Sick of the so-called beautiful game and pushed into the arms of another sport: How I looked past the ceremony and silliness of NFL, and came to appreciate this astonishing game
The new NFL season begins this Friday (8th September): There will be chest-bumping, high-fives and fans wearing hats the wrong way around, set against a backdrop of fireworks, cheerleaders, flag waving and bald eagles. I won’t watch that part of the broadcast – it’s unforgiveable horse shit. But once the game begins, I’ll be watching from the edge of my seat, and following the season from start to finish.
I grew up obsessed with soccer – collecting stickers, wearing replica shirts, and watching every game I could (I even owe my love of reading to soccer). But the spirit of the game I grew up with is gone, killed by money from television, sponsorship and wealthy owners. Millionaire players are lacklustre and unmotivated (see England’s defeat to Iceland at European 2016). The same moneyed clubs predictably pick up the trophies year after year – and not just in the top division: Even the sixth tier of English football is dominated by clubs that have received multi-million-Pound investments from foreign and domestic sources. Traditional clubs, established to serve their local communities, have little chance of success. Disillusioned, I looked for something else.
As a sport, I had always ranked American Football somewhere next to WWF and the film musical Grease. The protective clothing seemed showy and superfluous: Any old Tarquin, Douglas or Hugo can crash head-first into his fellow toff without wearing pads in rugby, without any noticeable loss in brain activity. The rules and terminology were silly, while the team names were childish. Worst of all, the franchise system – paying for your right to compete and even moving a team to a new city – went against everything I thought sport stood for. But was soccer really so morally superior, following the arrival of Roman Abramovich, the Glazers, Sheikh Mansour and their ilk?
For some reason, I decided to give NFL a chance: Terrestrial TV shows two games each Sunday here in Germany, and the coverage does a great job of explaining the rules and tactics for an audience learning the game. Very quickly, the layers of bullshit were peeled back to reveal sensational levels of athleticism, skill and tactical complexity.
To draw a joltingly unlikely comparison, the sport gives me the same immersive experience as test match cricket. Seriously. The rhythm of the game is similar, with breaks between plays equivalent to turnarounds between balls or overs. Players are mostly specialised in one skillset, with some all-rounders performing multiple roles. Run plays and pass plays enable teams to vary their attack, much like a balanced bowling attack with spin and varieties of seam. Both sports serve up a chess-like tactical undercurrent: Setting traps, balancing risk and reliability, bluff and double bluff. Watching the early game on a Sunday evening quickly became a staple feature of my weekend.
I don’t think I’ll ever shake my obsession with soccer completely (readers will vomit at the term ‘soccer’, used here for clarity). I still watch England’s games during major championship and listen to radio coverage of Stockport County (typically, I’ve chosen to follow the Philadelphia Eagles: “The Stockport County of American Football”, as they are known). Perhaps I’ll tire of the NFL in a few years, and make another switch: The process of learning to appreciate a new sport has been rewarding and enjoyable. Whatever happens, I’m excited about the start of the new season and looking forward to watching the competition unfold.