The earliest form of soccer is known as, Ts’u-chu, created during the Han dynasty as a military exercise, but the soccer that we know and love today is a decidedly English invention.
As such, there are a few words associated with the beautiful game that we Americans don’t encounter too often or in the same context, and “pitch” is one of them.
It’s absolutely nothing to worry about. “Pitch” isn’t particularly specialist language. It’s not a technique or act as it is in baseball, neither is it an esoteric rule such as offside.
It simply refers to the ground on which soccer is played. A football pitch is just a soccer field. There’s no difference between them; it’s just what it’s called across the pond.
It might sound a little jarring and obtuse off the tongue, but that’s just because you’re not used to the meaning of it in this new context. If you dig a little deeper, it all starts to make a lot more sense.
Why do the English Refer to a Soccer Field as a Pitch?
While the word, pitch, is easily understood as the English equivalent of field, to discover why the English use the word “pitch” instead of field, it’s important to trace the word back to at least its contextual origins, which is where things get a little more complex.
“Pitch” is actually a term derived from cricket, another thing we over here tend not to have such a good understanding of, but for the sake of exploring this borrowing of language, we’ll have to persevere.
The nearest etymological root of the word, pitch, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “Pichen - to thrust, drive, or fix firmly”. If you think about it, you’ll start to see how variants of the verb “pitch” fit into other contexts. Pitching a tent is a common phrase that alludes to the original definition in two ways.
Firstly, you’re driving the pegs into the ground, and secondly, by doing so, you’re fixing the tent firmly in place. You’ll also notice that the way we use “pitch” in baseball makes a lot of sense as the ball is thrust towards the batter.
Here’s where some rudimentary knowledge of cricket comes into play. You’d be forgiven for thinking that “pitch” worked its way into cricket due to the fact that - much like baseball - a ball is pitched towards a batter, but that’s not quite right. The act of pitching in cricket is actually known as bowling, and the pitcher is called a bowler.
What “pitch” actually has to do with are the cricket stumps. The stumps are three long stakes that are driven into the ground in a row. On top of the stumps balances a pair of bails, and all of these things together form what’s known as the wicket.
The wicket is what the bowler aims to hit and what the batter has to protect. It became common practice to refer to the setting up of the stumps for the wicket as “pitching the stumps”.
Over time, a linguistic event known as anthimeria occurred at cricket matches and in the general populous. Anthimeria is the conversion of a word in a certain form to another.
The word “pitch” expanded to describe not just the setting of the stumps in the ground, but the ground itself. Pitching (verb) became the pitch (noun). When a verb converts to a noun, that noun is known as a deverbal noun. But that doesn’t quite explain how the transference fully took place. What does that have to do with soccer?
Cricket is a much older game than modern soccer, in fact, it’s known to have been popular as far back as the 15th century, so when modern soccer rules were drawn up, cricket was well established, and almost every town and village had a cricket pitch.
When soccer was still in its nascence but slowly beginning to grow in popularity, the only places suited to playing it in terms of size and terrain were cricket club grounds. In fact, the first-ever international soccer match was between England and Scotland and it was played in Glasgow at West Scotland Cricket Club.
So, if you were going to play football, you’d say you were going to the cricket pitch, and eventually, as the playing of football on cricket grounds became more commonplace, the lexicon naturalized and settled, so you would say you were going to the pitch.
Eventually, areas were developed for the playing of football exclusively, but it had been played long enough on cricket pitches that the word became inextricable from the idiolects of people who enjoyed it.
What’s really confusing is the fact that even though pitch originally referred to English cricket grounds, it’s now more commonly referred to as a cricket field, while football retained the cricket-born deverbal noun.
Why do the English Use “Field” so Infrequently in a Sporting Context?
The English don’t seem to show a great desire in using the field as a way of describing a sporting area, which seems strange on the face of it, but it too has a good reason.
The word, field, in England, connotes a working environment. It’s a blanket term for farmland that offers no real distinguishing features other than it’s an area used for farming activities. It could be large, small, flat, on a hill, fenced, or unfenced...all you know is that it’s farmland.
Sporting grounds were indeed normally acquired from farmers or others in professions that require large open spaces of land, but the acquired area would then be worked on to make it suitable for the sport it had been bought for. Draining is installed, the ground is leveled, lines are painted, stands are built around it.
These were no longer places of work and strife, but fun, sportsmanship, and revelry. Such is the transformation from a standard working field to a sporting ground, it’s really no surprise different words are slipped into field’s place from time to time.
At this point, the terms are pretty much interchangeable in England, but at a professional or official capacity, a commentator, player, manager, or spectator will always refer to the soccer field as the pitch.
Is a Pitch Also a Type of Kick?
It certainly sounds like it could be. You have a pitching wedge in golf; it describes a particular movement...why not? Well, there is a sort of pitch shot in soccer but it’s known as chipping.
A chip is performed by digging your toe beneath the ball and creating a significant amount of lift, giving the ball a short, high trajectory.
It’s mostly used to flick the ball over the goalkeeper in a one-on-one situation where they’re trying to close the angle of your shot by venturing away from the goal and towards you. It’s also used as a risky but effective passing technique every so often.
Are there any Differences in Size Between Soccer Fields and Football Pitches?
There are no differences in dimensions between American and English soccer fields. They vary in size depending on the age group playing on them, so there are no official measurements that would classify a playing area a soccer field or football pitch.
There are however certain dimensions as laid out by the IFAB (International Football Association Board) that a field needs to be before it can technically be considered a professional ground, but the criteria are the same the world over.
To be officially regarded professional size, a pitch must be between 50-100 yards wide (45-90 meters) and 100-130 yards long (90-120 meters). In the Premier League, the pinnacle of English football, soccer fields must measure as close as possible to 115x74 yards (105x68 meters).
Are the Lines Different on a Soccer Pitch to a Soccer Field?
Once again, there shouldn’t be any difference between the markings on an English football pitch and an American Soccer field.
The main lines that draw out the rectangle playing area are the goal lines (shorter) and the touchlines (longer). If the ball travels out of play over the touchlines (kicked into touch), a throw-in is granted to the team that didn’t touch the ball last.
If an attacking team kicks the ball out of play over the goal line, the ball is given to the goalkeeper for a goal kick. If the defending team touches the ball over the goal line, the ball is taken to the corner by the attacking team for a corner kick.
The line across the middle of the field or pitch is known as the halfway line, and directly in the center of the halfway line is the center circle in the middle of which lies the kickoff spot.
At either end of the rectangle, you have the goal areas - a small box that encompasses the goalposts - the penalty area (commonly referred to as the box) surrounding that, the penalty arch, and of course, the penalty spot.
So, there you have it, sport’s fans. The term pitch in soccer is synonymous with the field in soccer.
They’re interchangeable phrases, and now that you know a little something of the history behind it, you can confidently mix things up a bit with your vocabulary.
It just may impress, but it will definitely confuse a few listeners, so I hope they’re ready and willing to learn a few things about cricket as you dazzle them with your etymological soccer knowledge.