You can learn a lot about a nation, good and bad, from its sporting obsessions. The quiet heroism and fussy cucumber sandwiches of cricket tell one story about Britain; the self-deprecating chants of a good football crowd, and the tendency to thuggishness of a bad one, tell another. I bet there are some lessons about the Afghan psyche to be gleaned from a game of buzkashi, or goat grabbing.
I don't suppose there's a better summary of the American way than the Super Bowl. When I went to my first American football match a few years ago, I was knocked out by the razzmatazz, the organised violence and the courage it required, the sheer scale of it, and the lengthy television-friendly pauses. The Super Bowl imbues that already garish package with a self-congratulatory extravagance that is a little ridiculous but also awesome. Yes, America congratulates itself a lot. (It isn't a coincidence that this is the same country that unironically refers to the best baseball team in the country as the world champions.) But watching the Super Bowl on Sunday night, it was hard to object. It's something to do with the fact that, whereas most other countries grew out of a patchwork geographical and ethnic tradition, America had to invent itself.
Likewise, whereas the minor traditions around the edges of a football match in Britain – ball boys, meat pies, team scarves – all seem like unremarkable outgrowings of the main event, the American equivalents are gloriously synthetic. The fantastically silly team names, the cheerleaders, even the specially produced commercials: these are the products of a young, optimistic country, and even when they're daft, they're sort of wonderful, too.
It's not all good, of course. I'm pretty sure the awful "World Peace" message emblazoned on the turf at the end of Madonna's half-time show wouldn't have passed the don't-be-a-self-important-ponce test at Wembley. The hysterical reaction to MIA's middle finger (and its echoes of the crisis that followed Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction) was similarly bloody ridiculous, especially when you think of the fan's hand gestures routinely that are broadcast on Sky's Super Sunday when a member of the away team misses a sitter.
In the end, though, these excesses of piety are relatively small beer. When the game was over, and quarterback Eli Manning had led his New York Giants to a glorious victory over the New England Patriots, I felt a bit like you might after three cheeseburgers and a large slice of apple pie: sated, a little sick, and absolutely satisfied. Soccer, and Britain, will always be my first love. But the glitz of gridiron always leaves me grateful for American exceptionalism.Reuse content