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.

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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

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