Why Do You Call it Football? Five Myths about the History of The Beautiful Game, Gridiron and Rugby.

As an American Sports writer, living in England, I take my fair share of stick for calling American Football just “Football” and English Football “Soccer”. Indeed, though we try to avoid it, we will sometimesslip up and refer to American Football as just “football” on this site, in spite of it being aimed at a British audience.

By now, I’m used to it. “It’s called FOOT ball… You should use your feet”. “American football… More like Hand Egg”, “Soccer is a dumb Americanism” goes the usual refrain.

Of course, this attitude should come as no surprise, though soccer remains England’s national sport, the English national team hasn’t won a World Cup in nearly 60 years, and the top tier of their club system is now made up of more than two-thirds foreigners—the highest percentage in Europe. Understandably, the fans are a little insecure.

Growing up in the UK, though I was never a huge soccer fan, I too parroted these same comments to my American friends and family, almost as a matter of national pride. But, as a sports writer, you quickly learn to check your sources, dig deeper, and discover the truth behind the hyperbole.

And what I found shocked me. Join me as we take a look at five myths about the history of Soccer and American Football (and explain why we use Football to refer to American Football, and Soccer to refer to Association Football on a British site.)

Myth One – Soccer is the original form of the game. All the others are bad copies.

The earliest forms of the game which would evolve into Soccer, Football and Rugby began in France in the 1100’s, and was brought to England after the Norman conquest. At the time, it was not called football, but the very core of the game—namely, the ball—was present.

In those days, the ball was an inflated pigs bladder—which is incidentally looks more like a modern Rugby or NFL ball than the spherical soccer ball—and the main, and only, real goal was to recover it for your team, and carry it back to your side of the town. It was largely a free-for-all fight to do this, and kicking was an important part of the game. However, it wasn’t kicking of the ball that was popular, it was the kicking of your opponent—alongside eye gouging, strangling, head-stomping and even stabbing.

In it’s earliest form, the ball was generally carried or passed from person to person, and only occasionally thrown or kicked, as both of these actions would often lead to the ball ending up on the floor—a very dangerous position for anyone trying to recover it in a game where head stomping is allowed.

The first recorded incident of a person intentionally kicking the ball comes in 1280, around 125 years after the earliest records of the game. The outcome… he was stabbed.

In truth, the original forms of the game have very little in common with any of the modern games, and rules were few and far between. Undoubtedly, there were some events which were more similar to today’s soccer, and more which were closer to Rugby or Football, but in general, some of the the core mechanics of the earliest sport—carrying a non-spherical ball to an “end zone” (your side of the town’s high street) with one team attacking and another defending and trying to take over the attack—mean that American Football and Rugby are at least as close to the original game, if not closer, as Soccer.

Myth Two- “It’s called Football for a reason, you should use your feet.”

For me, this always felt like the most compelling argument. Football came first, and got it’s name because it was played with their feet. All other versions (Rugby, American Football, Aussie Rules Football, etc) which don’t include kicking as the primary means of transporting the ball are perversions of this core ideal, and should be renamed.

It’s hard to argue with the logic, but unfortunately, history simply doesn’t bear this out either.

The earliest use of the word football—then written foteball—comes in 1308, it was used to refer to an early evolution of the game played in the 12th and 13th century.

However, the earliest written evidence of any sport which included kicking (of the ball) as a core mechanic doesn’t come until the 1490’s, more than 180 years later.

Clearly, it wasn’t originally called Football because kicking the ball with your feet was the way it was meant to be played.

Indeed, the record in the 1490’s, the writer indicates great surprise that football would be played without using one’s hands, which was the norm at the time.

What’s more, there is more than sufficient evidence that football or “Foot-Ball” were used to describe games where kicking was expressly forbidden.

So why, then, is it called football?

The common story tells of the fact that it is called this because the ball is one foot long, and it sounds convincing, but this has it’s issues.

Chief among them is the fact that an American Football ball actually has a specified length of around 11 inches, a little shy of a foot. And though the size of an official Rugby ball is indeed nearly exactly a foot in length, there is no evidence that this was the case for the pig’s bladder used in the 15th century when the name was coined.

The most likely reason is simply that the sport was played on foot, with a ball, rather than mounted on horse, as most ball sports at the time were. At the time, the most popular ball sport was Polo, which was played on horseback.

Indeed, this is the explanation proposed by the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

So at least by this standard, Gridiron Football is just as much “football” as is soccer, rugby, Gaelic Football and many other variations of the game. It is not played on horseback—though we would certainly watch that.

Myth Three – Kicking the ball had become the long established form of the game until William Webb-Ellis flew in the face of tradition, carrying the ball, to the shock of all in attendance. Using your hands isn’t part of the history of the modern game.

The story of William Webb Ellis, who “with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it” is one which is well known, and often told in sports circles. It is a great tale of the ingenious and pioneering nature of many sports, which are born out of defied conventions.

It is also one which is often used to demonstrate that kicking, and kicking alone, was the primary, even sole, form of football until 1845.

However, unfortunately for Rugby fans, who like to believe that their sport has that rebellions, individualist streak at it’s core, and for Soccer Fans who want to insist that their form of the sport is the truest form, the story simply isn’t true.

In reality, both Soccer and Rugby evolved, largely independently of one another, over the 300 or so years between the 16th and 19th century.

Throughout it’s history, the earliest forms of “mob football” were unpopular with land owners, gentry and Kings, due to the damage they caused, and unsuitable to be played with formal rules in civil society, like schools, universities or amateur leagues, due to their lack of rules and haphazard nature.

Each town had their own variations that evolved over time, some which focused more on throwing and carrying, others which included more kicking and passing, but competitive matches were never going to take off until standard rules were worked out and formalised.

However, they were undoubtedly fun to watch and take part in, and so the desire to standardise the rules was great.

As young men who had seen this began to attend colleges and universities, they brought with them stories of these epic “football” games, and began to recreate them on campus, and create more formal rules for them, incorporating different aspects of the game (and other similar games) in the process. As intercollegiate games began to take place, hybrid rules between their various systems were agreed upon before the game, which lead to more and more homogenisation.

Concepts from other sports, such as scoring multiple goals, in nets, in a set period of time—for example, as in Hurling—were adopted too.

By the 1800’s, this had largely evolved into two distinct forms. The throwing game, and the kicking game.

Both the throwing game and the kicking game allowed for the use of all parts of the body including hands, and for the carrying of the ball, but generally differed in their use of passing. In the carrying game, the ball could generally be advance by carrying it forward, but must be passed backwards using the hands to another player, similar to Rugby today. The kicking game, on the other hand, generally allowed throwing, in addition to forward passing using one’s feet.

Many schools, including the Rugby school, favoured the carrying game, while others, like Cambridge, preferred the kicking game.

In 1845, the Rugby School was the first to codify the rules they had been working out for the past 200 years, for use in intercollegiate competition, and the sport of Rugby football was created. In 1948, three years later, the Cambridge University Football Club codified their rules for the kicking game.

This was the first time that the codes for each form were standardised, and these became the basis for the sports we know today.

The rules for the Rugby game resulted in a sport largely similar to the one we know today, the Cambridge rules on the other hand would require some tweaking to finally remove the last remnants of the use of hands from it, but still established ideas like forward passing, goal kicks and throw-in’s still in use today, and for the first time expressly forbid advancing the ball with it in hand, and required the players to either drop kick, or drop and dribble the ball once caught.

It was not until 1863, 18 years after the rules of Rugby were largely finalised, that the Football Association was founded, and finally agreed upon the rules of “Association Football” which we created the sport we generally recognise today.

Myth Four – American Football’s history is much too short to claim it as a true form of Football.

Like Soccer, and Rugby, Gridiron Football can actually trace it’s origins directly to the earliest games played in the fields and streets of France in the 10th Century. But it is true that compared to Rugby and Soccer, the rules for American football were not standardised until relatively late. It was not until 1867 that rules similar to modern NFL Football began to be proposed, and not until the 1870’s and 1880’s that Walter Camp helped develop some of the most unique rules of American Football.

However, to suggest that it’s history doesn’t allow it to lay claim to the name football couldn’t be further from the truth.

By the 1840’s colleges in the United States and Canada had already established rules for their Football game, very distinct distinct from the “Kicking Game” and “Carrying Game” which would later be codified as Rugby and Association Football in the coming years.

Like in England, each school and university had developed rules uniquely their own, but by 1855, less than 7 years after the establishment of the “Cambridge Rules” and a full 8 years prior to the founding of the Football Association, the “Boston Game” and McGill Rules were already being proposed as a unique form of Football for interscholastic and intercollegiate play in the United States and Canada. The game was a kind of hybrid of the two, which included the forward passing of Soccer, and the throwing and carrying of Rugby. Already, the hallmarks of American Football were evident.

Although both Association Football and Rugby were played in the united states during this period, it is quite clear that Gridiron Football is it’s own evolution of the earlier “Kicking Games” and “Carrying Games” which inspired Soccer and Rugby. It is not simply a tweaking or amalgamation of these modern sports, but its own sport, almost from the earliest days, with it’s own heritage stretching back to the original “football”, as much Football as any of the other claimants to the title.

Myth 5 – Soccer is an Americanism that has no part in discussions of the sport outside of America.

Of all of the claims leveled against American sports fans like myself, this is perhaps the most common, and also the most laughable. Though English Football fans are quick to give their sport nicknames, like Footie, The Beautiful Game or a “kick about”, Soccer is one they generally refuse to acknowledge. Soccer, after all, is the name the uncultured Yankies invented for it.

Except it isn’t. Soccer is, in fact, perhaps the most British of all words, originating in the very halls of our most prestigious educational institutions.

Much like today, the rivalry between the advocates of the Association Football and Rugby Football rules was almost palpable, even from the earliest days. People would staunchly defend the rules which they used, even from the earliest days of the sports.

Fans of the various codes would insist that theirs was the truest form of the game, the only one fit to carry the name Football.

In general, in the earliest days, both sides would refer to their sport simply as “football”, which understandably lead to a lot of confusion.

However, in the hallowed halls of the Oxford University, a tradition had long been established for assigning nicknames to things—the so called “Oxford -er”. In simplest terms, it meant dropping part of the word, and adding -er to the end of it. So Breakfast became “Brekker”, Bonfires “a Bonner” and exercise “Eccer”.

It didn’t take long for the Rugby Football code, therefore, to become “Rugger”.

This quickly spread outside of the University, to the point that by 1927, famous sports writing pioneer E.W. Swanton proclaimed that “Rugby football … in those days, I think, was never called anything but rugger unless it were just football”

In response, fans of Association football quickly settled on “Soccer” (taking the soc from the middle of association, and adding the -er). Soccer too quickly entered the parlance of the day, and was included—spelled Socker—in the first edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.

It is said that the term was popularised by Charles Wreford-Brown, an English national football captain, Football Association council member and chairman of the International Selection Committee for the English National Team.

Though this claim has been suggested to be apocryphal, there is no doubt that by the early 1900’s, Soccer was a common, if not the default name used by most for Association Football.

Though both sports continued to use Football unqualified, and both also used the shortened form “Footer” as well, Rugger and Soccer were by far the dominant ways to distinguish between the two at the time.

At the same time, in the United States and Canada, both Soccer and Rugby codes quickly fell out of fashion, and American Football quickly became known simply as “Football”.

Eventually, the popularity of Soccer in England began to outstrip that of Rugby, in no small part due to the lower barriers to entry, and unified rule sets, and soon Association Football began to called simply “Football” and as the Oxford -er fell out of popularity, Rugby Football became just “Rugby”.

Though other football codes fell out of favour in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th Century, both codes were still played by small, but dedicated groups. And though the “Oxford -er” fell out of fashion in the UK, in the US, where Football meant “American Football”, Soccer remained the dominant name for the Association Football code, keeping alive a bastion of quintessential Britishness long since abandoned by it’s home nation.

So there you have it, five myths about the history of Football, in all of its many and varied flavours, well and truly busted.

So, why do we use “Football” to refer to American Football, and Soccer to refer to Association Football here? In truth, it is simply easier. We write, primarily, about American “gridiron” football, and refer to Soccer only as a comparison. We think that given its history, soccer is appropriate to differentiate with no confusion, and while some fans will undoubtedly dislike it, it is better than the alternative—writing American Football and Association Football every time.

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2 comments on “Why Do You Call it Football? Five Myths about the History of The Beautiful Game, Gridiron and Rugby.
  1. Very interesting, well researched, and supported. I’m a Yank (NC and avid Panther fan) and know of only one Oxfordism: the Oxford comma, which I employ and defend with unabated enthusiasm!

    So, anyhow, how is the NFL’s plan to seduce the hearts (and wallets) of the old country going?

    • Plans to export gridiron to the UK are going surprisingly well.

      We’ve sold out all but one of the Wembley games, and according to the NFL UK chief, around 70% of those tickets were sold to brits. Sky Sports is increasing their package of NFL programming year on year, and NFL GamePass is very popular too–it must be considering how long it takes to get any support when something goes wrong, and how many tweets you see about it. During one game last year when the stream when down #gamepass was trending on twitter here in the UK.

      I quite regularly see fans walking around in NFL apparel. Of course, there are a lot of Dan Marino jerseys from the 80’s and 90’s still in circulation, and more than a few giants hats and sweaters which were bought during trips to the big apple without realising the football connotations, but then you also see a lot of smaller teams supported, where fans have clearly had to go out of their way to find their stuff. In my relatively small town I’ve bumped into more than a few fellow Cardinals fans while out and about which always surprises me.

      I’m in multiple NFL Fantasy leagues, made up of people from outside the UK.

      It seems every other day there is a front page story on BBC Sport about the NFL now–a long way from the old days where you may get a Super Bowl recap hidden away in the depths of the “international sports” page.

      It’s certainly moving in the right direction! Next stop, London franchise!

      Glad you found the article interesting.


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