Most of the world calls soccer football. The United States of America calls football soccer because back when the rest of the world started playing that kicking game we were already playing something else called football. Today, despite being a (declining) superpower, we get beat by countries the size of a postage stamp who operate on budgets that can’t afford postage.
There is a reason for this, and it isn’t just that we don’t “get it” or that there is something in American culture that precludes our appreciating the finer points of slide tackles and dramatic flopping. The NBA proves we love dramatic flopping, and no, the reason why we Yankees don’t get the game isn’t some attention span deficiency either. While soccer is incredibly boring, it is not arguably any more boring than that American game where you take a 1 minute break between every 20 seconds of action. So no, the real answer, or reason, is history. As in there is a historical reason we never got on the soccer bandwagon. Sorry, AN historical reason.
Soccer became soccer in London’s Freemason’s Tavern in 1863. That is when and where a bunch of football clubs got together and argued over whether or not the rules would allow a player to pick up the ball and carry it, as opposed to just kicking. The group voted to only allow kicking, causing those who supported the Rugby School’s version of the game, where you can choose to pick the ball up and run, to leave in protest. The two groups or factions never got back together. Forever after there would be two different games, association football, and rugby football, or as Americans know them, simply soccer and rugby- though we mostly ignore them both.
Back then England was very much meddling in the rest of the world’s everything. Business men, merchants, and their military were still colonizing and influencing all sorts of people and countries everywhere. It was all this influencing that helped both games, soccer and rugby, spread globally. It is also this influencing, and who was influencing who how, that these two games took on two sorts of identities or reputations. Soccer was, and is, the “every man’s” (or woman’s) game. Everyone plays. Kids kick balls of trash in third world hovels or favelas, while rugby is mostly for private schools and otherwise genteel clubs. A rugby shirt, or rugby “jersey” has a collar while soccer jerseys do not, mostly because rugby was played at clubs where the club houses required a collared shirt for entry. Soccer doesn’t really require a shirt for anything other than ripping off and twirling overhead after scoring a goal. It has oft been said that soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans while rugby is a hooligan game played by gentlemen.
And this is why Americans don’t play soccer.
Back when those English guys were arguing about kicking or carrying the ball, Americans were busy killing each other in the Civil War. Once the dust settled and Americans found the time for recreation, the every-man game had already been established as baseball. There was some horse racing and boxing mixed in there too but respectable folks looked on those things the same way backstreet drag racing and MMA are viewed today.
There were of course those who weren’t the “every-man” or were the sort of men who wore collared shirts, and ties, and once those men were done with the war they went home to places like New York, New Haven, and Boston. They themselves were too genteel for any sort of game, kicking or otherwise (except perhaps rowing) but their sons having just gotten their blood all boiling with war and whatnot, were a bit more restless. These boys finding themselves confined in the classrooms of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale made an effort to find a way to expend energy, without lowering their status. They looked to the elites in England for ideas. Oxford and Cambridge were at that time favoring rugby football over the kicking style, and consequentially Princeton challenged Rutgers to a game of football using the rugby rules rather than the “association” rulebook in 1869. The game stuck- and spread. So while England was off influencing the sporting life of all sorts of people all over the world, football players at Yale and Harvard were influencing American kids in South Bend, College Park, and Chicago. Which is one half of the reason Americans don’t compete well in Soccer today.
The other half is money.
Back when all of this was happening, sports were just games, not business empires. This isn’t to say money wasn’t involved, but the idea was that sports, or leisure, was for people who already had money, thereby allowing them to spend their time running around kicking balls when others might be tilling fields or toiling in factories. An English gentleman would have, and there are some who still do, turn up their noses at the idea of playing a sport for money. On the other hand, an Englishman who isn’t gentle will absolutely invest money in order to beat someone who thinks themselves superior. Americans as a whole were never truly gentlemen in the first place, so in both places, England and America, around the same time, 1870-ish, “poor” people started paying people to play for their teams. Americans played baseball and organized a professional baseball league in 1871. English people played association football and organized, or legalized, professional soccer in 1885. So now the world had two very different games being played professionally by working class folks on 2 different continents. This professionalism was for the most part, in both places, rather colloquial with money being mostly limited to whatever some local deep pocket was willing to pay in order to beat the next town over. And here it was that the sporting world split in two, North America, and everywhere else.
Soccer was easily exportable. No matter the language, no matter your wallet, no matter your social standing, the world was ready to let you play association football (soccer). You could be poor and play, and for the most part, for another 100 years, this is what happened. Poor people played soccer and mostly remained poor. Some people eventually made some money, depending an on who and where they were, and eventually we got the Bundesliga and the World Cup, but it took a long time to build up to that. Or this. Whatever.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, you had all those rich boys playing rugby at fancy colleges. Rich Americans care a lot about winning. And being rich. Rich English people cared mostly about who your grandfather was, which is why the ones without cool grandparents left for the colonies in the first place and decided to beat the paternalists in a couple wars in order to better focus on making money (in fact Americans cared so much about money and so little about lineage that they were willing to kidnap the children of royalty from other countries and force them to labor in fields in order to make themselves rich. How’s that for priorities?). So with this mindset American colleges started paying coaches to come up with strategies to beat the rich boys at the other colleges. Then they started letting people without pedigrees into their fancy colleges, and paying them money, in order to beat the other schools. Pretty soon other schools, ones that were less fancy, started paying more money to local coaches and players, so that they could start beating the fancier schools in this game of rugby football. By this time every college, and high school, across the entire North American continent had a football team. Americans were so invested in this game that in the year 1905, 19 “students” died on the field of play. This paying athletes to come to college and possibly die got so out of hand that a group of schools met together in 1910 to start enforcing and changing rules to make the game safer- but mostly they combined to regulate pay for play. They called themselves the National College Athletic Association, or NCAA for short. It should be noted that by this time these simple games between two schools, were bringing in giant crowds of spectators (Harvard and Yale both broke ground for permanent football stadiums seating 30,000 and 70,000 respectively) and these crowds were being sold tickets. As is, and has always been, the American way, people were making money. As the NCAA started to flex its regulatory might and began pushing back against the profiteering in college football, those less attached to the collegiate life were pushed out and shortly thereafter a professional football league was begun (1921). The financial behemoth that is the NFL today sprung up out of the money that had already been seeded on college campuses. So much so that most Americans are more familiar with any particular college’s colors and mascot than they are with those school’s scholastic offerings.
While the English were off seeding the planet with this common people’s game, America was busy turning sports into business. Big business. Gargantuon business. FIFA organized in 1904 in order to regulate international competition, similar to the Olympic commission, but other than bragging rights, there was for the most part no money in it. Americans wanted money. This was back when Jim Thorpe, an American, sailed across the ocean to beat the rest of the world in track and field, just to later have his gold medals taken away because he had once played baseball for money. It took decades for the rest of the world to either build up enough capital to professionalize, or for the gentry to relent. By the time they did (relent) and the “beautiful game” stepped up to take center stage and cause earthquakes in Mexico, any given Yankee had plenty of other sports to choose from- and those other sports have a higher likelihood of making a good athlete rich.
Today, a ten year old in Texas with superior athletic ability who does not come from independent wealth can choose to either play American football, and compete with millions of other Americans in hopes of making millions of dollars, or they can focus on soccer in hopes of one day competing against billions of Brazilians, Argentines, Mexicans, Spaniards, Italians, and Germans to go live in a foreign country making thousands of dollars. For those who buck the norm and just love the game this may look attractive, but it is a lopsided choice. Also, if this young American fears concussions, he (not “she” as women’s sports, especially football, have not monetized at the same rate) could always choose basketball, baseball, hockey… or maybe even surfing.
So while the entire world sans-America joins together in sporting unity, and riots, let us not pontificate on what it is about soccer that doesn’t connect with Americans, or why it is that the USA just refuses to be like everyone else- or which sport is inherently better than another. We know why America doesn’t play soccer and it doesn’t have anything to do with shin guards.