Note: This is NOT the most-frequently cited list, which cites soccer as having "the most attractive athletes" (clearly, the author never saw Manchester United's Gary Neville and Wayne Rooney) and Vinnie Jones' acting career. This is my own list.
So, the National Football League lockout has been settled. The team owners can go back to doing what they do best: Cover their asses and make gobs of money.
And the players can go back to doing what they do best: Make gobs of money, and spend it on their posses, their mistresses, and their firearms.
Who’s going to win Super Bowl XLVI, this coming February? In the words of the new James Bond, and co-star with Harrison Ford in the upcoming movie Cowboys & Aliens, Daniel Craig: "Do I look like I give a damn?"
Craig is from Chester, in the northwest of England, and is a fan of Liverpool Football Club. That’s football as in association football, or soccer.
It seems un-American to say this, but their football – or futbol, or fussball, or voetbal, or calico, or, as the majority of the English-speaking world (including the U.S., Canada, South Africa and Australia) call it, “soccer” – is better than our football.
As recently as 2006, I would never have made that statement. That's the year my Grandma died -- and she was a big NFL fan. I wonder if her no longer being around to watch and talk about the NFL with has anything to do with it.
I grew up with the typical pre-MLS American attitude toward soccer: It's too boring, it's too foreign, there's not enough offense. Even though I had the New York Cosmos playing just 35 miles away at Giants Stadium, with Pele, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Neeskens and Giorgio Chinaglia, and opponents like Eusebio, George Best and Johan Cruyff coming in, I wasn't hooked on it. I would watch on television, but I wouldn't go to a game.
The 2006 World Cup hooked me -- exactly how, is a story for another time. Slowly, but surely, I began to realize what a great game soccer is. And my exposure to London's Arsenal, Spain's Barcelona (before I started hating them -- with good reason), the Netherlands' Ajax Amsterdam, Italy's AC Milan and Portugal's Sporting Lisbon, finally brought me over to the side of the world's football. Which, yes, is better than American football.
Here’s my top 10 reasons why:
10. Size doesn’t matter nearly as much. And I’m not just talking about hugeness causing injuries. True, being tall does help, especially with aerials. But you can be 5-foot-5 like Argentina star Diego Maradona, 5-foot-5½ like Italian legend Gianfranco Zola, 5-foot-6 like Brazilian star Roberto Carlos, 5-foot-6½ like Argentina’s Lionel Messi, or 5-foot-7½ like Russia’s Andrey Arshavin, and still be considered one of the best players in the world.
All this talk about English players having height to go with their courage? England hasn’t won a major tournament since 1966, when 2 of their starters, Nobby Stiles and Alan Ball, were 5-foot-6. Shorter than Messi – though taller than Maradona and Zola.
Contrast that with American football: Doug Flutie was 5-foot-9¾, and won the Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football in 1984; yet went undrafted because he was “short.” He went on to become the greatest quarterback in the history of the Canadian Football League. And he did help 4 different teams make the NFL Playoffs.
Famously growing up in Natick, Massachusetts, outside Boston, a lot of people don’t realize he was born just outside Baltimore, in Catonsville, Maryland. That’s 36 miles from his country’s capital. If, instead, he’d been born the same distance from London – say, in Stevenage, hometown of 5-foot-8 Arsenal star Jack Wilshere – soccer fans would’ve said, “One-point-seven-seven metres is too short? Sod off, the Flutie lad can play!”
These days, even baseball and hockey players are huge, to the point where the legendary Reggie Jackson stands alongside Derek Jeter, a shortstop, and asks, "When did I get so short?" Reggie is 6 feet even, Jeter is 6-foot-3. But soccer is still a human-sized sport.
9. Fewer commercials. The running clock means no TV time-outs. Commercials before the game, after it, and in halftime, but not during the game.
True, they wear “commercials” on their uniforms, but do you really want to see an ad for yeast-infection cream after a touchdown? Or, at the other end, Viagra after your team has fumbled the ball away? (In such an event, I don’t think Viagra is going to help – and your team’s players may already be a bunch of stiffs, and not in a good way.)
8. Overtime is not messed-up. Except for cup ties, there’s no overtime at all. Is that a good thing? (I’ll get to that in a moment.) In cup ties, there isn’t sudden-death overtime (although, under some conditions, there has been a “golden goal”). If you allow a goal in extra time, you can still tie (or “equalise”) and win. This happened to Arsenal in the 1971 FA Cup Final, against Liverpool: It was 0-0 at the end of the regulation 90 minutes plus injury time (a.k.a. stoppage time), then Liverpool scored first, from Steve Heighway in the 92nd minute. But Eddie Kelly tied it up for Arsenal in the 101st, and then, in the 111th, Charlie George drilled one into the net, and Arsenal had won the Cup – and, having already won the League, won “The Double.”
True, penalty kicks often seem like an unfair way to settle a cup tie -- especially if you're from either England or the Netherlands. But it's better than the NFL's version, which is based on a coin toss. (Which is done by the referee. If you watch English soccer, you know where I'm going with this: In England, many of the referees are tossers.) The team that wins the coin toss wins 60 percent of the time -- in contrast, home field advantage has little effect in overtime, just 51 percent of home teams winning.
(I was going to say home field advantage has little effect in "OT," but that could be interpreted as "Old Trafford," and, if you know anything about soccer, you KNOW that Old Trafford is the biggest home field advantage in any sport in the English-speaking world.)
7. Proper punishment. Granted, soccer has futzed-up officiating as much as any other sport, and not even the Dallas Cowboys have gotten as many dubiously favorable calls as England’s Manchester United, Spain’s Real Madrid, Germany’s Bayern Munich and Italy’s Juventus. But you do something egregious in soccer, and not just you, but your team gets seriously punished.
A penalty in American football? Except for some pass interference calls, you hardly ever see more than a 15-yard penalty; the soccer equivalent would be a free kick. In hockey, a penalty puts your team down a man for 2 minutes. But an infraction worthy of a game misconduct is rare in hockey; in soccer, if you get 2 yellow cards, equaling a red card, or even a straight red, your team is down a man for the entire rest of the game.
In other words, if you pull the kind of shit the Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Flyers pulled regularly in the 1970s and 1980s, then, assuming the ref is not paid off in your team’s favor, it’s 10 vs. 11 for the rest of the game. And if that happens early, try being a man down for over an hour. Hell, except for baseball, North American sports don’t even last an hour unless they go to overtime.
6. A tie is not meaningless. A win gets you 3 points, but a tie (or a “draw,” as they would say) gets you 1 point. So if you work hard, but don’t win, you can still get ahead. If the old football coach (his name seems to vary, depending on who's telling the story) was right, and "A tie is like kissing your sister," in soccer, there are some draws that are like kissing your sister's really hot best friend. Of course, there are also some draws that are like kissing your mother's canasta partner with the dentures...
5. Relegation and promotion. The bottom 3 teams in a national soccer league get “relegated,” dropped down to the next highest division. The top 2 teams in the next highest division, and the winner of a playoff between teams 3 through 6, get promoted to the spots of the former higher teams.
In other words, if you’re the owner, and you don’t spend enough money to improve your team, you get punished for it; if you do spend enough money to improve your team, and it works (it might not), you get rewarded for it.
Think about it: In Major League Baseball, if the last-place teams in each division got relegated, and had their places taken by teams that won their division in the minors, then, following the 2010 season, the Baltimore Orioles would have been replaced in the AL East by the Columbus Clippers (Ohio); the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central by the Oklahoma City RedHawks; the Seattle Mariners in the AL West by their neighbors, the Tacoma Rainiers; the Washington Nationals in the AL East by the Durham Bulls; the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West by the Sacramento River Cats; and, in the NL Central, the Pittsburgh Pirates by the Iowa Cubs. True, that would deprive us of the Pirates’ 2011 renaissance, but then, the Pirates could have had that much sooner if they’d just taken a chance and spent like they were actually glad to be in the major leagues.
(In reality, relegation and promotion wouldn’t work in the U.S., in any sport. The distances involved would make realignment and schedulemaking a pain in the centreback. Besides, the NFL doesn’t have farm teams like the other 3 sports, relying almost solely on the collegiate draft.)
UPDATE: The lack of relegation and promotion is a major problem that many American fans have with MLS. And MLS' excuse has nothing to do with logistics. I think they're afraid that one of the big markets -- New York, L.A., Chicago, Boston -- might get relegated, and they'll lose that top-flight moneymaker.
4. Lesser injuries. True, you have to be tougher to play football than soccer, but that’s because there are 300-pound men coming at you. That's 300-pound men who can run. And they come at you all the time.
Whereas in soccer, there are no 300-pound men (except in the stands, and often in the director’s box – yes, I’m talking about you, Mike Ashley of Newcastle United); and the only ones who come at you, rather than the ball, are those “Dirty Northern Bastards” at teams like Stoke City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, and they never win anything anyway.
Furthermore, the rapid increase in the size of the American football player has resulted in some repeated awful collisions that have led to brain damage, including dementia that resembles Alzheimer’s disease. This in men not yet 50 years old.
Recently, we've seen a few really good players die from this -- and a few even committing suicide because they can't live like that. One, Dave Duerson of the Super Bowl XX Champion Chicago Bears, killed himself and donated his brain to science, so the doctors could see just what it does to a man. And he played 25 years ago, when there were a few 300-pound men in the game, but it wasn't that common; that's why his 320-pound teammate William "the Refrigator" Perry was so celebrated. Today, seeing a 340-pound lineman, offensive or defensive, wouldn't make anyone blink.
Then there’s the other injuries. I had a girlfriend whose grandfather played for the Green Bay Packers during World War II. This was before facemasks, even before plastic helmets – the leather “glove” kind. When I last saw him before he died, he was in his early 80s, and his mind was still sharp – sharp enough to have been an assistant coach at an Ivy League university. But I never saw the man stand up, let alone walk.
Before Joe Montana came along, Johnny Unitas was often called the greatest quarterback who ever lived. He didn’t make it to 60, due to a bad heart. And for a few years before that, Unitas, known as The Man With the Golden Arm, could no longer even grip a football with his throwing hand.
Show me a “footballer” of that caliber who, at age 55, can no longer even kick a ball – and I don’t mean through a tragic accident (a la the comics’ Roy Race). You see broken legs in soccer, but not like in American football. Some of what those men have gone through is horrific.
UPDATE: I have since learned of the sad fate of West Bromwich Albion star Jeff Astle, and the "Justice for Jeff" campaign, which raises awareness of concussions in soccer and other sports.
3. Multiple competitions. You can fail to win your league, and still have a chance to win something. There is your country's national league (not to be confused with baseball’s National League), the national cup tournament (think NCAA “March Madness,” except it runs all season long), the national “league cup” tournament (in terms of importance, think the Preseason NIT), and then there’s continental play.
The UEFA Champions League (formerly known as the European Cup), Asia’s AFC Champion League, Africa’s CAF Champions League, South America’s Copa Libertadores, and the North America, Central America and Caribbean CONCACAF Champions League, are true major championships in ways that the NFL, the World Series, the NBA Playoffs and the Stanley Cup simply can’t be – because, with the possible exception of the Japanese baseball champions and the hockey champions of Scandinavia and the former Warsaw Pact nations, there just isn’t any chance. So the championships (if not, in terms of appearance, the trophies themselves) aren’t just more, they’re better.
2. It’s a world game. Usually, the only NFL players born and raised in other countries are the placekickers – who weren’t good enough to make it as soccer players. But on a soccer team, you can get players from around the world – for the better ones, players from the club’s country of origin tend to be few and far between. The first club in English football to play an entirely non-English lineup? No, not Arsenal. Chelsea. Ironic, isn’t it? The club most identified with the racist British National Party, the far-right National Front, and the hooligans that tend to show up for the England national team... and they were the first all-foreign team in the country.
1. Fan reactions and interactions. At a North American sporting event, you might hear variations on the bias or blindness of the officials. Other than that, the imagination of the sports fan is generally limited to “You suck, asshole!”
But in soccer, regardless of country, songs are made up. Yes, songs – some current hits, some classics. These get turned into braggadocio for your squad, or for individual players thereof, and swipes at the opposition. Some are good-natured, known in England as “taking the piss.” Some are not. References to a player’s peccadillos, such as arrests, substance abuse, business troubles, and sexual practices (real or imagined), and the same for his family, get turned into musical numbers. Sometimes vile. Sometimes hilarious. Sometimes both.
My favorite example concerns Andy Goram, a goalkeeper from Scotland, who played for the Glasgow-based team Rangers. Goram was diagnosed with schizophrenia. This is often incorrectly confused with multiple-personality disorder. And so, Rangers’ Glasgow arch-rivals, Celtic, did a variation on the song of praise, to the folk song “Guantanamera.” Instead of “One (Name of Player), there’s only one (Name of Player)!” they sang, “Two Andy Gorams! There’s only two Andy Gorams!”
You can’t make this shit up? They did. And fans keep this up for the full 90 minutes. Think of Duke basketball fans. Now imagine that they’re not Ivyesque pussies who would tremble in fear if you actually tried to shove their words back down their throats. Welcome to the world of the Ultras.