AS I have spent a great part of my youth playing Gaelic football, I often wondered whether I was just paranoid in believing that the soccer heads were trying to monopolise the term ‘football’.
Then earlier this year, the confirmation came. The FAI launched its Development Strategy 2002-2006 document (a very fine piece of work indeed) which makes no other allowance for the title ‘football’ to mean anything other than soccer.
This annoys the hell out of me. It’s a very aggressive piece of name-squatting which makes no allowance for the reality of ‘football’ in Ireland and seems to come straight out of the general hostility that exists between soccer and Gaelic football.
This hostility is mutual, of course, and usually takes the form of people pretending that other codes don’t exist. The fact is that there are many people in Ireland who are interested equally in soccer, rugby and Gaelic games for whom this hostility and exclusivity is a real pain.
Anyway, the FAI document got me thinking about which game really has the best claim to the title ‘football’.
Straight up, it has to be acknowledged that soccer is known as football around the world. Ironically, for the game first codified in England, this is not the case in the English-speaking world, apart from Britain.
In the US football means gridiron, as it does in Canada. (If I’m not mistaken Canada had its own brand of American Football but I’m not sure what the situation is now.)
In Australia there is Aussie Rules football so that the name soccer is used in the three biggest anglophobe countries outside England. And there’s rugby football as well, just to complicate things.
(Then, if I wanted to be contrary, I could say that the word football is an English word and that elsewhere it’s called futbol, fussball and so forth. But we won’t go down that road.)
So we have five pretenders to the ‘football’ name – soccer (Association Football), Gaelic football, Australian rules Football, rugby football and American football.
Firstly, we can eliminate American football. As far as I can see, the game is played 95 per cent by hand.
Next to go is rugby. Although a great percentage of the scores are kicked and there is a lot of tactical kicking in the game, it is fair to say that the core of the game is running and passing from hand to hand. A bad game of rugby is often characterised by a lot of kicking for touch while the most enjoyable games are those that bring the backs into a running game.
Aussie rules has as good a claim to ‘football’ as Gaelic so I’ll just make the case for Gaelic. (Note the use of the word ‘Gaelic’.)
Let’s go through a few areas of the games to see who’s using the ‘foot’ the most.
First: scoring. Gaelic wins hands down here. The vast majority of scores in Gaelic football are scored by the foot, especially since scoring a goal from the hand was banned. You can punch the ball over the bar from play and you can punch the ball into the net so long as it is not from possession. At a guess I would say that 95 per cent of scores are from the foot.
In soccer, a large percentage of goals are scored from the head, probably in the order of 20 per cent (I’m sure that someone will give me the exact figure.)
Second: mode of play. Here it seems obvious that soccer has a better claim to the ‘foot’ word. I’m not so sure.
In Gaelic, players do hold the ball a lot. But the comparable time in soccer is not spent being played by the foot – it’s spent rolling over the ground or travelling in the air. Remember, a Gaelic player can only hold the ball for four steps or the equivalent time. Then the ball must be soloed or hopped.
In a 40 metre sprint a soccer player might only touch the ball twice while the Gaelic player will solo every four steps (or so).
Third: ground made. In the early 1990’s, the short-passing game was popular in Gaelic. Many old-timers would derisively refer to it as ‘basketball’. The trend has faded but hand-passing is still popular for clearing the defence and then the ball is kicked long into the forwards. In terms of gound made, Gaelic is still clearly a foot-based game.
In good soccer most ground is made using the foot although the head is predominately used to clear defence. The ball is thrown in from the sideline while in Gaelic all sideline balls are kicked.
So what I’m saying is, in the first instance nobody has a monopoly on the word ‘football’ and secondly, Gaelic football has as good a claim to the word as soccer has.