I used to think American football fans were crazy; then I met the real football fans.
Dear friends and fellow countrymen,
It’s now late-September and I imagine that walking up Third Avenue from Midtown to the Upper East Side, I would see all manner of inflatable men in blue or green helmets (Jets or Giants) carrying oval-shaped brown balls. Many of these Sunday afternoons, I would often take a stroll back from a run in Central Park and punch one or two in the nose — just for fun — the fans indoors never noticing. Good thing. They might have run me out of the City for punching a Giants’ nose (no one cares about the Jets).
Two years gone since my last Sunday afternoon football stroll, and I am in another country with a weekend football tradition, and it is much different, although equally — or even more so — obsessive. No, the sports bars do not have American football dolls hanging outside their doors. Rather, the pubs have real, grown men, many wearing various jerseys depending on their favorite teams — and I mean do-or-die, support-or-brawl teams (although some allegiances boil down to liking the name “Crystal Palace” as a child) — many yelling at the television screen and, I imagine, dreaming of kicking that winning goal and hearing the swish of the net, just as every grown American man seemingly imagines throwing a touchdown pass into the end zone at the NFL championships, otherwise known as the Super Bowl.
I’ll admit. I am not, nor never have been, a football fan — on either side of “The Pond”. My game is tennis. Yes, it involves a ball, an arm and a device that delivers a clean swing. But it’s also a battle of wills, a game of chance, movement, multiple, complicated interactions between exertion and physics, as well as what they call skill. That said, however, whilst I understand the allegiance to teams — much as I do my own loyalty to tennis players — nothing prepared me for the sheer craziness of English football.
To begin, football is soccer. Sorry, England or America or whichever country I disappoint here, my American sensibility is going to kick in. Let’s just call this sport something different than football, because there are all number of different games falling under that ‘football” umbrella: American football, Aussie Rules football, Irish football… just Wikipedia. Soccer is universal. Soccer is simple. Soccer harks back to Pelé and black-and-white balls and little girls kicking each other’s shins on Saturday mornings on some far-flung field in Tulsa, Oklahoma — the city of my youth — drinking Capri-Suns after begrudgingly slapping the winning team’s hands.
Secondly, no matter your knowledge of statistics, sports facts or useless information, no amount of tracking can prepare one for the clusterf*#k of English and European leagues and teams. But eventually, thanks to the large amounts of continuous media devoted to it, one eventually learns that in England, at least, the top of the top is the Premier League. Somewhere down that line, there is the Championship League, League One and League Two and then the local “pub side”, which is slang for the really, really bad professional football team in one’s village. The bottom two- or three- teams in each of these divisions after every season get “relegated” to the one beneath them and therefore earn the ire and scorn of every true fan that wasted all their time and money buying the “kit” (jerseys, shorts, sweatshirts, scarves or for the real “fan boys” who wear all of it including the socks and shoes) and otherwise paying the eight-digit salaries earned by players. “Relegation” in English football is akin to having an American come to dinner and talking sex, politics and religion — or raining in a perfectly warm, fresh cup of tea — every single morning for the next nine months (off-season and the next football season).
As if this wasn’t enough, during the regular season, the best teams in the Premier League go off every now and then and play the best teams in Europe for the Champions (not to be confused with Championship) or the Europa Leagues. (Major League Soccer in America, you don’t count — you basically suck.) So one day, Liverpool FC, or Manchester City FC or Manchester United are playing each other and then the next, they are off playing Real Madrid, Paris San Germain, SSC Napoli, Dinamo Zagreb or another team one never knew existed before moving to this side of the world.
Finally, just when you think you can’t possibly watch another football game with your significant other, there are the “off-season” national games. These are the best — or the worst, if you could care less about “the Beautiful Game” — most-watched, most-criticized, most-media-frenzied games of the entire year. When it’s not the World Cup, it’s the UEFA European Championship (the Euros), when it’s not either, it’s the run-up to both. If there is not men’s national football to watch, the men default to the women. The World Cup and the Euros both happen every four years, but alternating on even years so, of course, one doesn’t interfere with the other and fans can have the maximum amount of year-round exposure to football as possible. Of course, when the football isn’t on, there is the constant speculation as to whether Ronaldo (Cristiano) will return to Manchester United (he did) if Harry Kane will leave Tottenham Hotspurs FC (nope) or if Jack Grealish will replace his hair bobble with something a bit more manly (still wearing it).
I personally hit my “footie limit” in late June, when the various football leagues decided to go ahead with the 2020 Euros in 2021. I couldn’t sit and watch another 90–95-minute game on the green television screen with my girlfriend yelling at it. I had wanted to play tennis earlier in the afternoon, attend a touristy thing and/or go out to (maybe) watch it. It happened to be England v. Scotland Euro day — something akin to rivaling the continuous quest for Scottish independence that dates back to Mel Gibson and the Middle Ages — but I wanted OUT of all of the football insanity.
After England went nil-nil (0–0) against Scotland and then lost in the final to Italy, after which some horrible racism circled, I wondered if, indeed, I needed to return to American football land, where whilst men seem to be born and bred for a sport that will have nothing to do with their lives past age 40, they at least go to college. And although American scoring is weird, people wear jerseys and Super Bowl winners have ticker-tape parades, American football season lasts roughly five months and is not an endless stream of matches, horse-trading and gossip.
But no. Instead of occasionally devoting minimal time to either sport, I decided then and there, I would relegate my Aston Villa jerseys to the back of my drawer, pull out my English Lionesses shirts and thereby, back only women’s football. As the best women in the world fight for equal pay in the US, the women in the UK fight for exposure. And, there is just less of a fuss made about them, even though their teams were once more popular than the men’s.
English or American Rebuttal
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