The Last Word: We must relish Super Bowl hyperbole
Unlike the soiled and spoiled FA Cup final, American Football's absurdly overblown showpiece still reflects the spirit of a nation
The Americans, God bless 'em, are prone to labelling the Super Bowl "the greatest sporting event in the world". For once they should be forgiven their absurd insularity and applauded for their absurd insularity. If only Britain had anything quite like it.
Australia does. The Melbourne Cup horse race arrests the nation, just like tonight's showdown between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots will empty the streets, leave the traffic lights changing in futility, rob the subway muggers of their precious cargo. To paraphrase Woody Allen: "Not only is there no God, but try finding a plumber on Super Bowl Sunday."
It's so more than a game; it's an occasion. It's like a royal wedding with a result at the end of it. The Super Bowl is an extraordinary excuse for American society to unite. Not in war, depression or plague but in something as irrelevant as a gridiron match. And it's annual. The monarchy can't boast that about their celebrations.
Of course there are the sporting diehards to whom all the fireworks, street parties, half-time shows and superstar renditions of "The Star Spangled Banner" (Madonna and Kelly Clarkson are this year's headliners, the latter having bagged the anthem) are mere froth.
My favourite quote from the last week came from Victor Thompson, a rabid Pats fan who had his head tattooed to resemble a helmet. When asked in a telephone interview how he reacted to the 2008 Super Bowl loss to the Giants, this sinister-looking gentleman replied: "There was a lot of aggravation. A lot of people gave me grief about it. I don't drink no more, though. Now, I'm in a lot better place. Well, apart from this prison."
But for every Victor there are 10 million Americans tuning in because they have always tuned in, just like their parents tuned in and if they were young enough, their grandparents too. This is only Super Bowl XLVI (46 in new money) but there are enshrined traditions. In fact, come Super Bowl C (which might need some work) the experience will be almost spiritual. That is, unless America sells off its sporting soul in the manner of Great Britain.
The US won't, but that's only because it will have nobody to sell it too. I suppose if American Football does take off across the planet then its World Cup would have a chance of becoming bigger than the Super Bowl, particularly if the US won every year. Yet that's not going to happen, regardless of the zeal in the NFL's marketing, and they should be mighty glad of it. Americans only need peek across the Atlantic to see the downside of sporting internationalism.
Only one annual sporting event is viewed by more people than the Super Bowl – the Champions' League final. You know, that 90 minutes when the whole of Europe halts baking croissants, frying paella, boiling pasta and peeling spuds to hail the unanimity of the continent. Yeah, right. The only thing it highlights within the European Union is that the entire thing is based upon money. Without it, it would fail. And the truly depressing fact is that we the supporters have become immersed in its financial glory, abandoning all semblance of romance in the process.
Remember when FA Cup final day meant something, when those without much of an affinity to football would watch and cheer on the underdog in a traditional routine? Last year the Premier League, with all its new-fangled clout, effectively obliterated the remnants of the Cup's mysticism when convincing (or more like telling) the FA to allow them to stage matches on the same afternoon. Last week, they decided against repeating such sacrilege this season. Yet it's case of bolting the pearly gates after the unicorn has bolted. The magic of the Cup has gone, its dream survives only in the minds of unfashionable fans.
It seems the majority of supporters nowadays would prefer to see their side lift the unwritten cheque supposedly awarded to the fourth best in the Premier League, rather than lift the FA Cup. They will list the ongoing economic health of their club as a reason, the continued or prospective privilege of being placed in the elite.
And all this while, as the adults are behaving like those bottom-line bankers, children must wonder what on earth is going on. They are the lucky ones, as their innocence permits them to rise above the cold and calculating to bask in the splendour of glorious moments at Wembley which should live with them their complete existence.
Well, pity those youngsters. In the old days they would have known their wonder was being shared up and down the land, with every TV flickering the sounds of "Abide With Me". No longer. When puberty comes and goes they too will burst the tearducts only at the sight Monsieur Platini's patronage.
Yet it's not just football, it's all sports. The Derby, in the interests of corporate hospitality, was moved from a Wednesday to a Saturday and ruined overnight, while the beautiful quirkiness of the Boat Race has been predictably sunk in a tidal wave of modern cynicism. Is the Grand National what it was? It can barely pause the commentary live from the Emirates Stadium, never mind the nation.
Yes, there's the rugby internationals in Wales, the occasional derby day with its history to grasp the attention of communities. But this isn't Britain – like America, like Australia – being yanked in its collective tracks to feast on the joyous customs of sporting tradition. Little wonder we take these professional pastimes so seriously nowadays. The fun is a memory, the party is over, only the rewards remain. Enjoy.
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