What Is the Difference Between Soccer and Football?

Football (soccer) players

The answer to this question depends upon whether you’re asking from an American viewpoint or one from elsewhere in the world. To an American, this question could also read ‘What's the difference between soccer and American football?’ The answer is quite clear as soccer and American football are two completely different games. Soccer is played with a round ball that can be kicked and headed. American football, however, is more of a rugby type game in which the oblong shaped ball is thrown and passed as well as kicked.

In the rest of the world, however, the word ‘football’ does not mean ‘American football’. It means Association Football, also known as soccer. That means when read this way, the original question doesn't actually make sense with football and soccer actually being the same thing. However, it does lead us on to another interesting question.

Why Do Some Countries Call Soccer "Football" and Vice Versa?

The majority of people in the world call what Americans know as soccer as football. To understand why the Americans call the sport soccer whilst the rest of the world calls it football, it is important to understand the origin of both terms.

  • Football: The name ‘football’ is a shortened version of the official name of the game, association football. Association football was the term coined in 1863 when the Football Association codified the rules of the game. The word ‘association’ was added to distinguish it from other games such as rugby football.
  • Soccer: The word ‘soccer’ is believed to be derived from the term association football. With rugby football softened being shortened to ‘rugger’, a similar thing occurred with association football.

Whilst in the rest of the world, the term soccer came into use alongside that of football, in America, the term soccer became the prevailing term for the game of association football. The reason for this is that it was necessary to distinguish it from the other form of football in the USA, American football.

The term soccer remained a popular but secondary term for football in the world but in Britain its use saw a dramatic decline in the 1980s. In his paper, It’s Football not Soccer, Stefan Szymanski of the University of Michigan states: "Since 1980 the usage of the word 'soccer' has declined in British publications, and where it is used, it usually refers to an American context. This decline seems to be a reaction against the increased usage in the US which seems to be associated with the highpoint of the NASL (North American Soccer League) around 1980".

Today, the term soccer is largely only used in the USA but the term is widely understood across the world as meaning football. However, in the UK especially, the term soccer can be problematic with some fans insisting that the term should never be used, believing the Americans are renaming ‘their’ sport to distinguish it from American football.