I noticed that I came in for some criticism recently for my use of the term soccer. Here I try to explain why it is my preferred term.
In recent years many proponents of soccer in Australia have begun to call the game football. The new governing body, the FFA, established in 2004 as a part of sweeping reforms to the game’s management, decided to ‘take back’ the name football – a move that received a lot of support in the soccer community but one which generated a great degree of opposition and disagreement from supporters of Australian rules and the Rugby codes.
This is understandable. ‘Football’ is a very powerful term. When used it is an assertion of the regional dominance of the game it is describing. Australian rules proponent, Martin Flanagan believes the
football naming-rights argument is a small matter of large consequence. Politics is largely decided by headlines that transfer the meaning of a mere handful of words. In sport, in this part of the world, one of those words is football. Whoever owns that word to some extent owns the future.
Prior to 2004, in most of Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia ‘football’ denoted Australian rules; in Queensland and New South Wales it usually meant Rugby League. And while generally these conventions still hold they have been destabilised by the re-naming of soccer. Significantly, the intense branding of terms like NRL (National Rugby League) and AFL (Australian Football League, the peak Australian rules body) has allowed soccer some space and leverage in adopting the term football. But we need to be careful to draw a cultural distinction between what the PR agents denote and that which the general public connotes.
This new policy of soccer ‘taking back’ the name of football is also based on a few fallacies:
- That the use of the term soccer was forced upon the game. This is only partly true. The name soccer was adopted to in order to both domesticate the game in Australia as well as internationalising its image here. The term British Association football was seen as tying the game too tightly to its British roots. The preferred option, Association football, was unavailable, already taken by the second-string Australia rules competition in Victoria. Soccer was the only term available that referenced Association football unambiguously.
- Soccer is an American abomination. This is not true. The term was invented in English public schools – though not necessarily without a pejorative aspect.
- Soccer is a diminutive that belittles the game. This is a matter of emphasis and manner of articulation. Any diminution is in the manner of expression (soccer is a word that lends itself to sarcastic inflection) and not the semantic content.
- Leading figures and commentators in the Australian game like Johnny Warren and Les Murray always used the word ‘football’ when talking about soccer. They did not.
Confusion over names is part of the complex history of all football codes in this country. Australian rules and soccer have undergone a significant name changes in the course of their development, as have their many organising and controlling bodies – usually for interesting cultural-political reasons.
As the rules of the Melbourne Football Club start their expansion out of Melbourne into other towns and colonies (including NZ) the name of the game becomes Melbourne rules, becomes Victorian rules, becomes Australian rules (with a brief digression into Australasian rules). Australian rules is officially known as Australian Football and also has made claims on the title of the ‘National Game’.
The game that is initially known in Victoria as Anglo-Australian football, or British Association rules, or English Association rules, or (rarely) Scottish Association rules, officially becomes Soccer football in the 1920s and just plain soccer after that – though it starts to be described as soccer in the Argus newspaper from 1908 on. In Queensland, the first organising body was the Anglo-Queensland Football Association while the game in New South Wales was initially administered by the Southern British Football Union. In the Perth press the game is described as Socker (which is an Americanism) for a few brief years around the turn of the century!
This represents a methodological problem for the historian – if the names of the games and the organising bodies are not consistent over time or across the various colonies at any given time, we need to be very careful when we read an historical newspaper article that refers to football.
For example, an article in a Maitland newspaper in 1883 reviews a match of Association football played by a team named Northumberland. A contemporary reader would be forgiven for the immediate assumption was that it was a soccer team comprised of miners from the north east of England. Closer reading showed that it was actually a game of Victorian rules being played by a local team against South Melbourne FC.
This changeability of names points to a very different conception of football from the ones held today – the idea that soccer and rugby and Australian rules were differing strains of the same game of football. For much of the first part of the 20th century, newspaper soccer reports were made under the heading of football. Typically, the Argus would list under the heading of football: VFL, VFA, rugby and soccer. And while they gave greater weight to Australian rules there was not the same sense of separation that the media deploys today.
In some papers, the football results were given in such an order that we can only discern from the actual scores the games that were being played.
This too represents a methodological problem. Soccer reports are often there in newspapers but they are sometimes buried at the end of or hidden within a general football report. Historians have overlooked vital pieces of information because of this.
From 1850 onward until about 1870 we get many reports of football games where virtually all we know is that between zero and 3 goals were scored, mostly kicked but occasionally taken across the line in or by a scrimmage. Many journalists thought little of posterity when they filed their reports. We know that different kinds of football were being played but sometimes we have no idea what kinds.
The FFA’s rebranding of soccer as ‘football’ threatens to introduce the same kind of lack of clarity for historians of the future. Therefore I am an advocate for the use of soccer in public discourse for the time being — at least until history and common sense determines otherwise.
This may or may not be an adequate explanation for some of you and I'd be interested in comments that engaged with it. I'm not utterly wedded to my position and I could shift if convinced by good arguments.