This Side of the Pond – Feb. 14

By Sarah Pridgeon

“It being Superbowl time, I think I should like to talk about my impressions of American football in my column this week,” I said to my husband as he was trying to get to sleep. “I’m not sure you can,” he muttered. “I don’t think you even know enough to work out where you’ve gone wrong.”
Sad to say, he has a point. It’s been a mere three weeks since I discovered the objective of the game, thanks to the patience of my mom-in-law, but I have yet to work out how to achieve it.
To the rest of the world, ‘football’ means ‘soccer,’ the national sport for my country and numerous others. Meanwhile, to my limited understanding, ‘American football’ is a game of rugby played with an oversized pistachio nut from within a suit of armor.
I can just about work out the rules of our version of football, which I shall henceforth refer to as ‘soccer’ for the sake of clarity (although I have no intention of relinquishing my nation’s claim to the name of ‘football.’) At risk of displaying my total ignorance in all matters sport-related, herewith a brief guide:
When playing a game of soccer, as far as I can make out, the idea is to belt in a circuitous manner from one end of the pitch to the other and maneuver the ball into a net, past the opposing team and through the outstretched hands of the tallest man on the pitch. Said tall man will fling himself in whichever direction necessary to keep the ball away, which for some reason occasionally leads to everyone standing in a very straight row while a member of the opposite team boots a ball at their heads.
There are offside rules, advantage clauses and other fancy jargons, but the crux of the matter seems to be knee socks, swearing and quite a lot of spitting. Essentially, it’s all about the ball, the net, the very tall man in front of it and the temptation to use your hands instead of your feet (which is only recommended when the referee isn’t looking.)
The males of my race spend endless evenings watching matches in the pub, but I’ve only felt the blood rise when the international tournaments come about. The European Cup and the World Cup have much the same atmosphere as the Superbowl, you see: we’re cheering our players on a global level alongside television audiences running into the billions.
Despite having invented the sport in the first place, England doesn’t exactly excel at football and tends to be left trailing by Germany, Spain and sundry South American contenders. The situation is much the same with tennis, golf, cricket, baseball (some say, anyway) and all the other games we made up but aren’t much good at playing.
Consequently, such great importance is placed on moral support that the streets are hushed and the shops stay empty while the players are embattled. I was employed at Amazon’s UK headquarters throughout the last World Cup; during the first England match, they were canny enough to give us the afternoon off and lay on a beer-and-pizza buffet.
“Might as well build some good will among the workforce,” I imagine they thought. “The buggers aren’t going to get any work done anyway.”
When it comes to sport-based battles, the folk of Scotland are disposed against their English neighbors for reasons to do with monarch-thieving in ancient times (and being even worse at football than we are.) They are known to cheer on literally any other team during internationals and to be gleeful when the English are inevitably knocked out of the competition – so you can imagine the atmosphere in the pubs and bars.
Despite our ineptitude and the sneers of the Scots, we pour hours of patriotism into our international soccer. In the interim months, we watch the club games and, akin to football’s American counterpart, choose our favorite team and wear the appropriate shirt to announce it.
Now I have eloquently explained the game of English soccer in such a way as to make it no more explicable to anyone at all, I shall turn my attention to your version of the game. From first impressions, I assumed it was a headbutting contest during which the pistachio nut keeps escaping through people’s legs, but the light is beginning to dawn.
Not quickly enough to have enlightened the Superbowl, though. I am still utterly baffled by a scrimmage and not sure what it’s there for – or, come to think of it, why they keep moving it around. How am I supposed to tell where it is if it’s gone by the time I look?
I don’t really know what a play is, but I definitely understand the need for the suit of armor. It shocks me that anyone’s able to make it through a game alive, let alone uninjured, but it sure is exciting to watch them try.
In a halfhearted attempt to explain matters to me, my husband described his own experiences with football. He was a lineman in his student days, apparently, although I don’t know which line he meant. There seem to be quite a few of them.
In his junior year, before he snapped a tendon in his calf, he tells me that he started both sides of the ball. He claims this was not perceived as cheating, although I can’t see how it’s good sportsmanship to straddle the pistachio when other people are trying to get at it.
He also says he was a nosetackle, which sounds like something to do with horses. Either that or bad tactics – I’ve never known anyone to tackle anything with their nose before, except the question of whether or not a cake has finished baking.
I’m hoping, eventually, to cultivate a more profound understanding of football than I can claim to have of soccer. Start small, they say, and so I have: I now understand that the pistachio thing is actually a ball. I still couldn’t tell you which side of that ball you’re meant to be on, but I do know you can learn about some really exciting new products during the breaks.