SuperBowl 47 rolls around next week, which means American Football will find its way into the sports pages of European media outlets. This generally gives rise to a certain amount of commentary about the sport, much of which is characterised by bewilderment at the popularity of the sport in the US.
Comments such as “there are more players on the side line than on the pitch”, or “the game lasts for 60 minutes but takes 4 hours to play” are pretty common, and even among sportwriters themselves, as much attention is given to the fluff like the Half Time show and the cost of commercials as to the actual matchup between the teams involved.
This is unfortunate, as American Football is a fascinating sport comprising an immense array of skill, strategy and psychology, which regularly yields up wonderfully tense and exciting sporting contests.
As a long time fan myself, I thought I’d offer up a little taster for the uninitiated, by comparing American Football to the sport we are most familiar with in Europe, soccer.
In listing these reasons, I’ve deliberately stayed away from comparisons between the physical nature of the sports, and the skills involved in playing them, where comparison will always be a matter of conjecture, and focused instead on the rules, norms and structure of the sports, which are more factual.
1. Cheating hasn’t become part of the game
Whether or not American Football players have more moral scruples than soccer players is debatable, but one thing is for certain, its much harder to cheat in American Football, which seems to result in fewer players attempting to do so.
Simulation, feigning injury, deliberate handball and time wasting are all practically unheard of in American Football, while pervasive in soccer.
2. American Football isn’t dominated by a small group of cash rich clubs
Because American Football incorporates a Draft system, in which the weakest teams in any given year get first pick on the best new players coming out of the college football system, no team can every dominate the sport in the way that certain European soccer clubs have over recent decades.
3. Players respect the officials
The sight of a player, or a group of players, berating an official in American Football is very rare indeed, and where it occurs, the penalty is pretty severe: a 15 yard penalty and possible elimination from the game, which is more or less the same punishment you receive for attacking another player with your helmet.
4. Key decisions are assisted by technology
How many times have we seen the outcome of soccer matches decided by officials getting the call wrong on a key play, where they’ve awarded a penalty where they shouldn’t have, or where they have disallowed a goal they shouldn’t have?
This simply doesn’t happen in American Football. Coaches have the right the challenge official decisions, wherein the referee can then refer to video technology to confirm their decision. It means that while not every fan can go home happy, they can at least go home without feeling cheated.
5. There is no time wasting
In American Football, when the ball is no longer in play, due to either having gone out of play, or a play breaking down, the game clock is stopped. That means players can’t gain any advantage by spending longer than usual setting up a particular passage of play, like they do in soccer, with a goal kick, or a throw in.
In an American Football game, other than for the 40 seconds that the Quarterback is allowed to set up each consecutive play, the ball is in play for the full 60 minutes of each game.
(There are no ball boys either, or ball men, and there is more than one ball, so lying on top of the ball on the sideline isn’t really worth your while.)
6. The governing body of American Football is not corrupt
Its unlikely the SuperBowl will be played in Qatar any time soon.
7. There is only one competition
In Europe, most successful soccer clubs will participate in 3-4 competitions during the year, resulting in lots of drab, pedestrian matches played out between teams that don’t include the clubs best players.
This doesn’t happen in American Football. There is one competition, that runs over a period of 20 weeks, with one prize, which every teams competes in to the best of their ability.
8. There is always something to play for
Because of the way the SuperBowl Championship is structured, where teams are ceded on the basis of how many games they have won and lost, rather than on points, and where higher ceding confers home field advantage during the playoff phase, there is nearly always something to play for in American Football games.
For instance if a team had only one regular season game left to play, and had already won 15 out of its previous 16 games, guaranteeing quantification for the playoffs, they would still have an incentive to win their last game, to guarantee that they would play all their playoff games at home.
9. Scores must be earned
There are no penalty kicks in American Football. If you want to score, you either have to get the ball into the endzone or kick it through the posts.
In soccer, a player can be awarded a penalty for having his shirt tugged, which could decide the outcome of the game, even if this happened when he was 17 yards from the goal, on the byline, with 8 opposing players between him and the goal.
10. Games are not decided by penalty shootouts
If the knockout phase of the Superbowl playoffs, if a game ends in a tie, the 2 teams will keep playing 15 minutes quarters until one of them scores. Games are never decided on the basis of a goalkeeper guessing which way to jump when faced with a penalty kick.