Football v Soccer – how different is the beautiful game in England and America?


Of course the irony is the term originated in England.

Soccer. A word that in the UK conjures up images of Americans playing football, which is of course the term Americans use for American football, while Brits just call it football despite the fact they used to call it soccer, which is now used by Americans, for which Brits tend to deride them. Confused?

There are no fewer than three adverts running in the US during this World Cup focusing on the football/soccer debate, most notably one starring David Beckham and Peyton Manning, as well as Javier Hernandez, Brandi Chastain, Tim Howard, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Ron Funches, plus a lot of crisps. Or should that be chips? No, let’s not start that.

But as England and the USMNT prepare to meet in a competitive match for just the third time (the previous meetings, both in the World Cup, finished 1-1 in South Africa in 2010, and 1-0 to the US — Joe Gaetjens, the miracle match et al — in Brazil in 1950) we asked Tim Spiers and Brooks Peck to discuss whether the cultural footballing differences between the two nations are all about names, or whether it runs deeper than that?

Tim: I’ve watched some MLS in recent years and I guess some differences that spring to mind are, US fans don’t get tanked up on eight pints beforehand, they don’t sing songs about individual players and they don’t call the referee a w—–. What’s that about?

Brooks: Well, you’d be surprised! Drinking all day before a sporting event is very much an American tradition — particularly where I’m from, in Philadelphia — but it generally isn’t as associated with soccer as it is with the more established American sports. On too many occasions to count, I’ve been seated near someone who pre-gamed a little too hard and a little too long before a late NFL kick-off, and I’ve watched as they slept through the entire game after stumbling to their seat with the assistance of their companions. One time, while standing in an otherwise empty section of seats before a game, a drunk guy rolled down four or five rows and crashed into my back. Needless to say, he probably doesn’t remember who scored in that one.

I’ll concede that US fans generally don’t sing songs about individual players as much as English supporters do. It happens, just not as much. US fans do call the referee a w—–, though. Sometimes even before a match begins, oddly enough!

I think American soccer culture is still very much in its awkward teenage years — just beginning to figure out who it is, but deeply insecure about itself and spotted with things it will surely look back on and be embarrassed by down the line. English football culture, however, has very much reached maturity. It has rich traditions passed down through generations. So my question is: what elements of that culture do you think American soccer should use as an example and which should it avoid?

Tim: There’s something oddly reassuring about you lot calling referees w——. If ever something said English football culture had been warmly taken into an overseas bosom, it’s that. Makes you proud (sniff). To be honest I just assumed people yelled “you suck” ad infinitum.

That’s really interesting about the insecurity of its soccer culture, especially for a country that comes across as unashamedly loud and proud about its other sports. I think in terms of British and English football fandom, what we do really well is passion and atmosphere. “Football without fans is nothing,” as Jock Stein once said, and that was really heightened for me during the pandemic, which, to be honest, I utterly detested for the lack of noise, feeling, intensity or soul. For me that season was basically null and void. Watching football in other European countries can be awe-inspiringly loud (Besiktas in Istanbul being the most deafening I’ve experienced) but I do prefer how in the UK there are ebbs and flows in the atmosphere often related to if the team is playing well/winning. That feeling of complete unity and euphoria for a big victory or a last-minute winner is probably as good in the UK as anywhere in the world? Not sure, maybe I’m biased. I also love the geekiness and unfiltered devotion of our fans. The collectors of stickers and programmes, the people who have mad tattoos of club crests or favourite players, the crazy mums and dads who name their children after footballers, the traditions and superstitions before a match (lucky pants, lucky scarf, parking in the same spot, etc).

English football passion on display at Leeds United (Getty Images)

As for elements of UK football culture to avoid… Well, the situation is considerably better than in the dark days of the 1980s, but racism, hooliganism, homophobia and sexism still exist. It’s as much of a lesson for our society to learn and evolve as it is football, but the sport can still do so much more. I’d also say that the bigger the Premier League’s top clubs have become, the more tourists they’ve attracted and yeah, I’m not a fan of selfies, or expensive sandwiches, or half ‘n’ half scarves, and it does lessen the atmosphere at certain grounds. I was at Manchester City v Manchester United recently and saw a remarkable number of half ‘n’ half scarves. And despite them being 6-1 up, a lot of City fans left early, which I couldn’t believe. But at least in the UK we don’t call boots “cleats”, Brooks. We’ll never do that. Sort it out.

Brooks: Boots go up the leg — they don’t stop at the ankle. That’s just a shoe! Anyway, what aspects of American sporting culture, maybe not just soccer, do you think England should be open to? If any…

Tim: I think we’ve already seen an influence from the US in terms of pre-match build-up, particularly at Premier League games. At Wolves they’ve perfected a pre-match playlist of a combination of music with a local link (Led Zeppelin), anything which has Wolves or gold in the title (The Prodigy, Run with the Wolves… Hey, it’s better than Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran) and fast tempo, rabble-rousing tunes, building into a crescendo with a mash-up remix of blissful trance banger Cafe del Mar by Energy 52. I mean come on!

It’s a personal preference. I’m not really one for ear-piercing shouting over a public address system, or countdowns to kick-off etc, but music, done right, really adds to the “matchday experience” for me. Also the video they show pre-match at Tottenham of iconic goals and players gets the hairs going on the back of the neck for even a neutral like myself. And that’s even before they come out to Metallica. That said, I also don’t mind at Manchester United when they leave five or 10 minutes before kick-off for fans to, you know, actually generate their own atmosphere.

But yeah, with light shows, pyros, fire, music etc, the Premier League is starting to catch up with the US and I don’t mind it at all, albeit I’m fully aware some people will absolutely hate this.

Also, US fans probably — and correct me if this is unfair — don’t take defeats as badly? As in we have a tendency here to kick the cat (not literally unless your name is… No, I won’t go there) and go in moods for a day or two after a painful loss. And we’re known to prioritise football over social engagements, relationships and stuff like real life. What I’m saying is being a football fan has ruined my existence.

Brooks: We’re not robots, Tim! We definitely do take losses very poorly at times. But I think what tempers it, and makes it a bit different, is that the English football supporter usually seems to only live and die by their one club in their one sport, whereas here we have so many sports we follow, depending on the time of year. Most major US cities have a variety of professional teams. So if your MLS team or your NFL team has broken your heart, you can fool yourself into thinking that your NBA team or whatever can mend those wounds with a glorious season (they won’t). Now, there are also Americans who only have their one team that they are wholly obsessed with, and yes, those people are generally doomed.

One aspect of English football that I’m really envious of as an American is the proximity of the clubs. A dedicated supporter can reasonably travel to just about every match their side plays in a season (granted, European competitions can test that). Unless you own a private jet, that’s just not feasible in America. MLS and NWSL clubs span the entirety of the contiguous United States. Thousands and thousands of miles. I just think being able to pack into a bus with a band of like-minded people every other week, season after season, is such a special thing, in its own way.

Tim: Completely agree. That’s what makes football in the UK unique compared to the majority of countries and we probably take it for granted. If you head to London Euston or pretty much any motorway service station on the M6 on a Saturday afternoon you’re guaranteed to bump into fans from at least one other club and in some cases you’ll see shirts and scarves of five, six, seven teams. Some non-League clubs (English football’s fifth tier) average attendances of 8,000 for goodness sake. It’s a nation of football fans. To be honest, I can’t imagine following a team and not being able to watch them away from home. Away days have given me my most exhilarating and emotional football memories. Nothing really beats getting up at 6am to travel halfway across the country with your fellow fans, experiencing a new ground/town, singing your heart out for 90 minutes, winning at the home of the enemy and then hiding your colours on the way home for fear of reprisals. Marvellous.

There’s nothing quite like a bus ride to the home of a local rival (Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Also the close proximity means proper local derbies, again something the US lacks. And again nothing quite tops the ecstasy of a derby win, which for me is any win against damned (club X). Not that it’s happened for many, many years, which I’m definitely not bitter or resentful about. Probably shouldn’t say who they are because I’m supposed to be a neutral journalist. Anyway, they play in blue and white stripes. And that’s why (genuinely) for a decade or so I never used to use carrier bags from Tesco supermarkets. See, look what football has made me.

Brooks: I love it. In our soccer, I think the lack of true rivalries is more a function of just how young the teams are for the most part. MLS has tried so hard to manufacture derbies the second new franchises come into existence, but it takes time and a wealth of experiences to properly hate another club. And yes, the greater distance does slow that process down, too. However, fans of New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls wasted no time in fighting each other with sandwich boards, so there is that.

As a result of that distance and the technological age in which the sport has come to wider popularity in this country, many Americans engage with the game in a very different way. It’s made so much easier over here to watch an incomprehensible number of matches from home, or anywhere else, that a large percentage of American fans predominantly through a screen — streaming matches, playing the FIFA video games, watching YouTube fan channels, spouting off on social media. Of course, I’m sure English fans do all those things too, but a larger percentage of them have a more tangible connection to the live game. I think that’s part of why the Premier League has had so much success in America. What’s the difference between watching a match played on this continent or another when they both look the same on your TV? And when one league has many of the world’s best players, that’s going to attract the most interest.

A New York Red Bulls fan in a mask holds up smoke before playing New York City (Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Tim: That is changing in this country too though and there’s going to be a fierce debate in the coming years as to whether all matches should be screened on either TV or online, regardless of what time they kick off, particularly as people pay more and more for an increasing number of TV/streaming services (we get terrible value for money compared to most European countries in terms of how many matches we get to watch for the subscription fees we pay). There’s also the point that many, many fans have been priced out of watching their team live. At some Premier League clubs the cheapest season ticket will cost you the best part of £1,000 which many just can’t afford, let alone in a recession.

Brooks: Turning sports into shameless cash-grabs — it’s perhaps what we Americans do best! Just to bring this thing full circle, Tim, I have to ask, what’s the deal with the whole football versus soccer thing? In my opinion, England’s treatment of Americans using the word “soccer” is the largest-scale gaslighting campaign in human history. As previously stated, the English invented the word “soccer”, used it for decades, then, it seemed that when the sport started to gain popularity in America during the 1970s, and we called it “soccer” in larger numbers in order to differentiate from American football, England suddenly decided it was a ridiculous word and, by the time MLS launched in the ‘90s, began looking down on anyone who used it. Even as they read World Soccer magazine, watched Soccer AM and Soccer Saturday, and occasionally used the word themselves. So, what gives?

Tim: Erm, it could be fear of Americans taking the game “we” invented (we didn’t) and claiming it for their own. It could be resentment at Americanising a traditional UK pastime. But probably it’s just the way you say “SOCKerrrr”. It’s quite annoying. Sorry.

Brooks: You really shouldn’t have admitted that, Tim. Now that Americans know the English find our pronunciation annoying, we’ll just go and pronounce it even weirder. Annoying the English is kind of the principle our whole country was founded on.

(Top image: designed by Samuel Richardson; photographs via Getty Images)


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