During last winter’s Ashes series Stephen Fry compared test match cricket to Homer’s epic poem, ‘The Iliad.’ Both are comprised of peaks and troughs; a slow, winding subplot grows to a stirring climax before the next obstacle stands before you, whether that’s sirens singing or Kumar Sangakkara. That, and it takes about five days to get to the end.
There is arguably no greater occasion in sport that watching your side – on the third session of day five needing to bowl out the opposition’s tail end (or indeed, to avoid being bowled out.) It most perfectly encapsulates the combination of physical and technical ability, mental stamina and playing for a team; there is no individual glory for the number eleven standing out there at 5:50pm blocking every ball that floats past off-stump – the only goal is to survive and ensure the draw.
Now imagine that, but with people smashing the hell out of each other. That’s American football. Like cricket, it has a focus on mental stamina and teamwork that few other sports have in such abundance. A fortnight ago, at Wembley Stadium the Chicago Bears were bearing down on the Tampa Bay Buccaneer goal line, facing third-and-goal from the four yard line — one more shot to get to the endzone — when out of nowhere Bucs veteran cornerback Ronde Barber beat Bears right-tackle Chris Spencer to the snap and sacked Jay Cutler. The move was only possible due to the other ten plays executing their assignments, allowing Barber to come through unblocked. The play didn’t score any points, and it didn’t have a huge significance on the result of the game, but it was one of those moments that lifts an entire team and stadium, in a similar way to when Theo Walcott runs 50-yards with the ball, beats three men and then blazes his cross off for a goal kick.
In the final two minutes of that game the Chicago Bears lead the Buccaneers by six points, meaning it came down to the final moments. If the Bucs got into the endzone they won. If they didn’t, the Bears won. As a fan of the Bears, the Tottenham Hotspur of the NFL, this was something I was by now abundantly familiar with. They had lead by sixteen points not long ago, but adopted the equivalent of the everyone-stand-on-the-six-yard-box-and-hack-wildy-when-the-ball-comes-near-us approach to defending. The Bucs marches up to midfield in a flash, but the game was clinched when Bears DJ Moore intercepted a Josh Freeman pass with 34 seconds on the clock.
This frenetic climax is not something uncommon for the NFL – a surprisingly high number of games end in drama, with three of the last four Super Bowls coming down to the final seconds of play. When was the last time you could say that about the FA Cup Final? The only example that comes to mind is 2006’s Liverpool vs. West Ham, which was remarkable by its aberration, and was still settled by the arbitrariness of penalties.
While some would argue that it’s impossible for American football to be a game of momentum – sixty minutes of clock usually drags out to in excess of three hours – it is this very aspect that creates energy. While it’s true that there are dreadful, spluttering games, the same could be said for any sport, it’s just we tend to forget them. I’m looking at you, Stoke City. The breaks between series allow for all kinds of mental anxieties for both the players and viewers – when the quarterback gets hit once again, will he start hearing footsteps that aren’t there? And will the offensive line, after being beaten to the snap for the second time start to fidget and jump offside?
While the squad play as a team, the game is broken into individual battles; you can see as the players line up that they almost pair off, eleven sets of battles, eleven assignments, and if one player falters then the entire team suffers. From an overhead view the lay-out is remarkably similar to a chess board, and when the players huddle they are instructed on their next move by the coach. And it is just this that makes American football fascinating, it is a game of chess – and what chess represents – war. There are individual battles, comprised of tactics, playing off strengths against weaknesses, and there’s the score line. It is only through understanding this concept that one can appreciate how much more there is to American football than violence, just as boxing is more than just beating the hell out of your opponent while trying not to get hit yourself. You can be watching it, but yet, are you really watching it?
The metaphor of war – while significant in most sport – is most apt here; you just need to read some of the terminology, the trenches, bombs, blitzes, and so on. And sure, American football – much like midget boxing – is a game of inches, it usually depends on who can land the bigger hits at the right times; it’s no good striking an uppercut right on the bell, just the same as it’s no good completing a 20-yard pass on third-and-thirty.
This neglect of the game is one that I find bemusing, and is likely the product of a British anxious-patriotism, when we are only too aware of the fundamental flaws in not just football (see: divers, cheaters, refereeing), but the entire structure of the sport. Sport is a social event, and while most sports cater for those watching, football is primarily for those playing. And while you could say, “Aren’t they the one’s that are important?” ask yourself, where sport would be without fans. American football is far from perfect itself (see: video replay debates, hitting laws, crime), it garners an unnaturally hostile reception from people who don’t just dislike it, but will go out of there way to insult it. If you look on the internet you’ll find forums dedicated to a discussion of how American football satiates Yanks need to see pansies in armour hitting each other, while they can’t concentrate for more than five seconds before they need to go to the fridge to get another burrito. This absurd view disregards how American football on so many levels defies the American stereotype; but this is an argument for another time.
I’m not saying that football in this country is stupid (although I could see how it could be), or even that it should change. It is a game designed for people to get lost in, one without breaks, and one steeped in history. It is the winding streets and alleyways to America’s grid system: organised, manoeuvrable, but with constant red-lights and a sense of déjà vu at every turn.