Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Real Football

Note to the reader: I wrote this essay in the spring of 2003 so the SuperBowl winner was New England and the previous World Cup winner was Brazil. If it makes you feel better you may substitute Pittsburgh for New England, and Italy for Brazil.

Well, that’s all for this season folks. That’s right, the New England Patriots are the world champions. After sixty minutes of play that took over three hours, the Patriots of New England defeated the Panthers of Carolina to win Super Bowl XXXVIII in one of the most watched sporting events in the world. Fifty something men beat another fifty something men in a domed stadium in temperate Houston Texas and were crowned world champions. Congratulations to the victors, but where was the rest of the world. Well, they were playing football too, only it hardly resembled the football Americans cherish. The rest of the world was playing a type of football that most Americans don’t enjoy and don’t pay much attention to. Strange? Of course it is. Two sports bear the same name, yet are fundamentally different. So why don’t Americans like football, or soccer by its American brand? I’m not sure. Everyone else seems to like it. Perhaps Americans have a better version of the sport. Or, perhaps not. The father of Patriots owner, Frank Cash, owns the Major League Soccer team the “Revolution”. In an article published by the Houston Chronicle he said, “In terms of my family, there is no difference between football and soccer.” Europeans have a different opinion as evidence from an article in “Sporting Life” “America’s football is a sissy version of rugby.” The only way to find out which is better is to break them down, and examine every aspect of the two sports.

First, why are these sports even comparable? Not only are they both called football, but they have several other things in common. They are played on the same size field. About one hundred yards from end to end. Both have goal posts at each end of the field, though they differ in size and shape. Each sport has a huge following of fans. In both sports eleven men from a side play at a time. In both you can tackle another player, and can also commit a foul. In both sports players wear brightly colored uniforms and their teams often have nicknames or mascots. It is not the similarities between the sports that are interesting however it is the differences.

The first difference is how each game is played and by whom. Football is played by a team consisting of no more than fifty-two players. Eleven play on offense at a time and likewise eleven on defense, leaving another thirty for substitutions and special players like kickers. Soccer is played by a team of sixteen players per side. Eleven play on the field at one time and five are substitutes. Both sports play eleven teammates at a time but in football a team may make unlimited substitutions. In soccer, a team may only make three substitutions per match, which means at least eight players play the entire game. It is difficult to say then which sport is superior in this aspect. Does one want to see more players involved in the game or the same players play the entire match? Advantage: Draw.

In terms of match length the two sports differ greatly. In football a regulation game consists of four fifteen minutes quarters with half time that can be 15-45 minutes based on media coverage between the second and third quarters. The time clock does not run constantly. It stops for numerous reasons: change of possession, injuries, team time-outs, a two minute warning at the last two minutes of the second and fourth quarters (NFL only) etc. A full game generally takes three hours to play or more. In soccer, teams play two forty five-minute halves with a twenty-minute half time between them. The clock does not stop for any reason, though “extra time” or “injury time” can be added by the referee at the end of each half to counter time lost by injuries, celebrations, etc. A full match takes two hours to play. So, in football teams play for sixty minutes and a game takes three hours. In soccer a match is ninety minutes of play, yet only takes two hours. Soccer manages thirty more minutes of playing time, in an hour less than football. Advantage: Soccer.

When comparing each sport’s organized leagues they contrast greatly once again. Football’s top league is the National Football League (NFL). It consists of thirty-two teams, all from the U.S., divided evenly into two conferences, the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). Each conference has four divisions, designated by region, with four teams in each. Each team plays sixteen games in a regular season excluding play-offs. Each team must play the teams in their division twice, which means a team plays only half of the teams in the NFL every season (6 division games and 10 non-division games). The team with the most wins determines division winners. There are only a few other football leagues in the world. Many colleges in the U.S. have football teams, but these are not professional teams. Canada has a league with somewhat different rules. Europe has a league of several teams, and Australia has a football league with drastically different rules. Soccer has hundreds of professional leagues in the world, but I will focus on the Premier league in England for comparison, one of the world’s top leagues. The league consists of twenty teams. Each team plays the others twice, once at home and once in the opponent’s city, for a total of thirty-eight matches. There is no geographical or other division between teams. The league winner is determined by the team with the most points at the end of the season; three points awarded for a victory and one point for a tie result. Also at the end of the season the worst three teams are relegated to a lower league (in England it is Division 1), and the top three teams from the lower league move into the Premier League in order to keep the league competitive. When it comes to league set up and schedule, soccer is superior for simple league organization and because every team plays the others for more games total. Advantage: Soccer.

Rules and regulations of each sport are also dissimilar. Football has a quagmire of rules that are so complicated many fans don’t even fully understand them all. In fact it takes years of football viewing to grasp them. For example many do not know when and how to perform an “on-side kick”, or what a “safety” is, or which players are “ineligible receivers.” What does it mean when a team is playing a “nickel” defense? What is a “flea-flicker”? When can a player do a “forward pass”? When can he do a “lateral”? Why does a team have to have a certain number of players on the “line of scrimmage”? How many do they have to have? These questions illustrate some of the confusion that football creates by way of it’s rules. Soccer however is very simple when it comes to rules. If a team kicks the ball out of bounds it is given to the other team. If a player fouls another player by knocking him to the ground without touching the ball first the team that was fouled gets the ball. If any player besides the goal keeper touches the ball with his hand, it is awarded to the other team. The “off-sides” rule seems to be the only one that causes confusion, but any eight-year-old British boy can explain it. So when it comes to simplicity of play again soccer seems superior. Advantage: Soccer.

Scoring is another area where these two sports vary. Football’s methods of scoring are again more complicated. A touchdown is worth six points after which a team has the option of kicking an “extra-point” worth one point, or trying to make a “conversion” worth two points. If at any point a team kicks the ball through the goal posts (besides immeidatly after a touchdown) it is worth three points and called a “field goal”. A team can also score a “safety” by pushing a team’s offense into their own “end-zone”. This play is worth two points. In soccer there is only one way to score; kick the ball into the other team’s net. Such an action is always worth one point. There is no other way to tally points. Some say that football has more scoring in general, but such a point, were it true, would not counter the complexity of scoring. Advantage: Soccer.

Finally let’s examine the competitions that award a team with the title of “World Champions”. For football it is the Super Bowl. A competition held every year. Teams first must qualify for the playoffs. The four division winners and two “wildcards” from each division make the playoffs, a total of twelve teams. The four best teams do not even play in the first round. The tournament is single elimination. Only the winner moves on, until there are two teams left which play in the Super Bowl, at a location determined before the season begins, and lately is always in a warmer region of the country. The winner becomes the champion. In soccer the competition is called the World Cup (even the name suggests world involvement). Qualification for this competition, which is held only every four years and is played in a different country each time, usually begins two years before the event. Each nation must play teams from other nations on their continent or in their region. The regions are Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, North/Central America, and Oceana. The top teams from each region qualify for the competition. Only thirty-two nations actually make the tournament. They are then divided into one of eight groups, each with four teams. A team then plays each team once. The top two teams advance to the next round. The sixteen teams that make it out of the group round then play in a single elimination tournament. Winners move on and losers go home, until there are only two remaining teams. The teams then play each other in a match watched by millions all over the planet. The winner of that match is the world champion for the next four years. You can decide which competition is more significant, and more prestigious, but for me the choice is clear. Advantage: soccer.

So who then is the true world champion? The Patriots of New England? Hardly. They are the Super Bowl champions. They are the champions of American football. That is all. Brazil is the world champion for winning the World Cup in 2002. The Brazilian team went through much more than the Patriots did to get such a title. In my opinion they deserve it more. As for which sport is superior, I guess that it all comes down to personal preference. Stephen Eule of the Wall Street Journal said, “When played well and at a high level, there is nothing to compare the beauty, excitement, and passion of soccer.” Frank Deford, a sports commentator, had this to say about football, “the game suffers from a bland image.” There seems to be a new trend away from football and perhaps towards soccer. Bob Edwards on the television program “Morning Edition” reported this information, “For the first time in recorded history, too, the number of American boys actually playing football is declining,”. Could this mean that there is a new movement away from football and toward soccer? It is certainly a possibility as the US becomes more global or, perhaps young boys are simply playing football on their Playstations instead of on the field. A fellow can still dream can’t he?

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