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For many years now, football has been hailed as the “sport of the future” here in the United States. It has encroached upon, without seriously threatening, the more popular homegrown sports of American football, basketball and baseball.
But with every notable performance on the world stage, this country of sporting fanatics comes one step closer to understanding what the rest of the world has known for so long: it is, indeed, a beautiful game.
The advancement of the US men’s team into the last 16 in this year’s World Cup marks only the seventh time in its history they have achieved the feat (the women’s team, on the other hand, is the most successful women’s national team in the history of the Women’s World Cup).
That success is already causing a stir, and winning over new admirers. Even President Joe Biden, not known for being a football fan, grabbed the mic at the conclusion of an event in Michigan when he heard the US had moved on to the next round and led chants of “U-S-A!”.
“They did it! God love ‘em!” he added.
The acceptance of football by the wider American public would be transformative for the sport. The legions of new fans joining this global movement would give it new life — like an energetic puppy bounding into a room full of sleeping basset hounds, or a late-arriving and slightly inebriated guest at a formal dinner party that has grown quiet.
Learning anything new can be a daunting task. So, in the interest of welcoming these new fans into unfamiliar terrain, The Independent has created a grammar guide and some general principles to act as a kind of welcome pamphlet.
It’s called football
Let’s start with the name. The most glaring and frequent faux-pas made by American fans of the beautiful game is the stubborn refusal to join the rest of the world in calling it football. This is partly the fault of the British, who used the name “soccer” to distinguish between rugby football and association football back when the game was invented 200 years ago.
That said, the history of how we arrived here is not important — the point is that the international community has achieved a near consensus on the term “football” to describe the kicking of a ball with a foot. American exceptionalism in this regard is not so much of a problem now, but when the US team eventually comes to dominate the sport it will likely be the cause of much anger in the footballing world.
‘Offside’, not ‘offsides’
In the last week or so, a number of American newspapers have provided their readers with a public service by explaining the offside rule. The New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today all published in-depth explainers on the often misunderstood rule. But on Tuesday, when American forward Timothy Weah scored a goal against Iran that was quickly disallowed due to him being offside, the word “Offsides” began trending on Twitter. In American football, “offsides” — with an ‘s’ — is common. In football, we just say “offside”.
Ted Lasso lied to you
The hit HBO show Ted Lasso was a portrayal of the power of positivity told through the eyes of an endearing and optimistic American football coach-turned-football manager. The truth is that football, at least in the land where it was created, is powered by unrelenting negativity. Forget every Hollywood movie about sports you ever saw — it’s important for football fans to bring an expectation of crushing disappointment to every game. This will no doubt be a unique experience for those American fans who have grown up on a diet of Olympic domination and sports only Americans play. The only thing Ted Lasso did get right is the portrayal of my colleague Trent Crimm. It’s uncanncy.
Shout instructions, not encouragement
During this World Cup, American football fans have been observed by this reporter shouting words of encouragement to their national team during games. Phrases like “let’s go!” and “that’s right!” are common refrains. The correct way to show support for your team is to shout detailed instructions at the television. When a player fails to take advantage of a shot on goal, a true fan will detail the precise way in which they would have succeeded where the millionaire professional failed.
Never go to a commercial break
Watching American sports can sometimes feel like being trapped inside of a 20ft-high neon advertising billboard with moving mechanical parts. In an average NFL game, viewers are subjected to around 63 minutes of commercials, according to the Wall Street Journal. That adds up to around 3,000 commercials in one year of viewing. Football is a game of two halves, with space for just one break of around 10 minutes in the middle. This has traditionally been very hard for the titans of American capitalism to accept. When the US hosted the 1994 World Cup, TV broadcasters tried to change the very make-up of the game and divide it into four quarters to accommodate more commercials. In fact, the 1994 World Cup was the first time that tv commercials were not run in the middle of the game. If the US is to become a footballing superpower, it should promise not to bend the beautiful game to capitalism’s will.
Poetry, not maths
Most American sports judge their players by an enormous amount of stats and numbers that trail them wherever they go. A baseball player is only as good as the number of home runs he has hit. An American football player the number of yards gained etc. Football is different — it is poetry, and numbers have no place here.