Once, when I was talking to Arnold Roth, the venerable American Jewish cartoonist, we got on to the subject of American sports and games, and I confessed that although I didn't understand the finer points of baseball or American football, I much preferred to watch baseball and found American football bafflingly busy.
"Oh, I agree," he said. "Give me baseball any day. American football is far too Prussian."
"Prussian" was not a word I had ever heard applied to a game before and, thinking it over, I realised that it is a description that probably only someone of Middle-European Jewish descent would use. Of all the Germans, the Prussians were supposed to be the most militaristic, organised and regulation-conscious. Even other Germans found the Prussians a bit too, well, too Germanic, perhaps. And if you look at American football as a kind of military manoeuvre in which nobody actually gets killed, the game starts to make a sort of Teutonic, Junkerish sense.
In fact, having thought back to Roth's words over the years, I think there may be a bigger message about sport lying hidden beneath his casual but concise condemnation.
There are really only two kinds of game in the world: the military kind and the civilian kind.
Military games are games in which the rules are the most important thing, hard-and-fast rules leading to complicated routines and set pieces. Games where you endlessly practise group moves beforehand, such as scrummaging, much as an army squad practises assaults on gun positions.
Rugby is a highly advanced military game, both of the Union and League variety. So is American football. So, I suspect, are some of the regional varieties, such as Australian Rules Football, though from what little I have seen of it, it obeys many fewer rules than its name suggest and flows a lot faster than anything with the name "rugby" attached.
I think too that croquet may also be military in nature, but perhaps I have been deceived by the vicious and unpleasant spirit in which this sadistic game is played.
Civilian games are quite different. Civilian games have very few rules of any importance, and such rules as they do have have been created only to make the game free from fisticuffs.
Golf is a prime example. There is only one main rule in golf. Hit the ball until it gets into the hole. Tennis, likewise. There is only one rule in tennis – hit the ball over the net. If it comes back, hit it back again. All the other regulations in golf and tennis are merely there to avoid arguments, whereas in rugby most regulations help only to increase arguments ("That was never a knock on!" "He had no chance to release the ball!" "That was never a crooked throw!" and so on).
Some games are a mixture of both elements, of course. Football is not really a military type game, but rules designed to prevent physical injury have led to the proliferation of free kicks, which has led to the proliferation of set-piece moves, and the tactical demands of passing have led to increased military-type planning. Yet deep down football is just about kicking a ball around, whereas you cannot define rugby or American football in any such simple way.
In fact, you can usually tell the difference between the two types of game by seeing what happens when two or three enthusiasts are given the basic equipment and left to themselves. Civilian games revert to nature. Military games die.
Footballers will have fun kicking a ball around in a car park. Cricketers on a beach (even just dad, son, mum and dog) will improvise a happy game. Tennis players will knock up contentedly without scoring, and an American once tried to teach me an amiable game called running bases, which was the casual form of baseball. But what can you meaningfully do with two friends and a rugby ball? Two or three rugby players fooling around with a rugby ball is a deeply sad sight, sadder even than the couple of Americans I saw once in Central Park floating high passes to each other with an oval ball.
Yes, what I am saying is that game-playing in its purest form is not to be found on a football field. It is to be found wherever two or three get together on a lawn and play French cricket.
Coming soon: Why French cricket may be the finest game ever invented...Reuse content