The dismal weather notwithstanding, the family and I headed out to the Waldstadion this weekend to take in a football match. Now how on earth, you’ll have asked yourself straight away, could we have seen a football match at this time of year? The answer is simply: it wasn’t football, it was ‘football’.
That’s right, American football; rugby with forward passing and armour plating. And the match wasn’t just any match; it was the World Bowl, the annual championship of the NFL Europe. Mind you, given that the NFL Europe consists of only six clubs, it is perhaps not quite the same achievement to play in the World Bowl as in the Super Bowl.
Now I am not really a fan of American football. It can be aesthetically appealing, but it seems to me less a game than an unconnected series of discrete plays. These are often interestingly — and sometimes beautifully — executed; but it all lacks the organic flow of ‘real’ football. So we went to see the match more in a spirit of ‘well, why not?’ than anything else. But many Germans clearly disagree with me about the merits of American football. It is a ‘cult’ sport here, true; but the cult is a large one. The Waldstadion was as full as it is when the Eintracht play (I suppose the difference is that, with American football, the fans are all in the stadia, without that vastly larger group watching the match on television). It is interesting that the NFL Europe, which appears to be something of a farm league for the American NFL, has, over time, become a nearly all-German phenomenon. While there were once clubs in England, Scotland and Spain, these days all but one are in Germany (there is also one club in Amsterdam).
It occurs to me that, though American football might have defects as a game, it is surely unbeatable as spectacle. When the Eintracht’s players take the field, they run on as a group, to the cheers of the crowd. That wasn’t nearly good enough for the players of the Frankfurt Galaxy and Hamburg Sea Devils. They came out one by one, running through a giant inflatable football helmet, as flares and fireworks shot off. I daresay there was mad cheering from the crowd, but you couldn’t have heard it over the din. The game ball was delivered by a man with a jetpack. (This had been much ballyhooed in the press in the run-up to the match, but was sadly anticlimactic. I’d expected the pilot to zig and zag heroically through the stratosphere like the Rocketeer. As it happened he was more like Barney Gumble, lifting off feebly and slowly and not getting very far at all before the ride ended.) Before the match started, Meat Loaf favoured the crowd with a choice selection of his ballads. (The real NFL gets Bono; the NFL Europe has to settle for a fat Texan who would do almost anything for love.) And of course, there were cheerleaders doing their thing on the sidelines the whole time — six different sets of them!
Just before kickoff, an American military band played the US and German national anthems. (In Germany anthems are played at internationals, but not at club matches.) The US anthem was played, I’d imagine, because virtually all the players are Americans. Though distaste for the Bush government is even stronger in Germany than in America, the crowd gave the US anthem a rousing cheer, showing a heartening ability to distinguish between regime and people. During the half-time pause, the army band fell out of its tight formation, broke out the electric instruments and ‘rocked on out’ with a number of crowd-pleasing pop ‘jams’. One of these, interestingly, was the Village People’s ‘YMCA’; a subtle hint, perhaps, that the top brass are reconsidering ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’?
As for the play on the field, well, it was more or less what I’d expected. The occasional dramatic run or soaring pass; lots of large armoured men piling onto each other; and three and half hours needed to run out a one-hour clock. The heavily-favoured Frankfurt Galaxy were, alas, crap at moving the ball forward, and lost. Ah well. Wouldn’t mind seeing one these matches once every year or two, but otherwise, give me the original code every time.