The World Cup is upon us and with it brings the age-old debate of which football is better—the one with hands or the one with feet. I generally tend to side with the soccer* people in this debate because they cheer for a sport that requires an amount of athleticism that I cannot even fathom. On the other side of that coin though, most of America’s best athletes have taken the rough-and-tumble football route in order to make their fame and fortune early in life and die in middle age. It’s not really a debate for me, soccer is the better and more popular sport hands down, but the debate that I do find interesting yet is seldom discussed is whether the true football is better than our own national pastime.
To begin, I’d like to ask you to think back to your childhood. What was the first organized sport you played? What game did you constantly beg your dad to play with you in the backyard? If you said baseball to one or both of these questions, then you are just like the vast majority of Americans. However, if you said soccer to one or both of these questions, then you are still in that majority. Why? Because across the country and I would assume across the world, these two sports are often pushed onto kids at early ages because they are the simplest to play. A ball and two poles on either side of a designated field gives you a game of soccer. A stick and a ball combined with four points designated at bases gives you baseball. These two games are the ones that kids grow up with; the ones that their fathers teach them and spend time playing with them on a Saturday morning. These two games are the sports upon which all of American athletics are built.
The common myth is that Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball during the Civil War. While this has been proved untrue time and again, most people still don’t know when baseball’s actual inception was. In 1845, Alexander Cartwright published a set of rules for his New York Knickerbockers Baseball Club. 24 years later, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional baseball club by paying their players. Two years after that, the National League was born.
The history of soccer is much less complicated than that of baseball, as it is not shrouded in the same mystery. However, the true origins of a game played with the feet go back much further than the contemporary soccer we know. The most similar game that we know of at this point in time is from the Han Dynasty called Tsu’ Chu. A player would try to get the ball through a designated goal without using his hands while being impeded by other players. While this game may or may not have been the harbinger of modern soccer, we do know that the modern version of soccer was first established in England in 1863.
Since both games were officially “created” in the 1860’s, I believe it is fair to measure their success by their growth globally over the last 150 years or so. According to data from the IBAF (International Baseball Federation), 77 countries have an organized baseball league, but the association boasts memberships from 127 countries indicating that baseball is played in those countries as well. Soccer, however, is played in over 200 countries by more the 250 million players compared to the 35 million baseball players giving soccer the definite edge in popularity. Each sport also holds worldwide competitions; soccer with the extremely popular World Cup and baseball with the less popular World Baseball Classic and Baseball World Cup. While soccer is obviously the most popular sport globally, baseball is not too far behind in global recognition as more and more people begin to take up the American pastime.
In the end, the debate between the two footballs has never been close because American football is not a global sport. People can cry all they want about how its popularity in America makes it the best, but they are forgetting that America is not the only country that matters. However, the debate between our national pastime and the global game is much more intriguing because a debate can actually be had. Does the skill required to hit a pitched ball make baseball the more challenging of the two? Or is the sheer athleticism required to play soccer at the highest-level leave it unchallenged by all other sports? It is a debate that will never be settled nor should it because without competition, where would we be?
I would like to take one last line to wish all the dads a Happy Father’s Day, because you all are the ones who taught us these games that we obsess over to this day. Thank you fathers for everything.
*I will refer to it as soccer from this point on for clarity’s sake.