Futebol & Fútbol = Football?

From June 12 to July 13, 2014, Brazil will host the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Sports fans will gather together to cheer their favourite teams on, hoping one of them will ultimately be declared the world’s champion.

Sports fans won’t be the only ones watching this Cup. I bet some of my language professional colleagues will be watching, too. I might even decide to soak in a bit of the action.

During a recent one-week stay in Quebec City, I was killing time on Twitter and came across this tweet on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s feed: “When it comes to soccer, we all speak the same language.” A question followed: “How do you say soccer in Portuguese?” The answer: “FUTEBOL.” This word looks like “football,” doesn’t it? If futebol is the equivalent of soccer, how do you say football? Because I am curious about words, I decided to research the terms futebol and fútbol (or futbol), and see if other equivalents of these words exist—or if soccer is the one and only counterpart.

Since the upcoming World Cup takes place in Brazil, I thought I’d start by providing a Portuguese definition of soccer, courtesy of the Priberam dictionary of the Portuguese language, the DPLP: [1]


DPLP futebol definition

The first definition is of interest: “A sport that divides 22 players in two teams. Players try to kick the ball in the opponent’s net without using hands during a match separated in two half times lasting 45 minutes each” (my translation). The image evoked by this definition refers to soccer. What about football? We’d need to consult the secondary entry—futebol americano, in other words, American football. “A mode of sport akin to rugby” (my translation). Oh, really?

While we’re travelling around Europe and Latin America, let’s see what definition our Spanish-speaking neighbours give us for soccer and football—courtesy of Spain’s royal academy, the RAE. [2]

RAE futbol definition

For starters, note that fútbol may be written with or without an accent. Like Portuguese, Spanish also has the tendency to divide the sport in to two definitions. Spanish defines fútbol as a “game between two teams of eleven players each. The goal is to kick a ball in a net according to certain rules; the most striking feature of the game is that nobody can touch the ball with hands or arms” (my translation).

The RAE defines fútbol americano as follows: “An American sport that has more similarities to rugby than football. Given the game’s violence, players wear elaborate head and body gear to protect themselves” (my translation). Clearly, the Spanish perceive our football the same way as the Portuguese (I guess the Portuguese were right to compare our football to…rugby!).

This brings me now to define soccer and football in accordance with English standards.

Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary provides us as a definition of soccer:

“A form of football played by two teams of eleven players with a round ball which may not be handled during play except by the goalkeepers. Also called football and Association football.”[3]

The same online dictionary provides us with an American English definition:

“A game played by two teams of eleven players with a round ball that may not be touched with the hands or arms during play except by the goalkeepers. The object of the game is to score goals by kicking or heading the ball into the opponents’ goal.”[4]

Aside from a more specific definition, the international and American English definitions are essentially the same.

How does English define football? Oxford provides two definitions. For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on the definition that describes the sport:

“Any of various forms of team game involving kicking (and in some cases also handling) a ball, in particular (the UK) soccer or (in the US) American football.” [5]

The second definition goes on to describe the ball used in soccer and football. In a nutshell, the round-shaped ball is for soccer; the oval-shaped ball is for American football and…rugby!

If you want an American English definition of football, Oxford has got it.

“A form of team game played in North America with an oval ball on a field marked out as a gridiron.”[6]

Oxford informs us that football is the British term for soccer. Our English “cousins” don’t always agree with words!

What can we take away from this brief and interesting discovery? If you live in Latin America, Spain, or Portugal, futebol or fútbol is indeed soccer. If you live in the United Kingdom, chances are you’re playing a sport with a round ball, not an oval one. The Spanish, Portuguese, and British truly perceive our football as American football or rugby. Bottom line: soccer and football are not the same sport.

In the end, the CBC was right: when it comes to soccer, we certainly speak the same language! I tip my hat to our public broadcaster for its fine, accurate linguistic research.

Boa Copa (Enjoy the World Cup)!

[1] Dicionário Priberam de Língua Portuguesa.

[2] Real Academia Española.

[3] Oxford Dictionaries, [http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/soccer?q=soccer], accessed June 5, 2014.

[4] Ibid, [http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/american_english/soccer], accessed June 5, 2014.

[5] Ibid, [http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/football?q=football], accessed June 5, 2014.

[6] Ibid, [http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/american_english/football], accessed June 5, 2014.



  1. […] ← Futebol & Fútbol = Football? June 24, 2014 […]

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