Monday, 23 January 2012

Land of surprise and curiosity

Amazing how one can become passionate about, or at least interested in, something to which one was previously pretty much indifferent.

Here I am opposite San Francisco, surrounded by colleagues who live here, and who almost universally support the 49ers. Who are the 49ers, I hear you ask, where by ‘you’ I mean practically anyone who lives outside the USA? Well, they’re the local team in the grand old game referred to in this country as ‘football’ and more or less everywhere else in the world as ‘American football’.

I can make no claim to any kind of expertise in this sport, although funnily enough after a childhood spent despising any kind of professional game, the first match of any kind that I ever attended happened to be an American football game. It was between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Browns. Practically the only thing I remember about it is a man in a brown scarf jumping up and down and chortling wildly when the Browns scored. He was silenced by a single, quiet scowl, probably because it was being directed at him not by one man by about 50, sat all around him.

Coincidentally, it was the same New York Giants who were playing the 49ers yesterday. The San Franciscan team hadn’t, apparently, been enjoying much success in recent seasons, so when they scored a dramatic, dying gasp win over the New Orleans Saints last week to qualify for the semi-finals of a prestigious championship against the Giants this week, it was a moment for jubilation throughout the City and among my colleagues.

That persuaded me to watch the game yesterday, and I found it surprisingly enthralling.

The first thing to say about the experience was that it was extraordinarily long. If you take a standard rugby game, say, the eighty minutes of actual playing time plus ten minutes of half-time break, usually takes about 100 to 110 minutes to complete. During the Six Nations Championship, for instance, you can be pretty certain that you can safely start a second game a couple of hours after the first without much danger of their overlapping.

An American football game only lasts sixty minutes, not the eighty of rugby. But yesterday’s match ran from 3:30 to after 7:30. It takes four times as long to complete as the playing time. 

What’s more, in a rugby game, the great division in a side is between the forwards and the backs. The forwards tend to be bigger and heavier and their major role is to drive the ball forwards, while the backs are lighter and quicker and their major role is to run with the ball. But they’re all on the field at the same time and part of the beauty of the game is how these two divisions mesh with each other.

In addition, when the forwards aren’t driving the ball, they’re trying to prevent the other side driving it back the other way, and when the backs aren’t running with the ball, they’re tackling their opposite numbers to stop them breaking through their lines. In other words, both divisions play both in attack and in defence.

In American football, although each side only has eleven players on the field at a time, it can actually be made up of 53. You get a group that specialises in attack, or as they like to call it here, offense, a group that specialises in defence, or defense as they call it over here, and a group that specialises in specialisation (I kid you not: you get a ‘specialist’ team). This means that every now and then, a whole team will leave the field to be replaced by a whole other team specialised in different skills.

Together with the fact that the play stops every few seconds for another set piece - both sides line up against each other, offense against defense, and pause before the side with the ball launches another brief flurry of frenetic activity - it’s not in the least surprising that it takes forever to get through sixty minutes. In the course of yesterday’s match I even had a brief siesta and a bath and managed not to miss any of the actual scoring action.

On top of that there are commercial breaks several times an hour, to make sure you don’t get too engrossed in the action.

Despite all these layers of sophistication, the whole match ultimately came down to that simplest of events, the bane of teams in every imaginable sport, the defensive blunder. And not just one but two of them - by the same player. Spare a thought and a little compassion for poor Kyle Williams from the 49ers, a beginner or, as they like to say over here, rookie who twice let in the other side - once to take the lead, the second time to win the match and qualify for the finals. What a morning he must have woken up to today!

Whoops! Williams spills the ball in his second match-losing error
Amazing the game hasn’t caught on around the world. What could be better in our bankrupt economies than to play a sport that requires 53 players to field eleven? If it got popular enough, it could actually seriously dent the unemployment figures.

Postscript: French at the wheel. The United States is not particularly celebrated around the world for its mastery of foreign languages. I always remember a Louisiana senator some decades ago announcing ‘if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me,’ one of the more delightful examples of the kind of captivating wit that makes it such a pleasure to visit this country (and which compensates for some of its less attractive features).

These days, Spanish is pretty ubiquitous but other languages barely get a look in. So Danielle and I were amazed to discover in three cab rides that our driver was French-speaking. On one occasion, we were a little offended by the taciturnity of the man behind the wheel, who answered our polite comments in monosyllables until he overheard us talking French to each other. At that point he revealed himself as Algerian and chatted to us cheerfully all the way to our destination. Of the other two, one was also from North Africa, the second from Guadeloupe. 

Not what I’d have expected in the US. But then one should never underestimate this country’s capacity to surprise.

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