one thing that English folk like more than spotted dick (that’s a dessert, in case you were wondering), it is altering words that sometimes need shortening and often don’t. That’s why the BBC is “the Beeb,” a fish and chip shop is the “chippy” and how, among upscale chaps, anyone called Etheridge is “Ethers” to his mates, Atherton is “Athers” and Johnstone is “Johnners.”
Hence, naturally, rugby football swiftly became “rugger”, while Association football, not wishing to make an as…, er, a fool of itself, was left with a little bit of a problem. A nickname of asser might have been enough by itself to stem the tide of global popularity that would follow for the beautiful game, but fortunately, the day was saved by Charles Wreford-Brown.
Good old “Wrefers” (note: pure speculation, it is likely that no one called him that, ever) was a prominent 19th century player who, rumor has it, left out the front part of ASSocation football, went straight for the SOC that followed it, and added the now typical “er”. And soccer – sometimes socker at first – was born. Not in America. In England.
By the time the word began to fizzle out in England, America didn’t have much of a choice, given that football was by then established as the thing that rules Sundays.
Point proven, but a couple of other notes here, which might silence the next British anti-soccer snob and give the much-maligned American soccer lover some argumentative ammunition: Calling the gridiron game “football” is no sillier than “rugby football”, because they don’t use their feet much at rugger either.
And the thing that Tom Brady and company chuck around cheerfully? It is a ball – and it measures, nearly…one foot.