American Football: Montana's side-show eclipses giants: Paul Hayward reports from Wembley on the enduring appeal of an American footballer

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The Independent Online
THE warmest reception in the seventh American Bowl here last night was reserved not for any of the Leviathans in tights scooping lumps out of the Wembley turf but a man in white trainers, denim jeans and a garish woolly jumper. Joe Montana: not playing, but still the game's most beguiling image in its continuing export drive.

That Montana could receive so much attention when his San Francisco 49ers were in crushing combat with the Super Bowl champions, the Washington Redskins, is testimony to the 36-year-old quarterback's reputation in the increasingly populous world of American football.

Injured - and diminutive in civilian clothes - he may be, but the 49ers know that their chances of improving on a (by their standards) disappointing 1991 hang largely on the fragile frame of what the programme here called 'the best human being ever to play the (quarterback) position'. If any other species has followed the gridiron circuit, the authorities would surely like to know.

Montana may have appeared forlorn as his team slipped to a

12-0 deficit in the first half but at least he still has a job. Aside from winning, or buying, hearts and minds on the international sporting circuit, the purpose of these pre-season encounters is to assist teams in the process of making people redundant. Their own.

To step into a grass arena wearing the livery of one of the game's two foremost clubs might convince a player he is made for life. In fact, half of the personnel at Wembley last night will soon be hampering George Bush's chances of re-election yet further by joining the unemployment lines. If you could manage a compassionate thought amid the din of the NBC-accommodating time-filling, it was that many of these athletes could shortly be flipping hamburgers for a living rather than mincing opponents.

From the 93 names currently on the 49ers roster only 47 will survive to start the regular season on 6 September. Similarly, nearly 40 Redskins will have set professional foot on a football field for the last time yesterday evening.

From this most un-American of activities - a game in which the result was irrelevant - there will be some bruisingly hard landings. Only fitting, you might think, for a sport in which a failed field goal attempt is not declared 'missed' but 'no good'.

Also fearing falls and breakdowns were the head coaches, Joe Gibbs (Washington) and George Seifert (San Francisco), who watched their leading players with all the anxiety of a parent seeing their toddler take a spin round Silverstone. Gibbs has found it particularly hard to play the 'it's- great-to-be-here' diplomacy game, and you understood why when his quarterback, Mark Rypien, was clobbered by the 49ers' Tim Harris midway through the first quarter (San Francisco's John Taylor also took a worryingly heavy blow).

Though this appetite-tickler was a shade below the sell-out point on 67,722 (scapegoat: the recession, again) there has never been a more enticing American Bowl, and it provided a fittingly tight finish with San Francisco's Mike Cofer kicking a 48-yard field goal three seconds from time to give his side a 17-15 victory. These teams have won seven of the last 11 Super Bowls and possess the kind of mystique that marketing men would sell their sisters to control.

In this public and painful trial few bones or reputations were spared, because in the job-security league American football makes football management look like a post in the old Soviet communist party. If last night's evidence is reliable the 49ers are oiling wheels while Washington, despite Gibbs' disappointment with their second- half performance, should still be formidable defending champions.

Montana, of course, pacing up and down the line as guru and talisman, will have other ideas.

(Photograph omitted)