x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Beautiful game hijacked

Sport is tribal. And the most important thing to any self-respecting tribe is their identity - which is why we get so protective over the rights to a name.

A game between the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins illustrates the helmets and shoulder pads that are a feature of American Football.
A game between the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins illustrates the helmets and shoulder pads that are a feature of American Football.

Sport is tribal. And the most important thing to any self-respecting tribe is their identity - which is why we get so protective over the rights to a name. What is hockey, for example? Ask the apple-cheeked, thunder-thighed girls of any British prep school and they will tell you it is played on grass with a ball. Canadians, however, insist it is clearly the often brutal contact sport played on ice with a puck.

Rugby also causes disputes. Fans of rugby league get very upset if you fail to give their sport its full title, as plain old rugby tends to mean the rival code of rugby union. Make this faux pas in certain parts of north of England and you could end up being taken seriously to task. As for polo, there is nothing worse than turning up for a match in your swimming trunks, only to be told you need a mallet and a horse. I will not be making that mistake again.

But the fiercest debate rages over football, which to the sane world means the spherical beauty of Association Football. Yet Americans call the sport soccer because they think that football means helmets, shoulder pads and more squad players than spectators. So, fans of the round ball should start cheering this Thursday night as the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Tennesse Titans at the Heinz stadium.

This match heralds the start of a special NFL season which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the American Football League. The AFL was founded in 1960 and later merged with the NFL, where it still exists - sort of - as the American Football Conference. Now I know that, in this context of the AFL, the first word, American, is really describing the third word, league, and not the second word, football.

But, hey, it is the closest thing we have to an admission that the game is really called "American football". So I'm going to cling to it like a wide receiver clings to that pigskin in the end zone. They really should call their sport American football. Not just because proper football had the name first, but because American football is just so...well, so American. For a start, it is very theatrical. Who else but a glitzy American - in this case Walter Camp - could watch a game like rugby and think: "Oh I love it, but it needs tighter pants."

Who else but the Americans would inject elements of faux history into the game? The Super Bowl, for example, is given a Roman numeral instead of a year. So the end of this season will not climax with Super Bowl 2010, but Super Bowl XLIV. Gee, honey, that sounds real old to me. You can just imagine the bearded guy from the film The Hangover saying: "Do you suppose Julius Caesar watched Super Bowl I in, like, the Coliseum?"

The only XL attached to American football should be the extra large shirts worn by the fans. Many are like this, by the way, because their 60-minute contests are dragged out over four hours in order to sell and consume more hot dogs and fizzy drinks. All very American. And what does all of this glitz, glamour, faux history and time-wasting boil down to? Like American foreign policy, they can dress it up with all the fancy codes and tactical jargon they like, but it is still basically a bunch of big guys trying to flatten the opposition.

That is the American way: putting on a show while kicking some ass. It is what they call entertainment and it is all fine by me. Just don't call it football