Vantage point

Monday, May 07, 2012

Why EPL is Soccer and not Football: The Definitive Answer

I have been in America for 6 years now, and will most likely spend my life here. Like almost all Americans, I refer to what is played in the NFL as football, and what is played in the EPL as soccer.

I don't like soccer. Have never liked soccer. Even as a kid growing up in India, decades before I even heard of the Superbowl or NFL, I found soccer an extremely boring sport. But this post is not about why soccer is so boring. This post isn't about the banality of a "sport" that features 90 minutes of ambling around, kicking around a ball, and scoring on an average just 1-2 times during the whole excruciating period. This post isn't about a sport where it is not considered shameful to feign injuries, where convincing playacting wins games, and where referees seem even more willfully clueless than the fake referees in WWE pro wrestling. This post isn't about the utterly fallacious argument "Soccer is the #1 sport in most countries in the world, so it has to be awesome", that could also be extended to say "denying women rights and dignity is a practice prevalent in most countries in the world, so it has to be awesome".

No, this post is about the name nonsense. You know, what the "real" football is. That what's played in EPL is the only sport that can and should be called football. That churlish notion is what this post is about.

In my academic, professional, and personal life, I have gotten to know about a dozen or so Europeans and a couple of South Americans well enough to call them friends. I have had countless conversations with them, over the course of which, I have referred to Europe and South America's favorite sport as "soccer" and not "football". No eyelids were batted. No corrections were demanded. No moronic "Call it football!!!" suggestions were made. I am sure all of them think of the sport as football. But they were normal people who had better things to do in life than split hairs over the name of a game. 

But I have lost count of the number of Indians who have, rather rudely and ignorantly, interrupted me or corrected me with the occasional use of profanity, and demanded that I not call the sport soccer. As they say, the newest converts are the most extremist. And most Indians who follow soccer are the archetypal new convert extremists. India is currently ranked 165 in FIFA rankings. Snowmen have a better chance of surviving months long cruises in hell than India does of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in this century. India's club soccer landscape is so dismal, that a documentary about it would look like Dystopian science fiction set in sub-Saharan Africa. I'm sure the bottled water budget of the newest IPL cricket team, the Pune Warriors, is more than the overall budget of all soccer tournaments played in India. Forget cricket, which is the king of sports in India. I'm sure that the revenue from the sales of Manchester United jerseys in Bombay is way more than the overall budget of all soccer tournaments played in India.

Despite the abysmal ranking and the tragic club scene, India has millions and millions of soccer fans! Or, as their hubris would force me to say, "football" fans. Now a non-Indian might wonder, how is it that a billion-strong country with millions of soccer fans is ranked lower than countries that don't even have populations close to a million? Why don't these Indian fans of the game go and watch local club soccer, support their teams, affect change and improve the fate of soccer?

The answer is simple. An overwhelming majority of self-proclaimed soccer fans in India are not really "fans" of the "sport" the way most people elsewhere are fans of sports. Scratch the surface and you'll realize that Indian soccer fans couldn't care less about the actual sport. They're just taken in by the aura surrounding the brands that European soccer has managed to cultivate and export. It's more about basking in the borrowed glory of Manchester United, Barcelona, etc. by paying ridiculous amounts of money to buy their jerseys and hats. Most Indian soccer fans couldn't tell you the difference between a banana kick and a banana split, or explain the offside rule. But they could identify the colors, logos, and brand endorsements of the top European club teams, and could tell you the keyboard shortcut to type Barca (the way any English-speaking person would type it) as Barça with that weird tail under the C to convince themselves they really know their stuff.

Well, they don't. Some do. A very few do. But most moneyed upper middle class Indians are just latching on to clubs from random European cities they couldn't even pinpoint on the map because they don't realize how completely they have been taken in by well-crafted marketing campaigns. These Indians spend more than a slum dweller's annual food budget on overpriced (but usually made in Bangladesh) jerseys, display logos on their facebook and twitter accounts, and go by nicknames like "gooner" as an expression of their utterly shallow new-convert extremism. Little wonder then, that despite dozens of European soccer clubs playing the game, 99% of Indian fans swear by one of 3 mega brands - Manchester United, Barcelona (sorry, Barça), and Arsenal.

And these Indian soccer fans are at the forefront of ignoring civility and rudely telling someone "y u call it soccer da? Call it football no macha!" and "LULWUT? y u watch rugby/NFL/AFL da? Dem no be football ra. Dey be hand-egg ra!" And of course, lazily forwarding this oh-so-cliched hand-egg picture; perfectly representative of Indian soccer fans' sporting ignorance and tendency to bask in borrowed glory - they can't even come up with their own clever rebuttals! But their ego grows a few precious microns as they do all this.

So then, which sport can stake claim to the name football? There's a short answer and a long answer. The short answer - Meh, who cares? A rose by any other name and suchlike. To give you an analogy, at any given moment, I can't tell you if I'll call India's biggest metropolis Bombay or Mumbai. I am Marathi, and in that language, we call it Mumbai. But I also grew up when the city's "official" name was Bombay and that's what we called it when speaking in English. In my mind, the names are synonymous. But there are a bunch of  folks as self-important, deluded, and rude as Indian soccer fans who can't abide by that. If they live in Shivaji Park or Goregaon, making someone say Mumbai instead of Bombay is the greatest Maratha achievement since the Battle of Wadgaon. If they live in South Bombay, making someone say Bombay instead of Mumbai is the greatest act of civil disobedience since the Salt Satyagraha. But the real answer, the short answer is - Meh, who cares?

The long answer is this. About soccer/football I mean, not that Bombay/Mumbai boondoggle. Rude soccer fans for some reason think of "soccer" as a word the Americans coined, and "football" as the pure true holy name that the noble Brits gave the sport. The long answer is vastly different. The answer steeped in history and etymology, not fallacious vapid logical shortcuts. Indian soccer fans simplistically say, as that hand-egg cliche denotes, that soccer is a game involving kicking a ball with the foot. NFL/Rugby/AFL involve carrying the ball by hands. Hence, FIFA/EPL is the "real" football. Done. Proved. Settled. QED. Elementary, my dear Watson!

Ah, Watson! Sherlock Holmes! Perfect segue!

Have you read the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter? Not one of my favorites, but useful here. Published in 1904. The captain of the Cambridge rugby team asks Holmes to locate a missing player on the eve of a crucial match against Oxford. In that story, the sport is referred to as just "football", sans any qualifiers on three separate occasions. It is also referred to once....only once as "rugger" (as opposed But more on that in a while). And as rugby, zero times.

So in the la-di-dah home of the sport, England, as a story written by one of the most famous English writers ever suggests, "football" was a term used to referred to rugby. The fact is, "football" was a generic name for a bunch of different sports, including rugby, gridiron football, soccer etc. Football was not exclusively identified even in England as the sport that is now played in the EPL. And although there isn't complete consensus on this, most scholars agree that the term "football" comes, not from kicking the ball with the foot, but the fact that the sport was played on foot. So rugby was football and soccer was football.

In fact the name soccer also originated in England (not in America!) - soccer originates from Association, because that variant of football was called association football. So soccer is the name the English came up with to explicitly distinguish the EPL/FIFA type from other types of football in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Across the pond in United States, once English colonies, they played mainly English sports in the 18th and 19th century. In fact, cricket was very popular before the civil war, and a team of top cricketers from England toured North America in 1859 and played in front of packed stands in Philadelphia, Hoboken, Rochester, Hamilton, and Montreal. But my cricket-loving mind digresses.

The point is, they played a lot of English sports in America those days. Including football - different types of football. If you look at the history of football, the basic point seems to be tolerance for variations. Why go into history? Even today, rugby union is markedly different from rugby league. So that kind of football, where you are on foot but carry the ball in your hands, got tinkered with in America as well. That tinkering led to what I think makes American Football so awesome - the forward pass. The pioneers were colleges who played each other in the 19th century. Finally in the early 1900s, an innovation on the scale of what IPL seemed in 2007, was made. The first ever Rose Bowl (known then as the East-West Football Game) was played between Stanford University and University of Michigan in Pasadena in 1902. That is, two years before Doyle wrote his story about the missing three-quarter.

So we can see that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the term "football" was used in America to describe what is now played in the NFL, and by AC Doyle to describe what we know as rugby. I am sure there are also instances of people using "football" back then to refer to what is now played in the EPL. I didn't look it up. Even reading about soccer makes me sleepy. But I am sure people used football to refer to soccer as well. That's the point. It was a generic term.

The 20th century progressed and progressed fast. For socio-cultural reasons I'd rather not go into, the football that became most popular in Europe and elsewhere was the variation that involved kicking the ball around. The football that became the most popular in America and somewhat popular in Europe (under the name Rugby) was the variation where you hold the ball in your hands and run. They're all football.


Well, the thing is, it's the Europeans who invented a different name for their kicking game - soccer. FIFA governs a sport that has two names, like the Bengali bhalo naam and daak naam if you will. Both names coined by the Brits. In America or in Canada, "gridiron" football was just called football. If you're in America, football is what's played in the NFL and Canadian football is what's played in the CFL. If you're in Canada, football is what's played in the CFL and American football is what's played in the NFL. By rights, Aussies should call AFL football too, but they call it "footy", maybe for the same bizarre reason they call barbecue "Barbie". Americans didn't need a second name for their favorite game the way Europeans needed it for their favorite game. Europeans who were into soccer were probably the ancestors of Indian soccer fans, insecure and unsure, and so came up with two names.

Why do I refer to the game in the EPL by the name soccer? In the immortal words of George Mallory, "because it's there!" The name soccer is out there, put out there by Europeans, and is understood worldwide as referring to the game that involves pretending to be hurt while taking leisurely strolls, once in a while prodding the ball into a disgruntled-looking net.

So why is the sport played in EPL/FIFA soccer and not football? Because if someone says football, it could mean one of several things. But if someone says soccer, it means only one game. The game where the highest trophy shouldn't be called Golden Boot, but Golden Actor Holding His Shin Pretending To Be Hurt.