Actually Mate, It’s Soccer

Recently I was asked by Matthew Klugman to give a lecture in his sports studies course on the history of the “round ball” game in Australia.

It’s an interesting expression “the round ball game” because we have many games played with round, or more accurately spherical, balls – netball, cricket, hockey, basketball, baseball and so on. But he knew and I knew exactly what he meant.

Why didn’t he just name the game then?

Matthew is a sensitive guy and I know he’s aware that for some people the name of the game is an issue of great significance, one that is capable of creating a degree of debate and sometimes rancour.

If that was his reason then he needn’t have been so thoughtful. I’m happy with the term soccer. Indeed, I actually prefer it. My reasons are several:

  • The game’s proper title, association football is a bit of a mouthful, and soccer is an easier term to use.
  • It avoids confusion with other codes of football.
  • Its use and development signifies and important historical moment in the Australian game. In the 1920s the term ‘British Association Football’ was replaced by ‘Soccer Football’ in order to signify a domestication of the game.
  • My affiliation is with ‘old soccer’ as opposed to ‘new football’.

In recent years many proponents of soccer in Australia have begun to call the game football. Technically they are correct; culturally they are in error.

The new governing body, the FFA, established earlier this decade on the back of sweeping reforms to the game’s management, decided to get on the front foot and ‘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 footy and rugby league.

This is understandable. ‘Football’ is a very powerful term. When used it asserts the cultural hegemony of the game it is describing. If you talk about football in Sydney, most people will assume you are talking about Rugby League. If you are talking about another game this usage could be seen as a threat or an insult.

Significantly, the intense branding of terms like NRL and AFL has allowed soccer some space and leverage in adopting the term football.

But we need to be careful to draw a distinction between what the marketeers and the corporate types plan and that which the public allows.

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. There’s some truth to this but the story is far more complex than that. As an aside, if the VFA had been wiped out by the VFL (in line with some visions), the name would have been dormant and available for soccer and we may have ended up with association football (soccer) and league football (footy) in Victoria.
  • That it’s an American abomination. Not true. The term was invented in English public schools.
  • That leading figures in the game like Johnny Warren always used the word football when talking about soccer.  They didn’t.

Confusion over names is part of the complex history of all football codes in this country. Footy and soccer have undergone a significant name changes in the course of their development – usually for interesting cultural-political reasons.

As footy starts its expansion out of Melbourne into other towns and colonies (including NZ) Melbourne rules becomes Victorian rules, becomes Australian rules (with a brief diversion into Australasian rules).

The game that is initially known in Victoria as Anglo-Australian football, or British Association rules, or English Association rules, or 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 Perth the game is described as Socker 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 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, I discovered an article in the Maitland newspaper in the 1883 talking about association football being played by a team named Northumberland. My 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 we might hold today – the idea that soccer and rugby and Australian rules were differing codes of the same game, of football. For much 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 footy there was not the same sense of separation that the newspapers construct 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 by a scrimmage. The journalists thought little of posterity when they filed their reports. We know that different kinds of football were being played but 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. So let’s just stay with soccer for the time being — at least until history and common sense determines otherwise.


  1. Dave Nadel says

    Obviously I agree with you Ian. The attempt of the FFA to brand soccer as football in a country where four major codes of football are played actually shows how far removed they are from mainsteam Australian sporting culture. “Football” is best used as a generic term for all codes. If it is to be used to describe a specific code it should describe the most popular code, i.e Aussie Rules in Melbourne, Rugby League in Sydney, Soccer in London, American Football in New York, Rugby Union in Auckland and Gaelic Football in Dublin. But personally I prefer it to be used generically.

    The argument that Soccer should be called Football because it is the major code internationally really annoys me because it ignores local conditions. (I may have used this argument in an earlier thread)but I always think the best explanation of what is wrong with calling Soccer football in Australia can best be demonstrated by talking about pies (as in pastry covered food, not as in Magpies)

    If you go to a cafe in America and ask for pie they will sell you something containing fruit (probably apple). If you go a cafe or sports concession in Australia and ask for a pie they will sell you something hot containing meat. If you go to a pub in England and order a pie it will contain meat but it is likely to be served cold. You can get meat pies in the US and fruit pies in Australia but you have to use an adjective when you ask for them.

    Words do not have uniform meanings internationally. I am sure not a single one of the “Soccer is Football” crowd would start refering to fruit pies as the only pies because that is what the majority of English speakers do (Americans and Canadians) So why does it matter that the majority of the world thinks of soccer as football. The majority of Australians do not and that should be all that matters for Australian usage.

  2. That seems fair enough Dave.
    It is interesting how the organisations are now becoming the football brand, much like Harrow or Rugby once did.
    I ask kids if they follow soccer – they’ll say “No, just EPL or Champions League”. I asked Tom what he was watching this morning and it was La Liga and FA Cup. Young Aussie boys erroneously claim to be playing AFL – where the comp is appropriating the Aussie Rules game..we all know how different the game is away from adrian anderson’s office.
    There are bigger issues for soccer to address here than semantics. By the way, if SBS is crossing to the Bernabau do you mind it being called (rather smugly) The World Game? I don’t care – it is better than the endless Gordon Braying for the “Game they play in Heaven”!

  3. Ian Syson says

    Dave, I know what you mean but I think it’s a bit of a long bow to draw when you say that the people who run the most popular participation sport in Australia are removed from mainstream Australian sporting culture.

    Anyway, must go and have a look in my port to see if I left any potato scallops in it. It’s dinner time.

  4. Washing that down with a schooner?

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