Understanding American Football: A Guide for International Viewers

For many international students, the word “football” brings to mind images of a black-and-white checkered ball and legendary players like Ronaldinho, Messi, Zidane, and Pele. However, upon arriving in the United States, you’ll quickly discover that “football” is an entirely different sport. What the rest of the world knows as football, Americans call “soccer.” Understanding American Football can seem complex (even for locals). Here’s a guide for international viewers eager to understand this beloved American pastime, this article is the perfect starting point.


Before diving into understanding American Football, let’s explore how the sport was originally formed. American football originated in the late 19th century, evolving from soccer and rugby, both of which were brought to North America by British settlers. The first game resembling modern football was played between Princeton and Rutgers University in 1869, following rules more like soccer.

The sport began to develop its distinct identity with contributions from Walter Camp, known as the “Father of American Football.” While at Yale University, Camp proposed several significant rule changes, including reducing the team size from 15 to 11 players, establishing the line of scrimmage, and introducing the concept of downs. These changes were adopted over time, helping to create an entirely different sport.

Today, American football is one of the most popular sports in the United States, with the NFL at the heart of this popularity. Even you don’t live in the US, you might have heard of the Super Bowl, one of the biggest annual sporting events worldwide.

Basic American Football Rules

Okay, here are the basic rules you’ll need to know. American football is played between two teams of 11 players on a field that is 100 yards long. The game starts with a kickoff and the objective is to score points by carrying or passing the ball into the opponent’s end zone to score touchdowns (worth six points). Teams can also score three points with a field goal, which involves kicking the ball through the opponent’s goalposts.

The offensive team has four attempts, known as downs, to move the ball 10 yards forward. If they succeed, they earn a new set of downs. If they fail, the ball is turned over to the opposing team. Meanwhile, the defensive team’s objective is to stop the offense’s progress and take control of the ball.

Common American Football Terms

Great! Here’s the list of common American football terms along with short definitions to help understand the basic aspects of the game:

Understanding American Football: A Guide for International Viewers
  • Touchdown: scoring six points by carrying the ball into or catching the ball in the opponent’s end zone.
  • Field Goal: a score worth three points made by kicking the ball through the opponent’s goalposts.
  • Extra Point: a point scored after a touchdown by kicking the ball through the goalposts (1 point) or by carrying or passing the ball into the end zone again (2 points).
  • Down: one of four chances a team has to advance the ball 10 yards.
  • Kickoff: the way to start the game or resume a play after a score, where one team kicks the ball to the other.
  • Punt: a play in which the kicking team, typically on fourth down, drops the ball and kicks it before it hits the ground to give the ball to the opponent as far away as possible.
  • Quarterback: The leader of the offense who throws or hands off the ball.
  • Running Back: A player who primarily runs with the football.
  • Wide Receiver: A player who specializes in catching passes.
  • End Zone: The scoring area at each end of the field.
  • Line of Scrimmage: The line where the football is placed at the start of each play.
  • Offside: When a player crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped.
  • Red Zone: The area of the field between the opponent’s 20-yard line and the end zone.
  • Fumble: Losing possession of the ball while running with it or being tackled.

American football is a large part of culture in the United States. Familiarizing yourself with these terms can help you engage in conversations with colleagues, friends, or classmates.

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