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The ‘other’ football

As games went, it was a bit of a stinker, the NFL’s equivalent of a dreary nil-nil draw. But that didn’t detract from the sense of occasion.

When the NFL announced last year that the New York Giants would be playing the Miami Dolphins at Wembley, it looked like a great match-up between two likely playoff contenders.

The best laid plans of mice and men, eh?

Having lost their opening two games, the Giants had turned things around by winning their next five, coming to Wembley with an enviable 5-2 record. Having lost their opening two games, the Dolphins had continued the trend by losing their next five as well, coming to Wembley with an unenviable 0-7 record.

And as time wound down on a 13-10 defeat – a scoreline which flattered Miami – you couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Already the worst team in the NFL, they had sacrificed a home game to act as ambassadors for the league, were missing their starting quarterback, running back and defensive leader, and were greeted by teeming rain which made play difficult, to say the least. And to top it all off, during breaks in play, the big screens showed short vignettes celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Dolphins’ ‘perfect’ Super Bowl season, the only unbeaten, untied campaign in NFL history. As if sliding to 0-8 wasn’t bad enough, this was like being taunted from beyond the grave.

Still, at least they weren’t booed with the kind of ferocity which greeted Chelsea and England football – make that ‘soccer’ – captain John Terry, present as an honorary team captain for the pre-game coin toss. As an Arsenal fan, I had to laugh.

Having said all that, it was a great occasion. An enthusiastic – frequently expert, in some cases merely curious – capacity crowd turned up to watch the first competitive NFL game played outside of North America. Many of us turned up sporting our favourite team’s colours, whether it was the Giants or Dolphins, or the 49ers, Packers, Patriots or Colts, or the Monarchs, Claymores or Admirals of the now defunct NFL Europe, or indeed the kit of an active team in the BAFL (British American Football League).

And the spectacle and razzamatazz of an NFL game was not dampened by the wet weather. From the pre-game entertainment (The Feeling) to the Miami cheerleaders and the national anthems, there is a scale and an unapologetic glamour about American football which even football’s Premier League cannot match.

Admittedly, the game was what you would euphemistically term as ‘one for the purists’. The sodden conditions hampered both offenses and contributed to several unsightly errors, meaning there were few big, spectacular plays (actually, make that none). Having established an early lead, a stuttering Giants team withdrew into conservative play-calling; the Dolphins simply lacked the firepower to threaten convincingly. But that didn’t detract from the overall spectacle, even though overall the atmosphere in the stadium was less intense than it might have been.

Hopefully, the NFL will have seen enough to be convinced that Wembley should host more games like this in the future. Certainly there are enough die-hards, UK-based ex-pats and travelling fans to ensure that occasional annual or bi-annual matches would always be sell-outs.

Talk of Wembley hosting a Super Bowl is, however, premature. Host venues have already been decided through to 2011, and even if the NFL owners did agree to stage a Super Bowl outside of the US, the UK is by no means the guaranteed front-runner. Enthusiasm for the game in Germany is at least as strong – while Britain’s two teams, the London (later England) Monarchs and Scottish Claymores, had long since folded, Germany held five of the six NFL Europe franchises when the plug was pulled on that league earlier this year. And China remains the big prize from a commercial perspective, a market of potentially limitless riches which is already being penetrated by football.

Anyway, we move forward one small step at a time. I started going to the pre-season ‘American Bowl’ exhibition games in the 80s, and I was a semi-regular attendee at Monarchs’ games during their existence in the 90s. Back then, I would never have dreamt that one day we would see a ‘proper’ NFL game in the UK. I’m glad just to have been part of the experience last Sunday, and hopeful that this will not prove to be a one-off. It will never replace soccer as the global ‘football’, but a game as colourful, violent and delightfully complex as American football – where a quarterback named Lemon can throw passes to a receiver named Peelle – has to be deserving of a global audience.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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