American Football, Soccer, Rugby Started As The Same Sport

“Someone said ‘football is more important than life and death to you,’ and I said, ‘Listen, it’s more important than that’.” —Bill Shankly

In A Nutshell

American football and association football may not resemble each other much today, but they both originated from the sport of “football,” a somewhat disorganized game that involved men running around a field with a ball. Preferences for style of play splintered the sport into rugby, association football, and American football.

The Whole Bushel

The most popular sport in the US may be American football, but the most popular sport in the world is association football, which Americans call “soccer.” The kicker? As different as they are today, these sports share a linked heritage.

Once upon a time, groups of men were running around fields, kicking, carrying, throwing, and punching a ball, with little in the way of organized rules. This sport was dubbed “football,” possibly because the game was played on foot, rather than on horse.

In the early 1800s, the sport began to factionalize in England between those who preferred to handle the ball with hands and those who did not. The former became known as rugby football, the latter becoming association football (in reference to the associations that collaborated to play the sport). “Soccer,” a convenient abbreviation for “association,” began as a European term. When soccer became more popular in Europe than rugby football, the nomenclature was dropped, while it stuck in the US, where football more commonly referred to American football.

And football in America didn’t look too different from soccer and rugby before they split; players brutally fought to get the ball past the opposing team by any means necessary. The ball was even round.

American football grew through competition between colleges. As more colleges collaborated to play the sport, the rules developed more into what we recognize today. The game began to look more similar to rugby than it did association football, but for reasons not entirely clear, Americans continued to brand it as football.

By the turn of the 20th century, association football, rugby football, and American football—originating as variations of the same game—had become distinct and incompatible. “Football” might seem like a misnomer for the American sport today, but the historical game involved plenty of kicking.

Show Me The Proof

Know It All: Why is American Football Called “Football”?
Touchdown! The History of Football in North America
A Brief History of College Football

  • Frodo28


    • Nomsheep

      Well done, you typed before other people. Would you like a cookie?

  • Hillyard

    Interesting, the link between rugby and American football is obvious but I never thought that soccer had the same origins. Good article.

  • ZAallDay85

    I hate when people only go so far back history to make a good story. Soccer, rugby, American football and believe it or not basketball all come from the same sport. However, it wasn’t invented by white people in Europe during the mid to late 19the century. Instead they come from an ancient Aztec game that was more a mix of basketball and soccer called tlachtli and was more like a mix of soccer and basketball. This article was like reading about Cheistopher Columbus knowing damn well he didn’t dicover anything and was a fame seeking idiot.

    • Timothy53

      Some sources say the name of the game you are thinking of is called ullamaliztli and was played on a court called a tlachtli. That would be similar to calling the game soccer “pitch” because that’s where it is played. Though I have found a number of place calling the game just that. Unfortunately the rules of the ancient game are quite unknown.

      I think you are correct that the Aztecs were playing ball kicking games and games that put a ball through a hoop, but I would argue that those games were separate and distinct from the ball games played three hundred years later by Europeans. In fact, football was being played all over Europe in Medieval times before Columbus. There was a distinct break between those games and the European games. Parallel invention would be more likely. By the same token, if one finds that Chinese were playing ball games 3000 years ago (and they did), would it follow that those games were given to the Aztec? Or vice versa?

      I just do not think you would find a direct line from the Aztec sport to the European sport we know today. If you find one I think it would be interesting to see it.

      Oh! and Basketball was developed so that ball games could be played indoor in bad weather at a YMCA. Peach baskets were originally used for the goal.

    • Robert Downey

      I would dare to guess that men have been playing some version of a ball sport resembling one or all of these sports since we first gained opposable thumb. Hell why not say the first person to kick a rock invented soccer.

    • Brant David

      The only person making any silly, childish remarks about race here is you.

  • CeledonaMargaretteBlanco

    WTF is “association football”???!!! It’s just called “football” everywhere around the world except in the US. Stop making up names or terms for something most people(except Americans) already understand. Football is football. Period.

    • Chaos

      Association Football is the historical name of Soccer and as is mentioned in the article the word soccer comes from the Association part, being European I would dare say that the original word would look more like soccer than the english translation to association. Also Americans are NOT the only ones who call it soccer. In Australia we have Australian Rules Football or AFL and we call ‘football’ soccer. You know your rash comments particularly about Americans only makes you look as small minded as you perceive Americans to be. Hate their government not their people, governments start wars, not people, though small minded people do inflame them

    • Timothy53

      In the 19th Century, the game we today know as simply Football was indeed know as Association Football.It was popular at the time for the richboys’ club to put “er” on the end of words to, well, sound cool. Someone named Bigelow might be called Biggers, for example. Think the “izzle” fad we went through, for shizzle up in your hizzle. So Association Football became ‘Soc Football became simply Soccer. That term was commonly used in England right into the middle of the 20th Century. It is the word that Canadians knew the game by and the word that they gave to the Americans. It’s not a word the Americans invented. By the time the word soccer was fading from world use, Football in the United States was well established as the name for American football. Thus the word soccer remains in use.

      Sorry, but this is well documented and should not be used as a source for bashing the United States and its people.

      I am so happy to help you find out something new today.

      • Hillyard

        If CMB doesn’t appreciate it I do.

      • Petnzme Turangi

        You’re just as pathetic as that fucker who wrote this bullshit… You have in no way proven anything by finding the writings of “another” american…who thinks he knows something about “sport history”..from a dickhead who hides behind a fucking programing screen all fucking day. (research your writers you fucking eggs) You cunts want a history of the sport..Go look in real library and read the history of the game and stop listening to the anecdotal shit been spouting on these less than credible fucking bullshit pages… Oh and how did I get here?..Some twat tried to palm this shit off as historical evidence as well!>..The fucking idiot…

        • Brant David

          Why do you non-Americans always need to let your huge penis envy hang out?

          • Petnzme Turangi

            because fuckwits like you enjoy sucking on it

    • Robert Downey

      Except Australian, New Zealand, South Africa, part of Canada, PNG, most of the south pacific nations, The media in the republic of Ireland, section of the Philippines, Italy, Bosnia, Croatia, Poland, most of Hungry, Burma, Vietnam and Korea. Not to mention the no english speaking countries that use a literal translation into their navtie tougne.

    • Brant David


  • Andrew Coll

    they still play a variant of the old style in ireland its called gaa ! ball in hands and tackles like rugby no pussy-footing about its a tough game !

    • Chaos

      I think we(australians) once a year or so send our footballers to play that game and it is an awesome spectacle, not a game for the soft, thats for sure!

      • Andrew Coll

        yeah man the Aussie international team play Irish rules here and we play with the egg ball when the Irish international team go down under.

  • Errkism

    The only reason soccer is the most popular sport worldwide is because it’s the easiest and cheapest to play. You literally just need a ball, and kids have been pretty creative on what a ball could mean. You can assign goal posts to the environment around you. I personally can’t stand he sport, but everyone has their opinions.

    • JmThms

      Hence the typical insular American mantra of “The only reason soccer is the most popular sport worldwide is because it is the easiest and cheapest to play”. Arrogant. It is an accessible sport, but highly developed England and Germany love it too. The game has other attractive qualities above and beyond accessibility that make it the most popular sport in the world. You just can’t see them.