“It’s the greatest sport in the world. Why does Canada call this soccer?” writes John Harbink, Surrey B.C. “Why call a game of handball with a helmet, football? It does not make sense to me.” Paul Attfield – a displaced Englishman and former Globe Sports soccer reporter, writes:
The word soccer is – brace yourself – actually a British term. In truth, it’s not just Canada and the United States that calls football soccer. It was used in England up until about 30 years ago to distinguish association football – today the world’s most popular sport – from another form of football, rugby football, or rugger for short.
The reasoning behind this is intertwined with the development of both sports. While embattled and outgoing FIFA president Sepp Blatter is happy to honour China as the cradle of association football, the game as we know it today was forged on the playing fields of England’s public schools. When much of Georgian Britain had condemned the sport as too barbaric for communal play, preferring instead the more gentlemanly pursuits of cricket, rowing and boxing, it was left to the next generation to carry the torch.
While hallowed institutions such as the Duke of Cambridge’s alma mater, Eton College, developed such idiosyncrasies as the Eton Wall Game – a bizarre scrummaging game still played today – others went in different directions. Westminster School derived from its tight London grounds a game of football based around dribbling, Winchester College’s narrow pitch led it to develop a kick-and-chase style and Rugby School students, most notably William Webb Ellis according to legend, preferred to simply carry the ball in hand.
When these students moved on, as many did, to Oxford or Cambridge Universities, or to the armed forces, it proved nearly impossible to play a collective game of footy as everyone ascribed to different rules. Eventually a series of meetings were held in the fall of 1863 between 11 London-based clubs and schools at a bar in Covent Garden to thrash out the official laws of the game.
Though those meetings led to the birth of association football, and the sport’s first governing body, the Football Association, not everyone was in total agreement with the proceedings. Blackheath, one of the clubs involved, withdrew at the final meeting over the removal of a rule permitting running with the ball in hand, and another allowing hacking, tripping and holding of the ball-carrier. Blackheath went on to become one of the founding members of the Rugby Football Union eight years later.
As rugby football made its way to North America – both in Canada and south of the border – it quickly got shortened to ‘football’ as the game morphed into the one we know today. The Grey Cup, the CFL’s championship trophy, was originally donated to the Canadian Rugby Union in 1909 to recognize the top amateur rugby football team in Canada.
Australian Rules Footballas subject to the same abbreviation in Australia, which also happily uses the word soccer to describe association football, so much so that its men’s national team is called the Socceroos.
But while Brits were happy to shorten association football to soccer, the rise in popularity of the sport in North America in the 1970s and 80s led to a backlash back home, so soccer snobs stopped using the word over its American connotations.