American Football is a sport much maligned. Dismissed by many as being too stop-start compared to popular European sports, particularly its grandfather Rugby Union and great-uncle Soccer. It is a diagnosis difficult to deny, but it should not necessarily be considered a flaw.
American Football is a sport deeply rooted in US culture. College football is as popular as club soccer here, the NFL as popular as the internationals, and both receive more televisual coverage than a rational being might consider necessary. But the root of its appeal lies precisely in the area some consider its greatest flaw: the manner in which the game is divided into numerous episodes, or ‘drives’, in which one team’s offence plays the other’s defence, before scoring or turning over possession. While it is a format that lends itself well to advertising and inane statistics, it also generates the kind of fairy-tales that one rarely finds in soccer outside the FA Cup.
The history of American football is littered with these situations that would be laughed out of Hollywood. Look to the season that followed September 11th: a team called the Patriots win the Super Bowl with literally the last kick of the game, Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal securing the Patriots’ first ever NFL Championship. Look further back: the pass from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark in the last minute of the ’82 AFC Championship that sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl is now known simply as “The Catch”, a moment as famous as Marco Tardelli’s celebration in the World Cup final of the same year, or even Geoff Hurst’s third goal in ’66. Or check out the divine comedy of the “immaculate reception”. With 22 seconds remaining, on fourth-and-ten (the last play before the ball is turned over), with no time outs left, a ridiculous turn of events saw the ball bounce off a crowd of defenders and into the hands of an attacker otherwise uninvolved in the play, who ran the ball in for a touchdown and the win as time expired. It was the Steelers’ first ever playoff win in a decade they would come to dominate.
While plays like these happen rarely, they are magical when they do, and the players involved achieve a kind of notoriety, even immortality in these moments. The game itself, like many other professional sports, is more polished today, and arguably bloated by television and its associated evils. But American Football stands almost alone in team sports in its potential for feats of individual brilliance that change a game, where margins of error are all-but non-existent. In terms of this year’s Super Bowl, all the bookies have the Patriots down to win at a canter, but as the dogfight between Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama has shown, sometimes the greatest curse is the certainty of victory. Whatever the result in Arizona on Sunday, it will be a night to remember.
Coverage of the Super Bowl starts on BBC2 and the BBC Sport website at 2245 on Sunday night, and runs until 0300.