“Brits and the Yanks: Them’s Fightin’ Words”
Firstly, let me preface this with a few things. This is my first column for Gunners Town, which means you are welcome to mock, ridicule and/or make japes at me with my full licence, permission and encouragement.
Secondly, I’m an American, which means “football” to me in daily usage tends to involve large, sweaty men trying to kill or seriously maim each other; “football” in the real sense involves the former, just with a round ball, on the pitch and involving more elegant play (but fewer cheerleaders, I will note).
Finally, any time I refer to “football,” I am doing so in the sense of the beautiful game that actually involves feet; “American football,” I will specifically note.
A Twitter mate of mine raised an important question a few days ago that I found particularly interesting, and which illustrates differences between football culture in the UK and the USA, respectively, which I thought worthy of further exploration. In essence, the question boiled down to: which competition is more important to win? The English Premier League or the UEFA Champions’ League. I.e., do we rest heavily used players like Olivier Giroud, Per Mertesacker and recently injured Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta (who now will be resting anyway v. Chelsea, bad or call or not) and Santi Cazorla in League Cup and Champions’ League ties, or do we try to preserve them for the EPL?
The view about which I’ve read the most has been the one that recommends saving our top players for the Premier League — which after the 2-0 victory at Crystal Palace is secure for now. This is foreign to the American mindset. On this side of the pond, we tend only to rest our top players if they’re actually physically unable to perform. When it comes to American football, the league actually has an official “Physically Unable to Perform” list. Former Green Bay Packers, New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings quarterback (and all-time NFL legend) Brett Favre recently told reporters that he feared returning at age 44 due to his ongoing concern about brain injuries, also a relevant and potentially costly matter of a lawsuit against the NFL.
The point not being head injuries, though they do occur with disturbing frequency in the increasingly more violent Premier League, but rather the overuse of best players for the sake of increased revenue. For Arsenal, there’s more profit in winning the Champions’ League, regardless of what most fans may feel about the Premier League. The League Cup and the FA Cup — well, who really cares anymore? Maybe the folks in Newcastle, I don’t know.
Anyway, here in America we abuse our athletes — this is visible most prominently in the NFL, but also in the NBA, NHL and MLB (our top four leagues). MLS (and I’ll get to this) really doesn’t matter in the broader scheme of sport in America. Visit the Emirates or Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge — take your pick — and you’ll be surrounded by 45,000 to 60,000 screaming and chanting fans who know every misstep by their club of choice made in the past. You’ll get as well in the United States, just at Lambeau Field or Gillette Stadium where the Green Bay Packers or New England Patriots play (American football in this instance). If you have the temerity to venture down south, you can see over 100K at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee or the insane crowds at the University of Alabama or Florida on a Saturday gameday.
For me, Saturday is Match Day; forget college American football, but within that bubble a North London Derby is something that involves horses. Manchester United is vaguely recognized as some team that competes with Bayern München (Here, Bavaria Munich, of course); Barça sounds like something you buy at Whole Foods, PSG is vaguely a disease you’d rather not get and Dortmund just sounds like that weird sausage your dad eats. Manchester City sounds like a place you have no desire to visit and Liverpool that nothing on Earth you’d care to eat.
The MLS — as many strides as it’s making — is still several years from achieving full relevance in the USA. Fans in most places are passionate and active supporters of their clubs; I’ve had the fortune of attending a Chicago Fire match with great Gooners @kittenheeled and @avefrater, and as loudly as Section 8 cheers, the stadium wasn’t full. Even the U.S. National Team — which has so far been fairly impressive, winning the CONCACAF Hexagonal and seeming a legitimate threat to make at least the Round of Eight in Brazil — has attracted little attention. Football at the youth level still draws intense interest (I was a decent defensive mid up until high school), but lacks the academy development one sees in Europe, and abides by different rules.
Moreover, very troubling is the payment system of football in the USA; while top players like Gareth Bale can command triple-digit millions in Europe and go on to a double-million guaranteed contract, players in MLS are top class if they can rank a million-dollar contract. Financially, it encourages American talent to go abroad, as Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, for instance, have done successfully. It also encourages individuals well past their prime like David Beckham and Thierry Henry to migrate to MLS in hopes of larger paychecks. Henry has paid off for the New York/New Jersey Red Bulls, but Beckham’s move was and still largely seems like a publicity stunt attached to a large dollar figure.
All of which is to say that football culture has taken a different tone in the United States. We tend to value wins above the well-being of the players involved. We’d use Bergkamp on two days’ rest if it would help us beat Milan in the Champions’ League. We want to win at all costs. Some would say that’s admirable, but I’d rather have a Bergkamp for eight seasons than risk blowing out his knee in one tie, considering how football relies far less on individual play than on one person.
Benji N. Taylor
About Benji N.Taylor: