The difference between football and soccer: a case in point

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Here’s the scenario: you are soccer’s original super fanboy (or girl!). The problem? Whenever you start talking ‘football’, your audience takes a moment or two to catch on.

You’re waxing lyrical about “the beautiful game”, soccer, governed by FIFA. Everyone else in the discussion is expecting to hear your thoughts on American Football. Frustrating, huh? We’ve all been there.

Let’s try to clear up the confusion between soccer and ‘gridiron’ football once and for all. In an impartial manner, of course. Moreover, look at how you can provide hints that you’re talking ‘soccer’, not mm, football. You can see the ambiguity already.

So, yes. You could carry around a soccer ball display case, showcasing the ball with which your favorite soccer team won the FA Cup back in the day. But that’s a little impractical.

Location, location

Where you are around the globe will determine what the word football means to you. In England, mention football and you’re talking about soccer, the Football league. This comprises the Premiership, Championship and Leagues 1 and 2.

U.S. and Canadian athletes would refer to that sport as soccer. Their version of football has a few similarities. But in the main, it’s a different animal altogether.

Take a trip to New Zealand, Australia and Ireland, they have their own variations of football that are neither nor. They play Australian rules football in the southern hemisphere and Gaelic football in Ireland.

Like gridiron, adoption of Australian rules and Gaelic football remains indigenous. Global take up is minimal, whereas soccer has a global governing body: FIFA.

Why aren’t these variations played around the world?

From a spectator’s perspective, these national sports are more like rugby football than soccer. It’s perhaps this close resemblance to rugby that explains their containment.

Yet, each of these nations, they all play soccer, too.

Almost all developed countries have a national soccer league. In turn, all continents host a competition for its member states to compete against each other.

Each continent’s competition is often hosted every four years, as is the World Cup. The latter is the most prized trophy in football and attracts the biggest global audience of any sport.

Why are there so many variations of ‘football’?

To understand how football became the word to cover so many disciplines, we need to go back to the origins. This also explains why so many of the words themselves are interchangeable. But, depending upon the sport, their meanings are so different.

Princeton and Rutgers played the first game of American football in 1869. They used a mixture of rules akin to rugby and soccer.

American FootballIt wasn’t until 11 years later that the “Father of Football,” Walter Camp, would set out rules for the new game. He instituted the 11 man teams, the snap and the concept of downs.

In comparison a version of soccer, called cuju, was first played as early as 206 BC, during the Han Dynasty. The cuju players could use any part of their body, except their hands to get the ball to the net.

The Romans played similar games, but were more violent. Their sport included wrestling and some aspects of volleyball. If you ever watch Australian rules or Gaelic football, you’ll see elements of the Roman game still in play today.

In England, the history of football began around the 8th century AD. But it wasn’t until 1848 that we saw the first formal rules, the Cambridge Rules. These were soon challenged. The Sheffield Football Club and John Charles Thring added and adopted changes.

It was only at the inauguration of the Football Association that soccer had its first defining set of rules. Many of these have changed over time; for better or worse remains a great debate.

Today, the rules of soccer are set by the International Football Association and FIFA.

The differences and similarities between soccer and gridiron

There are many differences in how you play the two sports. First, there’s the shape of the ball. The ball used for soccer is a sphere, to enable it to roll for passing, kicking and heading. In American football, the ball has rounded, pointed ends, making it easier to throw, catch and travel through the air.

Both sports can only have 11 men on the field at one time. But in American-football there is an 11 man offensive team and an 11 man defensive team. For kicking plays, American Football also has a “special team.”

In soccer, rules allow for ‘substitutes’. This wasn’t always the case; the 11 men you started with were all you had to play with.

Midway through the 20th century, the rules changed, allowing teams to play one ‘sub’ in case of injury. It wasn’t until late in that century that teams could name a squad of subs for tactical purposes. Teams today can use up to three subs, as a tactic or injury replacement, during a game.

The point of it all

Both games involve moving the ball from one end of the field to the other and scoring a goal. More on point-scoring, below. But the way each sport defends their goal is quite different.

In soccer, one member of each 11 man team is the goalkeeper. He is the only player allowed to touch the ball with his hands or arms. He must be in his own ‘penalty area’ – the eighteen yard box – surrounding his team’s goal when he handles it. Handling the ball beyond this zone often results in a red card, dismissing the goalkeeper from the game.

Soccer GameIn American football, there is no one person guarding the goal. You have an 11-man defensive team defending their goal, or end zone. Opposing them is the other team’s Offensive team, trying to score. When a team wins possession and brings the offense into play, they have four ‘downs’ to gain ten yards.

The quarterback is the leader of that offense. He informs his team of ‘the play’ – a rehearsed attacking maneuver – that they will use during that possession. He takes the snap and either hands off the ball to another player, throws it or runs with the ball.

The quarterback’s job is to move the ball towards the opposing team’s goal. If the defense tackles him while he still has the ball, usually it results in zero yards gained. If the team fails to gain those ten yards, possession switches to the opposing team.

Kitting out your superstars

Another difference between the two games is the protective gear worn by the players. A FIFA player only has their kit to protect them from the elements and the opposition.

A typical kit includes a shirt, shorts, socks, football boots (or trainers on sun-baked ground) and shin pads. In cold conditions (especially in Scotland) players can also wear undergarments. The colors of these extra layers must match the livery of the team’s official kit.

In American football, the uniform does not only consist of a jersey, pants, and football cleats. It also includes a helmet, leg- and shoulder pads and a mouth guard.

There’s a very real need for the difference in required attire. Soccer limits and restricts contact, moreso today than ever.

American football is a full contact sport. There are rules to protect players, but it’s a physical game. It involves tackling opponents – often head-on to prevent them from progressing down the field.

Points: know the score

Each goal accumulates 1 point in soccer and reaching the goal is the only way to score.

In NFL football, you have three ways to score. There is the touchdown, where a player that is in possession of the ball crosses the goal line. This is worth 6 points.

You can also kick a field goal. This occurs when the kicker kicks the ball over the goal posts and is worth 3 points.

Then you have a safety, worth 2 points to the defense. This happens when they tackle an offensive player, he goes out-of-bounds or drops the ball in his own end zone.

Technology makes its way into the beautiful game

Each game has referees and/or officials placed are around the field of play. They signal that goals are good and watch for rule violations, including determining penalties.

Many of the top soccer leagues also now have ‘goal line technology’. This is to clear up discrepancies about whether the full ball crossed the line to score a goal or not.

Two of the most controversial goals of all time have come in the World Cup between England and Germany.

The most notorious was in the 1966 World Cup final, when the Russian linesman awarded Geoff Hurst a goal. His shot cannoned down from the underside of the crossbar out of the referee’s site. The argument still rages today whether it was a goal or not, although England ran out winners, 4-2.

The goal was part of Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick, the first and only player to score three goals in a World Cup final. By tradition, any player who scores a hat-trick gets to keep the match ball.

But it took Geoff 30 years to get his hands on this one. Helmut Hammer, a German scorer on the day, made off with the ball after the final. Upon its return, the football, the only one used for the whole of the final, is now on display in the National Football Museum:


In the 2010 World Cup, history righted itself. With Germany leading 2-1, Frank Lampard hit a ferocious shot from outside the penalty box. It likewise cannoned off the underside of the bar behind the goalkeeper.

The difference in 2010 was the placement of TV cameras all around the ground. Although the referee disallowed the goal, replays showed the ball a full half a yard across the goal line.

The end result? Germany won 4-2, ending England’s interest in that World Cup.

No cheer in soccer?

Keep in mind, that the play in each half in a game of soccer is continuous with no time outs. Neither does the play stop for commercials, as American football does.

Each half is 45 minutes, plus whatever the referee adds on for ‘stoppage time’. In American football, each game comprises 4 x 15 minute quarters, with a 12-minute recess for half time.

The lack of breaks in soccer is one of the reasons that the teams do not have cheerleaders. They’re a fan favorite entertainment of American football, even though not all teams have them.

There are many other differences between soccer and American football. One thing they do have in common is their popularity and loyal fans.

Global reach

FIFA has a wide international audience, established over time. American football’s international popularity has a lot of catching up to do to rival soccer’s mass appeal. But it has increased with the growth of the NFL.

Gridiron is the most played sport among high school and college athletes in the United States.

Display your affinity with more than words

Whichever game you play, there’s nothing like showcasing your love for the sport or your team. Either an American football case or a soccer ball display case will enshrine your memorabilia.

But, please: remember to be careful in your selection.

A display case for an American football will not fit a soccer ball. The former ball is longer and pointed, the latter a complete sphere. Likewise, a display case for your signed soccer ball will not accommodate an NFL football.

Remember: you are your team’s original fanboy/girl! Be proud to showcase your passion. And if your guests don’t cotton on when your display case is center stage? They’ll never know the difference between Soccer and Football!

Author: Michael Azif

Works at Sports Display Cases. Sports enthusiast of sports memorabilia and display cases.