NFL at Wembley

I was fortunate enough to attend the NFL match between the Minnesota Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend at Wembley.  What an experience it was.  A close game that went down to the final play between two evenly matched teams in an atmosphere entirely alien to an English sporting audience.  If you think the Premier League is ruled by advertisements and TV companies, then the American Football coverage takes it to a different level.  ‘Timeouts’ litter the action and TV ads interrupt play at every feasible opportunity, in some instances delaying the game deliberately.  Yet, when you are in the crowd, none of this seems to matter.  An NFL match is like a well-oiled machine; as soon as the action has stopped, an army of scantily-clad, implausibly athletic cheerleaders enter the field of play (or some piss-poor male-dominated drumming band – thankfully dressed more conservatively) and suddenly, you don’t care if there is a 2 minute pause.  In fact, all these intermissions are handy because they allow you to nip to the loo or top up your dwindling beer supplies.  Yes NFL allows the supporter to actually see the pitch with a beer in hand.  Shocking I know.

            Whilst ambling along Bobby Moore way to the stadium I noticed two things.  One, I, wearing a black suit and black shirt, was subject to quizzical stares from American Football aficionados because of my outrageous choice of attire.  Apparently if you don’t wear a ridiculously colourful and oversize replica NFL jersey, you are identified as a complete outcast.  The other was the sheer number of different NFL tops on show.  It seemed like the whole American Football fraternity had come out in force, not just Vikings and Steelers fans.  How many times have you been to a Chelsea match and seen Liverpool, Arsenal or Man Utd shirts milling around too?  Fans of all franchises were on show, happy just to revel in watching the sport they love.  There was no segregated seating either; fans of both teams sat side by side without any problems.  That is not say that the atmosphere was jovial and unpassionate.  When the PA announcer in his wonderful American drawl implored the crowd to ‘make some noise,’ a deafening roar ensued as if England had just won the Ashes, the World Cup and Six Nations in one fell swoop.  Flags of the respective franchises were waved fervently and I must say, although it was very un-English, I found it a wonderful experience.

            Is that all American Football is though?  An unashamed commercialised spectacle that has no real sporting merit to it?  Well yes and no.  The television coverage of NFL is an advertisement orgy where companies fall over each other to be associated with the sport.  Even half-time has a sponsor.  Yet none of the teams are allowed a shirt sponsor (which occurs in cricket, football, rugby union and rugby league), only the logo of their respective kit supplier.  There is no doubt that the game is tailored towards a TV audience but interestingly that the game doesn’t suffer as a live sporting occasion.

            The sport itself is not very difficult to understand.  Some of the technical jargon is slightly unnecessary but the basic aims of the game are pretty simple; the attacking team has four attempts to move 10 yards up the field; once this is achieved, the whole process re-starts until either the attacking team score a touchdown/field goal or the defensive team prevent them from advancing 10 yards, who in turn become the attacking team.  The game is all about speed and power and the physical shape some of these American chaps are in is absolutely ridiculous.  Some of the defensive line are more power than speed admittedly, but they are still not lacking in skill and strength.  What is slightly ridiculous is the sheer number of players in an NFL squad.  There are at least three specialist teams (offense, defense, kick-off/punt) as well as replacements for all these players.  The quarter-back obviously has the most important job but surely the easiest of the lot is the kicker.  All he does is kick field goals, conversions, punts and re-starts.  He is probably on the pitch for a total of one minute per match.  Not a bad way to make a living.

            The best player last Sunday was the running-back Adrian Peterson for Minnesota.  He scored two touchdowns and looked a livewire throughout the match with his powerful running and quick footwork.  However it is not only offensive players who get all the praise.  Defense is arguably as important and the Vikings’ defensive end Jared Allen had storming game, sacking (when the quarter-back is tackled before releasing the ball resulting in a loss of yardage) Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger at least three times (I started losing count as the number of beers consumed increased).  Another admirable trait of the NFL is how the umpires are universally respected.  Not one player showed dissent – they simply accepted their decisions and got on with the game.  Football, take note.

            I would urge everyone to give American Football a chance.  Many friends have dismissed the game without really getting to know the idiosyncrasies of it.  Yes, on the television it can become irritating with the endless commercials and breaks in play but to see it live in the stadium is a totally different experience.  The atmosphere is incredible and the entertainment, both on and off the field, is memorable.  The shameless Americaness is actually a refreshing change from the often traditional stoicism of English sport.  If you get the opportunity to watch a game live, either at Wembley or elsewhere, take it.  You won’t be disappointed.