Soccer vs. American football: 10 major differences
Football? American football? Soccer? These sports may share a name in many countries, but that’s as far as the similarities go. While most people around the world know it simply as “football”, in the United States (and Ireland) the sport is referred to as “soccer”. However, the US also has its very own version of football: “American football”.
Confused? We’re here to give you some answers.
Here’s our beginner’s guide to the main differences between soccer and American football. It’ll arm you with enough info to improvise your way through conversations about either sport as you embrace new cultures abroad.
1. The foot
Okay, let’s start at the beginning.
“Football” (or as we’ll call it from here on out: soccer) got its name because you have to use your feet. So far, so good.
American football, on the other hand, is not very foot-based at all, mostly involving throwing and carrying the ball upfield.
Why is it called American football and not “throwball”? Nobody knows for certain, but one answer is that the name isn’t actually referring to one’s foot, but rather to the American measurement system of feet and inches – since the ball is roughly one foot (around 30cm) long, they went with that. Makes sense… right?
2. The ball
Soccer balls are simple, round and ideal for kicking.
American footballs are more of a pointy egg shape (or “prolate spheroid” if you prefer the more sophisticated term), with large stitches along one of the sides for a stronger grip when throwing. They’re also sometimes referred to as “pigskins”, apparently because that’s what they were first made from (we’re glad that changed).
3. The field
American football fields are pretty much exactly as you’ve seen them in all those American high school movies. They're marked in ten-yard (nine-meter) intervals, with an “end zone” line and two upright posts at each end.
A soccer field is even simpler, with two center semicircles and a “box” 18 yards in front of the goal. This marks where the goalkeeper – the only player allowed to use their hands – is permitted to handle the ball.
Both fields are around 100 meters long, though soccer fields are much wider than their American football counterparts.
4. The aim
Soccer typically keeps it simple. Kick the ball into the net and you score a goal. Get more goals than your opponent and you win the game.
American football is all about “touchdowns” – avoiding tackles and carrying the ball into your opponent’s end zone. These are worth an initial 6 points, plus an additional point for successfully kicking through the posts after scoring.
A big difference here is that soccer games often end in draws, sometimes without any goals scored at all. By contrast, American football games are usually high-scoring and very rarely tied at full-time. When there is a tie, the match goes to “overtime” – where whichever team scores first, wins.
5. The pace
American football may be higher scoring, but it’s also slower moving.
Whereas soccer is played across two free-flowing halves of 45 minutes, American football is split into four 15-minute quarters. These quarters can take a while to play out because the clock is often stopped at the end of a “play”, once the ball-carrier is tackled to the ground.
For this reason, American football is constantly stopping and restarting. Along with the complexity of the gameplay, this can be a barrier for first-time fans, but it's a barrier worth breaking!
6. The players
Both sports have 11 players per team on the field at any given time.
In soccer, the same 11 players play through an entire game, give or take a few substitutes. Meanwhile, American football teams are constantly changing their players around depending on whether the team is attacking or defending.
For example, the quarterback position in American football is a key part of the “offense”. The quarterback will play when their team has possession, but sit out on the sideline while the opponent has the ball. This means up to around 45 players can take part per team over the course of just a single game.
7. The nicknames
Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears – American football teams all have fun official nicknames.
Soccer teams have nicknames too, but they’re unofficial. Rather than predatory animals or fearsome foes, nicknames in soccer often refer simply and rather unoriginally to the shirt color worn by that particular team. Real Madrid are “Los Blancos” (the whites), Chelsea “The Blues”, Liverpool “The Reds” etc.
There are also some pretty random monikers in soccer that seem to come from nowhere but are usually related to the team’s history. A few examples include names like “The Toffees”, “The Terriers” and “The Cherries”.
Facing off against “The Terriers” might not sound like the most intimidating prospect, but maybe that’s part of the strategy.
8. The league(s)
The same 32 teams compete with each other in American football’s NFL league year after year. Whether your team wins the coveted Super Bowl trophy or loses every game 50-0, you’ll be playing the same teams for the same prize again next season.
There are many more teams in soccer, and leagues are split into divisions. Finish at the top of your division and you are promoted to the one above you, where better teams lie in wait. Find yourself at the bottom end and you’ll go down the “trapdoor” to the league below.
You could even (theoretically) start your own team with friends and, eventually, be playing the likes of Barcelona or Bayern Munich – it’s worth a shot, right?
9. The moving house
American football teams are also referred to as “franchises”. As such, they are entitled to relocate and move to another city from time to time.
The Las Vegas Raiders were once the Oakland Raiders, the Los Angeles Chargers were formerly the San Diego Chargers, and the LA Rams became the St Louis Rams, before changing their minds and heading back to LA.
This is totally unheard of in soccer, where teams stay in the same place, for better or worse.
10. The following
It goes without saying that both soccer and American football are extremely popular. However, considering soccer's significant global presence in comparison to American football's more national focus, it makes sense that viewing figures between the two vary substantially.
For example, the 2022 FIFA World Cup Final between Argentina and France was watched by a whopping 1.5 billion people – almost one-fifth of the world’s population.
American football also boasts a vast fanbase but, with a peak of around 115 million viewers during the most recent Super Bowl, attracted almost 13 times fewer than soccer’s equivalent.
Despite their differences, both soccer and American football have their own lively culture and traditions that are well worth exploring. Hopefully this guide will help you with the basics as you embrace a new sport abroad.