x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

This game bowled me over

American Football's showpiece event ticked all the right boxes as the underdog Saints conjured up a priceless victory.

There are good matches, there are great matches and then, once in a blue moon, there are sporting fairytales. To qualify for fairytale status, a number of key elements must be satisfied. The match itself must be meaningful and it must be won by the underdogs, who must start out badly but eventually claw back victory through a combination of dogged willpower and some unorthodox thinking by an inspirational leader. Ideally - and now we are really getting into Mighty Ducks territory - the victory must have some wider significance than sport alone.

Super Bowl XLIV ticked all those boxes. Of course the Super Bowl is a meaningful event - one in three Americans cannot be wrong, unless it comes to spelling, President(s) Bush or country music. New Orleans Saints were certainly the underdogs. The Aints, as this perennially under-achieving franchise was dubbed by long-suffering fans, had never before reached a Super Bowl and were widely tipped to get bucked by the Indiana Colts. This seemed even more likely as they trailed 10-0 after the first quarter.

But then the fairy dust kicked in. Sean Payton, their inspirational coach, seized the advantage with the unorthodox call to kick onside and retain possession, and the Saints went on to perform a live, televised magic act: they won. For the wider significance of this victory, you only need to recall the damage caused to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. To a city still struggling to find its feet, the economic and morale-raising boom of a Super Bowl victory is priceless.

This was genuine fairytale material which managed to warm even my cynical heart. All of the minor irritations of American Football were swept away. Never mind the treacle-laden schlock of not one but two patriotic anthems, one of them by a lady who would not have looked out of place as a Colts blocker. Never mind the obsession with mind-numbing stats ("that's the fourth year running the AFC team has won the toss!"). Never mind the sheer camp-ness of the sport's rituals - that combination of tight pants and tossing a red flag on to a field makes me think of an 18th century French dandy looking for a date.

Never mind all of that, because this was my first ever Super Bowl experience and the fairytale had won me over. And then reality bit. The final piece of any sporting fairytale is for the captain to lift the silverware. Instead, this being America, the first man to hold aloft the Lombardi Trophy was the franchise owner, Tom Benson. He hogged the limelight for several minutes until Payton managed to prise it away and make a speech in which he regretted there was not enough room on the platform for the players. True, but there would have been room for a few more without Benson and Co.

This may sound like nitpicking, but I believe the guys who have been risking brain damage for the last three hours should be the ones to revel in the glory. Sadly, American sport is so in thrall to the money men and the corporate dollar that even the finest fairytale is tainted. When Drew Brees, the quarterback, eventually got his hands on the trophy, he made a speech thanking the franchise owners, the general manager, Payton and, finally, the team. In my fairytale, that order would have been reversed.

The Moral Majority is having a post-prandial snooze this week after devouring a pound of John Terry's flesh. However, it will soon awake, hungry for something else to get upset about. So, may I suggest the issue of footballers' behaviour on the field, where the red and yellow card system has been debased. These alleged punishments are supposed to hinder the offending team yet often the opposite is true. How many times have you seen a plodding side sparked into furious ambition by a flash of yellow? How many times have you seen 11 lambs miraculously transformed into 10 lions following a red? This was certainly the case in Saturday's Merseyside derby, when Liverpool gained the advantage only after the dismissal of Sotirios Kyrgiakos. And Jamie Carragher's foul on Steven Pienaar was so blatant that his only intention must have been to get booked - which he did. The commentators may tut, but Carra knows what it takes to become a fans' favourite.

So how do you punish foul play by sportsmen who seem to thrive on the heat of a booking or the siege mentality of a dismissal? I was pondering this when the answer struck me like a faulty Japanese car: bowing. The president of Toyota cars made a 45 degree bow last week to apologise for the faulty pedal issue. Japanese etiquette dictates the lower you bow, the sorrier you are. What a great idea for punishing errant footballers. The referee could simply stop play after a foul and refuse to re-start the game until the player performs a solemn and appropriate bow to his victim. Let's say 25 degrees for shirt-pulling, 45 for a trip, 90 for going in studs-up, and the full forehead-on-the-ground treatment if you hear anything snap. It could work - and the Moral Majority will love it. Will Batchelor is a writer, broadcaster and self-confessed cynical sports fan. sports@thenational.ae