Sunday, September 18, 2005

Football, Rugby, and whatever the game we play is

My father grew up in Hungary and was, like all of his friends, a huge football fan. Keep in mind that when he said “football”, he meant what we call “soccer”. When he came to the U.S. in 1949 with wife and very cute little boy (bless his soul, I thanked him many times for making that trip), he found no soccer, but he found something called “football.” One of the first things he ever saw on television was the 1950 championship where the Cleveland Browns beat the Rams (formerly of Cleveland) on a field goal by Lou Groza in the last seconds of the game.

No, I don't remember watching the game (although I guess I was in the room), but Dad told me about it so many times, I feel like I was at the stadium.

I could never get into soccer for a number of reasons. First, the U.S. has never learned how to broadcast a game. The only intelligent way to televise a soccer match is with a wide view to take in as much of the field as possible, since much of the action on the field is away from the ball. For example, people whose only exposure to baseball is from TV have never seen how fielders go in motion or subtly shift their position with each pitch. With men on base, the field is a veritable merry-go-round of fielders moving and base runners taking off, but you can't see that on the average broadcast. American sports broadcasting, especially by the seventies, has been into closeups of the players, which is ok, but it misses all that movement, concentrating instead on the shot from the center filed camera showing the catcher's fingers wiggling in his crotch.

Let's move on...quickly.

Ahem. Another reason soccer hasn't become ragingly popular is the style of play. Frankly, the U.S. players tend to play a style developed by the English in the 1930's which is designed to make for tight defense and low scoring. Now low scoring games can be exciting if there are lots of scoring attempts. Unfortunately, the English style does not generate many shots, which makes for a dull game.

Try as I might, I just can't get excited about soccer games, although the women's soccer teams proved a few years ago that an exciting game still exists somewhere. Trouble is, the women's league didn't last while the boring men's league continues.

Finally, there are the histrionics when a foul occurs. When a soccer player is fouled, he drops to the ground clutching his leg or ankle, writhing about as though he's bleeding to death, all the while listening for the referee's whistle. In any sport, there are players who react emotionally to getting hurt, but it's because they're actually injured. Soccer players go down as though they were hit by the blast from Mt. St. Helen's. Seeing that three or four times a game is enough to make a man watch figure skating, just to see some tough athletes.

So, I'm a fan of our football, and I like it. The college game is much more fun than the pro game, but any football is better than none. But the game I really enjoy and wish I'd played in college when I had the chance is rugby. Rugby has all the contact and violence of American football, played by guys in gym shorts and t-shirts, with no pads or helmets. Well, there are a few players who wear something like the leather helmets of Jim Thorpe's day, but some guys like to protect their ears. Many a rugger has a cauliflower ear that any old time fighter would be proud of.

The game moves along. Like soccer, there are no time outs, and, unlike soccer, there's usually a lot of scoring. Oh, and unlike soccer, a player has to assaulted and battered before he'll lay on the turf rolling around in pain. In fact, injured ruggers don't roll around much because they're usually unconscious.

Truth in Rugby Alert: Be aware that there are two forms of rugby, one of which is the action-packed game I enjoy, and one which is duller than dirt. You can recognize the dull one because, unlike the exciting form, the dull game has downs like American football and lots of stoppages. You'll know it if you see it.

Rugby is a great game, and I can't imagine why it's not popular here. It's got violence, athleticism, drama, and players an average guy can relate to. No 300 pounders running down 180 pound quarterbacks in this game. You've got players of ordinary dimensions running and crashing into each other for 90 minutes. Well, they do take a half-time break, but that's only to stop the bleeding.

Of course, if you want real action, try to find a broadcast of Australian Rules Football. If American football is a game, rugby is organized mayhem, but Australian football is a bona fide train wreck. You have to see it to believe it. Years ago ESPN used to show the Australian game, but the good ol' days of ESPN actually covering varied sports are long gone (and still going; now they have ESPN Hollywood, a gossip rag on TV).

I'll tell you this: If reincarnation exists, the next time around, I'm gonna play rugby. That is, I'll play rugby if I can't get to Australia. If I do then I'll play rugby and Australian Rules football.

With no helmet. Ears are overrated anyway.

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