Soccer or Football? Beckham and Manning couldn’t solve it, so we did

If you’ve been watching the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, no doubt you can by now quote parts of the Frito Lays commercial featuring Peyton Manning and David Beckham. Manning is considered one of the best quarterbacks of all time who played professional American football for 18 seasons. Beckham is usually featured among the 50 best all-time football (what’s that whisper of “soccer?”) players and played for England in three FIFA World Cups (1998, 2002, 2006).

In the ad, Beckham is watching FIFA World Cup, and Manning says, “Watching a little soccer?” And that’s where their altercation begins. It’s an age-old argument that all English speakers have had over the definition and accurate use of the words “soccer” and “football.” Finally, Manning grabs what is only shown as a hardbound, navy blue American English dictionary, and quotes: “Soccer is a round ball. Football is an oval ball…”

Translators, interpreters, and localizers know and understand the difference and why there is no point fussing over the terms “soccer” and “football.” After all, it’s hard to argue historical linguistics. Cultural accuracy depends entirely on context and geography. American football was developed from soccer and rugby in Yale in 1873, whilst the original football has been around since the 12th century. Case closed, right?

To clear this up once and for all, here are the definitions according to the most used dictionary in the United States, Merriam-Webster. It reads:

Soccer [noun]: A game played on a field between two teams of 11 players, each with the object to propel a round ball into the opponent’s goal by kicking or by hitting it with any part of the body except the hands and arms.

Football [noun]:  Any of several games played between two teams on a usually rectangular field having goalposts or goals at each end and whose object is to get the ball over a goal line, into a goal, or between goalposts by running, passing, or kicking: such as

  1. British: Soccer
  2. British: Rugby
  3. An American game played between two teams of 11 players each, in which the ball is in possession of one side at a time and is advanced by running or passing.

In this case, “football” is used as an umbrella term for three different forms of play involving two teams on a field, a ball, and goal posts or a goal line. “Soccer” is specified in the go-to US textbook as a game only allowing a ball to be kicked or passed, not using the hands or arms. This would exclude American football and rugby — ipso facto it is what is now happening at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Manning grabs the American English dictionary
Manning reaches for the American English dictionary

Now let’s turn to the Old World that invented the most popular game in the world today. A bastion of British academics, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), actually closely matches Manning’s quote and is much less ambivalent about it.

Soccer [noun]: A game played by two teams of 11 players, using a round ball that players kick up and down the playing field. Teams try to kick the ball into the other team’s goal.

Football [noun]: A game played by two teams of 11 players each, using an oval ball that players kick, throw, or carry. Teams try to put the ball over the other team’s goal line.

So what’s going on here?

It appears that what is widely considered the pinnacle of British English, the OED, actually sides with Manning and the US people. According to Smithsonian magazine, it was actually the Brits that coined the term “soccer” in the 1800s to distinguish “soccer football” (round ball) from “rugby football” (oval ball). The reason most Brits will defend the term “football” is pure and simple: to distinguish themselves from Americans. The “American English” dictionary Manning grabs in the ad may have been selected by the writers to portray and even emphasize the difference between the two dialects, but in the end, they were as wrong as many of us are in understanding the difference and linguistic finesse between “soccer” and “football.”

Rest assured, there will always be plenty of people willing to bicker about soccer semantics. But these are the historical facts: Soccer is the more accurate word to describe the round-ball game in any form of English. And if you find yourself at a watch party with a global audience, a less contrite justification can be made for switching from saying “football” to “soccer.” Just say you’re encouraging world peace and hope to avoid needless altercation. After all, there can be no confusion over the meaning of “soccer,” but you can endlessly argue over the term “football.” That’s why many will opt to use “soccer” to describe what they know as “fútbol,” “fußball,” “voetbal,” or “futebol” in their own language. See any commonalities? Of course, there are the Finnish with “jalkapallo,” but what can we do about that?

 

 

 

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Marjolein Groot Nibbelink
Marjolein realized early on that the Netherlands was too small for her. After traveling to 30+ countries over the span of 10 years she moved to the United States in 2014. She holds a degree in Communication from the University of Rotterdam and has long had an affinity for creative writing.

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