football in america

like most of you, i have been glued to the world cup.

following it here, in the US, has been a particularly fascinating experience. Speaking to Americans and listening to American commentators has given me some insights into their thoughts on football, and maybe, life.

americans have an obsessions with stats. at many inopportune moments during a game, ESPN will indulge in a computer graphic that shows some inane statistic – like number of times a team that has gone a goal down before half time has eventually won, number of headers on target in the last 15 minutes or number of blond players to have won a world cup.

the statistic is obviously then used to suggest something about the probability of certain outcomes during the game. sometimes, there is sense behind this. after all, there must be concrete reasons – lethargy on one side, a desperate dash to the death for the other – why so many goals have been scored in the last 15 minutes of play. concrete reasons that are, quite likely, to play out again.

but when pure statistics are used to buttress grandiose statements, things get ridiculous. “The Swiss have the best defence” or “The Spanish are the most impressive team”, two things I heard after the first round.

This obsession with statistics also leads them to carve up the game into 15 minute blocks, or worse still, individual plays. “Sweden lost the game in 12 minutes and 2 plays” after their match with Germany, the commentator then suggesting that they had only been beaten, that they were only inferior, over the course of those 12 minutes. Which, of course, ignores any difference in the way Germany would have played had they not scored those 2 goals early on.

In truth, Germany was by far the better team over 90 minutes. Sweden never had a sniff.

thus, what is to many of us a beautiful 90 minute drama of shifting tides, fiery motivations, unbridled joy and intolerable anguish is summarily reduced to a couple of key events or highlights. sure, every sports highlight show does this, but my point here is that this is the way Americans approach their sport.

I was shocked, disappointed, and then mostly amused, when I was supposed to watch a great game with an American friend, and he casually told me, “Yah, don’t worry, we can go grab some burgers and easily get back with 30 minutes of the game left.”


Besides being a poignant commentary on the American preference for eating over exercise, the point is that the end result and the key incidents are all that matter here. But then again, maybe that is all that’s important. Why do we the rest of the world get so caught up with everything in between?

I also found out why football will never make it big in America. Not enough stoppages for ad time. So not enough money. So not enough interest. The mullah matters too much here, not the beauty of the game.

Finally, a little something on their penchant for irritatingly obvious puns. ESPN came up with numerous catch phrases, like “Swede Sixteen” when Sweden went through to the 2nd round, and “Going, going, Ghana”, when Brazil had almost beaten the Africans. I found it tiresome after a while, but the smart cookies at ESPN will be happy to know that a pandemonium of parrots in bars across America were titilated by these linguistic tricks. Play it again, sam.

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