As George Bernard Shaw, allegedly, once said, ‘England and America are two countries divided by a common language’. The number of differences could fill an article – indeed fill an entertaining and frequently fascinating blog – but perhaps one of the most fraught differences is what we each mean by the word ‘football’.
For the British, ‘football’ means association football. For the Americans, ‘football’ refers to gridiron. And this difference can be a matter of pride. Many Brits will bristle at Americans calling the game ‘soccer’, despite the word ‘soccer’ being our invention, and will dismiss American football as a crap version of rugby played by wusses who need to be padded up before they will tackle each other. Conversely, many Americans typically view soccer as a game played by over-coiffed prima donnas who’ll fall to the floor at the slightest hint of a stern look, let alone a tackle.
I admit that, for a long time, I’ve viewed American football with a bit of suspicion. The games take ages (an average NFL game takes about three hours). The play stops and starts with the frequency of a bus going down Oxford Street. Each side has a different team for attacking and defending – plus ‘special teams’ for kicking plays - which feels like some kind of weird job-creation scheme. And for the beginner, the rules and tactics can seem bewilderingly complex. Why are the referees throwing those flags all over the place? Why did the clock stop this time, but not the play before? A pistol offence sounds dangerous. And the names of player positions, like wide receiver and tight end, just sound rude. I’d rather stick to the beautiful game – slick passing, end-to-end stuff, 90 minutes of free-flowing genius. (Though as a season-ticket holder at Dundee United for much of the early Noughties, Lord knows where I got that impression of football from.)
To me, American football was nothing more than a vague memory of highlights on Channel 4 in the 90s, and a San Francisco 49ers jacket hanging in my dad’s wardrobe – a remnant of an ill-fated push to make the NFL popular in Europe in the 90s.
But in 2007, as part of a push to expand the appeal of the sport worldwide, the NFL brought American football back to Wembley Stadium for the first time since 1993. Also, this time around Wembley was playing host to regular season games – that is, actual competitive matches. Since that year, when the New York Giants took on the Miami Dolphins, seven other games have been played in London and another five are due to be played by 2016. These have been a huge success, attended by an average of 82,000 people and helping spur renewed interest in the sport in the UK. Viewing figures have surged 154 per cent since 2006 and an average of 1.1million watched Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. Which is pretty good, considering the game starts around 11.30pm, and doesn’t finish until the early hours of the morning. There’s even talk of London getting its own team.