In soccer terms - are we still a colony?

By Paul Gardner

I have received a breathless announcement from MLS informing me that Manchester United will be coming to the USA this summer. A press release, of course, but one is entitled to wonder which section of the press it is intended for. It also seems likely that much of the wording is designed to impress sponsors and marketing people.

The first four paragraphs (and, to let you in on a trade secret, press releases had better make their point, forcefully, a lot quicker than the fourth paragraph) include the term “blockbuster,” talk of a tour that takes in “four markets,” identifies Creative Artists Agency as a presenter of the tour, quote Forbes magazine, and refer to Manchester United as “the world’s most valuable football brand.”

That last phrase is particularly irritating. And I would have thought that it would be exactly that to the marketing mob who continually like to remind us how the sport is so richly connected to “the people” and of the “passion” that it generates. That sort of background does not connect easily to an activity that is labeled as though it were merely a commercial brand.

No soccer fan, ever, anywhere, talks of his sport or his team as a brand. Any more than any soccer fan ever refers to his club or his city as a market.

Quite aside from this matter of blatantly commercializing a sporting activity, there is another point in that “world’s most valuable football brand” phrase that rankles. Football? What is it about Americans involved in soccer that they find it difficult to use the word soccer -- which is the correct word in this country?

Why do they find it necessary to bow down, to kow-tow, grovel even, to British usage? The New York Red Bulls recently announced a four-team tournament, which they have named the New York Football Challenge. Why? Who knows -- but I can guarantee that the basis of their thinking is the inverted snobbery of not wanting to upset the Brits.

Talking of snobbery. The June issue of Vanity Fair, a rather unpleasant magazine that lives by snobbery and elitism, features the World Cup on its cover. (Sort of -- it’s really more beef cake, with Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo wearing only briefs). The story inside is by A.A.Gill, a snotty Scot who makes a living by insulting not just people, but whole ethnic groups. You want soccer snobbery? Just listen to how A.A.Gill starts his story:

“Look, can we get this straight, right from the get-go, from the first whistle? It’s football, OK? Football. Not soccer. It’s never been soccer. Nobody but midwestern cougars calls it soccer.” So much for midwestern cougars, who -- or whatever they may be. And so on. He sprinkles in a “nil-nil,” and he uses the word “pitch.” We are granted one dispensation -- “You may, if you really insist, call it “footie.”

Gee, thanks, A.A. And thanks for a couple of pages of well-worn anecdotes and dumb cliches about the history of the sport. He also manages to call the Italians and the Argentines cheats while he’s on the subject. He has nothing derogatory to say about the English, which is strange, as he is on record as describing the English as a “lumpen and louty, coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd”.

A.A.Gill is better known for his acerbic restaurant reviews, which I imagine are a lot of fun to read. But his soccer knowledge is unimpressive -- it reads like a researcher’s notes. So what -- he’s a Vanity Fair writer, he has a Brit accent -- so he must know about soccer, right? And whoosh! -- he’s Vanity Fair’s soccer expert.

Actually, this sort of thing happens regularly, every four years, as know-nothing sociologists and university professors and cultural critics suddenly pop up as instant experts with invariably laughable accounts of the sport and its place in society.

That is all decidedly regrettable, but nothing more. All those superior intellects disappear as quickly as they arrived, at least for another four years. Much more damaging is the corrosive influence of the Americans themselves, the insiders, the soccer people who are influenced by all that snobbery, and feel ashamed of their American approach, who feel that they must adopt as many Britishisms as they can lay hold of, even to the extent of distorting their own language.

There was a time, in the history of American literature, when an American writer felt that, to be taken seriously, he (they were all “he” in those days) had to write like a Brit. Washington Irving, hailed as The First American Man of Letters, was accused of pandering to British sensibilities and of writing "of and for England, rather than his own country."

That is nicely put. Not until that sycophancy to the Brit way was thrust aside could the true American spirit -- indeed, the true American language, develop. Think Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway.

In soccer terms, we’re at the same stage of development. The sport in this country now has more than enough going for it to develop its own “writers” -- to banish pro-Brit snobbery, and develop a true American terminology for the sport, as the true American player develops on the field.

That a threat to basic, sturdy American usage should come from the marketing mob should surprise no one, as the essence of marketing is deception, not clarity. But that American soccer people feel it necessary to use English terminology -- when there are perfectly good, and less ambiguous, American words available -- can only indicate that they are intimidated by the soccer Brits. I’m not even sure that any blame attaches to the Brits here -- this looks like an almost colonial subservience.

19 comments about "In soccer terms - are we still a colony?".
  1. Ian Plenderleith, May 7, 2010 at 8:16 a.m.

    The other significant part of the press release was reserved for paragraph seven: "United are committed to fielding all of their players for the North American tour who are not obligated to World Cup duties."

    In other words, you're getting the CostCo version of the brand. Otherwise known as the League Cup XI.

  2. John Pepple, May 7, 2010 at 8:40 a.m.

    I can't speak for the marketing mob, but when I use the term "football," it's in defiance of those cretins who ask the mindbogglingly dumb question, "Why do they call it football?"

  3. Jerry Treat, May 7, 2010 at 8:44 a.m.

    You call it "football" because you mainly play the ball with your feet, not the "association" from which the word soccer comes from. American football should change its name. They don't even like kickers anyway. They should call it ovalball, pigskin, or something else.

  4. Tom Kondas, May 7, 2010 at 9:21 a.m.

    The article mentions "British Sensibilities", isn't that an oxymoron?

  5. Will Lozier, May 7, 2010 at 10:23 a.m.


    EVERY one of your articles seem to be griping about this and that. You make numerous absolute statements - "never" or "always" - describing issues that, believe it or not, have TWO sides. Can't you find something positive to write about? You come off as a grumpy old Brit (or American?) who is pissed that he never reached a high level or play - or just pissed. Nobody could ever really be as negative as you...could they?


  6. Austin Gomez, May 7, 2010 at 11:16 a.m.

    Cheers for my longtime friend, Paul Gardner!.............!Viva el Pablo!

    Paul just brings the other side of the "coin" (as it were) with his soul-searching/exploratory ideas!

    I myself prefer the usage of the Terms: LAW instead of Rules & FOOTBALL instead of Soccer.............but such is life!

    Paul is a shrewdly sagacious as well as a veracious-minding 'Persona Grata.'

    But, whether you enjoy him or despise him, his "creative' thoughts are/were most interestingly provocative to mastigate upon!

    Due to his illustrous writings via his Soccer Articles & famous Books, Paul has brought the Level of Soccer-Thought to its pinnacle in today's America (with analogy of USA National Soccer Teams rising to their heights after the Fall & Decline from the 1950s period)!

    However, I do admit (at times) Paul is most faulty/shaky/non-dogmatic: i.e.---his misunderstanding in his last Article concerning proper/ improper impeding ("obstruction" was its long-time synonymn) as FIFA has so clearly defined and instructed for their Referees, with regard to Goalkeepers & Field Players.


  7. Gary Roberts, May 7, 2010 at 11:25 a.m.

    The reason that it's called footbal in the U.K. is that a long time ago some sports were played on horses (like polo) and some were played on foot. (like soccer,rugby, etc.) Guess what they decided to call just about any game that wasn't played on horseback? It is my understanding that the term, soccer, was in rather common use in the U.K. until the early 60's when the sport began to take root in the U.S.

    I think that it's also worth noting that the majority of British people that I am in contact with call the sport soccer when they are here in the U.S. or addressing an American audience. It's mainly the characters that Paul refers to on most television programs, or those who want to impress everyone around the club "pitch" who seem to be unable or unwilling to speak to Americans as Americans.

    I believe that Paul is the most interesting and insightful observer of soccer in America that I read on a regular basis.

  8. Paul Lorinczi, May 7, 2010 at 11:47 a.m.

    It is time for a revolution against the English influence in our game. This nation is made up of so much more than the kick and run game of the English game. Yet, we consume a product that has not won a World Cup since 1966. We invite their carpet bagging coaches who don't really know what they are doing, yet their accent is lapped up like dogs.

  9. I w Nowozeniuk, May 7, 2010 at 12:09 p.m.

    Beg to most countries, the sport is called football for obvious reasons...the word 'soccer' was branded to distiguish itself from the rest of the world and not to infringe on the 'oval-football' which is mostly in the hands of the player. In essence, the NFL should have a rugby connotation to which it is more gene-connected.

  10. USA Soccer Stud . com, May 7, 2010 at 12:11 p.m.

    Wonderful column, Paul, on all counts. Not only is calling soccer "football" in America subservient, confusing, and snobbish, it smacks of insecurity.

    We call it soccer. It's our country's fifth most popular sport after hockey. And we love it just the same.

    Deal with it.

  11. USA Soccer Stud . com, May 7, 2010 at 12:14 p.m.

    Irony alert! The word "soccer" was "branded" by the British, not Americans:

    You're welcome.

  12. Gary Roberts, May 7, 2010 at 12:35 p.m.

    Rugby is called football in most non-American countries. So is Australian Rules Football, Gaelic Football and probably a few others.

  13. Brian Herbert, May 7, 2010 at 3:03 p.m.

    The comments are more interesting than the article. Good work in "Gardner" brand development, my friend!
    Great comment, Jerry. I was in London in January couple years back and wanted to watch the NFL playoffs. Silly me, I asked at the sports pub if they would have the Patriots' football game on. After an awkward silence, the guy said, "oh, NFL football!" So how about they call it NFL football, or concussion ball, and we'll call ours world football.

  14. USA Soccer Stud . com, May 7, 2010 at 5:35 p.m.

    To Brian and Jerry: You're both missing the point. There's no right or wrong word for anything. The only thing that's wrong is trying to speak in a different language than the one your audience already speaks. Much like Brian wasn't offended or annoyed that the English misunderstood his use of "football," neither should anyone else upon hearing the word "soccer" while in America. Enough with superiority complexes already. People speak in different dialects and languages, that's all.

  15. Wayne Root, May 7, 2010 at 8:42 p.m.

    One of the best Paul Gardner articles I have read.

  16. Abe Carranza, May 8, 2010 at 6:03 a.m.

    Great article indeed, I would venture to say it is a must read for a large majority of American Soccer Fans.
    Personally, I have a deep pride in American soccer which rapidly increased through the years from witnessing MLS' birth and improvement year after year. I am always the first in a group to defend MLS, since ironically, the copious amount of critics perched & ready to tear the league to pieces seem to live on one's shoulder, it doesn't take long to learn how quickly they quiet down once they're questioned about their deep interest in a league "they" claim is amateur, ugly and meaningless to the world of soccer, soccer? oh, um, I mean football, sorry.
    Isn't it common sense to not waste time with something you cannot stand?
    My love for EPL has existed way before Major League Soccer and I will forever love the EPL but my heart is with MLS, Why? because it's OURS and will forever be OURS, our teams, our cities, etc. etc. and the length of OUR history, means nothing, compared to the strength of OUR LOYALTY...which to me, in a nutshell, IS, what being a passionate "football supporter" is all about.

    Tip of the hat to Paul Gardner for this article!

  17. James Madison, May 8, 2010 at 4:16 p.m.

    Gardner may be right about both the ManU press release and the Vanity Fair article, but, in advertising circles, there's an argument to be made for the attitude: "I don't care what they say about me, so long as they spell my name right."

  18. Ryan M, May 10, 2010 at 12:59 a.m.

    I call the MLS: soccer.
    European football: football.

    Also, appropriate names for American football: Throwball or Handegg.

  19. Lancelot Clark, May 10, 2010 at 2:20 p.m.

    Since one of the main sponsers of Man U is AIG..Do we get free tickets since we all bailed them out with our Tax Dollars?

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