Monday, November 1, 2010

Football in a Soccer Land

Last night the San Francisco 49ers beat the Denver Broncos in the fourth annual NFL clash to be held in London.

These once-a-year gridiron shows quickly sell-out and pass off successfully in the excellent surroundings of the rebuilt Wembley stadium. The previous day's warm-up rally in Trafalgar Square also attracted thousands of devoted US sports fans to the heart of the capital.

I take no interest in regular-season (American) football but do enjoy this passing carnival in my home city. In that sense I resemble someone handed tickets to a game at USA '94 who enjoyed the day out but drove home scratching his head at the offside rule and relative lack of scoring. I spent many a Friday night a decade ago driving to watch high-school football in invisible towns in rural Kansas, and before that accompanying football-mad friends to watch nascent gridiron teams clash in the incongruous setting of Sunday summer afternoons in England, but it never stuck beyond the spectacle and sense of occasion. It can be hard to fall in love with a sport you have not played.

The novelty factor still works for this annual game, e.g. the Broncos trained at the 165 year-old cricket shrine The Oval, also the scene of the first F.A. Cup Final in 1872 and the first international soccer match (England v Scotland) two years earlier.

American football was actually most popular in the UK in the late 1980s, when Channel Four broadcast a cult Sunday night highlights show fronted by Gary Imlach, who went on to write the 2005 Sports Book of the Year, My Father and Other Working-Class Heroes, about his father Stewart, a Scottish soccer international. That weekly programme was colourful and fast-moving in a way contemporary soccer shows were not, a lesson learnt by Rupert Murdoch's Sky when it transformed the British game with the TV-driven birth of the Premiership in 1992.

Now in 2010 it is impossible not to compare soccer's march on the US with football's false starts in Europe. The NASL's ambush marketing may have ultimately failed but its scattering of seed would go on to bear fruit from sea to shining sea years later, while NFL Europe failed to put roots down, ending up as a six-team league with five German clubs and a Dutch one before it gave up the ghost in 2007.

The difference in success appears to boil down to the simplicity of soccer - unlike football a game novices can immediately comprehend, and its sparsity of equipment, although that did not stop football overtaking soccer to conquer the nation in the formative years of American sports.

Soccer has probably learnt more from football than vice versa - in physical preparation, sports science, marketing and the spectator experience American football has led the way, and talk of a US-inspired salary cap in European soccer refuses to die. Yet the spherical game remains the global conquistador par excellence, while the NFL can't get beyond one-off matches for now. Don Garber saw the writing on the wall when he jumped ships from NFL International to MLS in 1999.

It was Halloween yesterday too but the only spectre off-field was talk of the NFL not coming back next year because of the wrangling over the collective bargaining agreement. One could not help notice the irony of the threat of a walk-out when pay is approaching 60% of NFL revenue, while the Premier League's is closer to 70%.

Globalisation has too much momentum for the NFL not to return here, or for soccer to go backwards in the States. A string of Yanks now run our EPL teams and the best goals in London this weekend were bagged by Clint Dempsey.

Soccer/football - is there really much difference anymore?

-Sean O'Conor, London


Denny said...

I am starting to confuse the fanbases American football with American Soccer. Or was that English Football fans with American Soccer fans...

Either way, the fans win.

Sean O'Conor said...

I had to stand up for soccer when I lived in the States and in Wales, where fans of bigger sports would often denigrate it, but I can't see the point of sport-to-sport rivalry - I'll watch anything.

Talking of the % of revenue paid out in wages, I read today The Championship average is around 90% and Watford's has ballooned to 99%!