Why Do Americans Call Football Soccer?

In the vast landscape of global sports, where football reigns supreme in most corners of the world, one peculiar phenomenon stands out—the American penchant for calling the beautiful game “soccer.” In a nation where American football, baseball, and basketball dominate the sports scene, the adoption of the term “soccer” to refer to what much of the world recognizes as football might seem like a linguistic anomaly. In this exploration, we delve into the historical roots and cultural nuances that led Americans to dub the sport as soccer and the implications of this nomenclature.

A Historical Primer:

To understand why Americans call football “soccer,” we must rewind the clock to the late 19th century when the sport first found its way to American shores. In the United States, various forms of football were being played, each with its own set of rules. Gridiron football, which would eventually evolve into American football, was gaining popularity alongside association football, the global variant commonly referred to as soccer.

As the sport gained traction in the United States, the need arose for a distinction between the different codes of football. The term “soccer” emerged as a colloquial abbreviation of “association football,” differentiating it from rugby football and other football codes. This linguistic divergence was not unique to the United States; other English-speaking nations, including Canada and Australia, also employed the term “soccer” to distinguish it from other football codes.

Linguistic Quirks and British Influence:

The use of the term “soccer” in the United States can be attributed, in part, to the linguistic idiosyncrasies that have shaped American English. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans often adopted alternative terms for certain sports to avoid confusion or to align with linguistic trends. For example, rugby football became “rugger,” and association football became “soccer.”

It’s essential to note that, during this period, British influence on American culture was substantial. British immigrants and cultural exports, including sports, left an indelible mark on American society. The term “soccer” itself has British origins, derived from the sport’s official name, “association football.” In Britain, using the term “soccer” to distinguish the sport from rugby football was commonplace.

The Rise of American Football:

As American football gained prominence in the early 20th century, especially with the establishment of the National Football League (NFL) in 1920, the need for a distinct name for association football persisted. American football’s physicality, strategic complexity, and uniquely American appeal led to its rapid growth and popularity, further necessitating a clear distinction from association football.

The popularity of American football eclipsed that of association football, and the term “football” in the United States became synonymous with the gridiron version. The use of “soccer” as a term persisted as a way to maintain clarity and avoid confusion, especially in a nation where multiple football codes coexisted.

Cultural Identity and Linguistic Evolution:

The linguistic evolution of sports terminology often reflects cultural identity and societal trends. In the case of calling football “soccer” in the United States, the choice of terminology is embedded in a historical context that predates the widespread global standardization of the term “football” for association football.

As American culture developed its unique sporting landscape, linguistic distinctions played a role in shaping the identity of sports and their fan bases. American football, with its own set of rules, traditions, and cultural significance, became an integral part of the nation’s sports fabric. The use of “soccer” as a term for association football became not just a linguistic divergence but a cultural marker, reinforcing the distinction between the two sports.

Global Perspectives and Cultural Relativity:

While the term “soccer” is predominantly an American phenomenon, it is essential to acknowledge the relativity of language and cultural identity. In many parts of the world, particularly in countries where football is the predominant code, the term “soccer” is met with curiosity or bemusement. However, understanding the historical and cultural context helps bridge the linguistic divide and highlights the flexibility and adaptability of language.

In the United States, referring to association football as soccer remains deeply ingrained in the lexicon, with generations of sports enthusiasts using the term without a second thought. The cultural relativity of sports terminology is a testament to the dynamic nature of language and its ability to adapt to the unique contours of different societies.

The Global Standardization of “Football”:

While “soccer” remains prevalent in American discourse, the global standard for association football terminology has overwhelmingly shifted towards the use of the term “football.” The influence of international football competitions, the ubiquity of global media, and the interconnectedness of the sports world have contributed to the widespread acceptance of “football” as the universal identifier for the sport.

FIFA, the international governing body for football, officially uses “football” in its name, and the sport’s flagship event, the FIFA World Cup, epitomizes the global consensus on terminology. The linguistic convergence on “football” aligns with the sport’s transcendent popularity and its status as a unifying force that bridges cultural, linguistic, and geographical divides.


In the intricate tapestry of sports language, the American use of the term “soccer” for association football stands as a linguistic quirk with deep historical roots. Shaped by the coexistence of various football codes, cultural influences, and the rise of American football, the term reflects the complexity of language and its ability to adapt to the unique contours of different societies.

While the rest of the world may use “football” universally, the American use of “soccer” adds a distinctive layer to the nation’s sports identity. As linguistic and cultural exchanges continue in the globalized world of sports, the term “soccer” remains a testament to the dynamic nature of language and the diverse ways in which cultures engage with the beautiful game.

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