16. “I just gave it a try and it went out in a special way.”

Because the big game never gets spoiled by negativity.

Earlier this month all the worms in my garden died on the same day. The cause of death wasn’t pesticides or eagle-eyed early birds. It was drowning.

I was at home, working at the kitchen table. Outside yet another of the winter’s endless downpours was bouncing off the patio. Looking up, I saw a writhing tangle of pink spaghetti emerging from the grass, which was finally uninhabitably saturated. The worms struggled desperately onto the slabs, searching in vain for high ground, only to expire in the shallow puddles outside my French windows.

It was a terrible thing, wormageddon. And yet it was still a less abject sight then Denver in the Super Bowl.

“The rain came down hard that night and washed the paint clean off the cars. We slept in the basement for shelter, emerging to see the denuded metalwork a reticent, sickly grey in the morning light, like a scalp freshly shaved for a do-or-die procedure. No birds sang.”

The Denver offence goes three-and-out again. © Will Merydith

Rising from my chair, and without even thinking to becoat myself, I stepped outside, scooping up the inanimate invertebrates and flinging them over the wall into next door’s garden, lest they disturb my children on their return from nursery. (Don’t worry, I threw them in three batches in three different places to avoid arousing the suspicion of my neighbours.)

The whole thing took about 30 seconds. Just slightly longer than it took for Seattle to begin disposing of Peyton Manning’s wretched offensive.

This year’s Super Bowl was the worst I’ve seen in years. Horrendously one-sided, epically anti-climatic and without a single momentum shift or wrinkle to give it colour. If most Super Bowls are symphonies, this was a bad punk single: three chords – Seattle D sharp, Denver O flat (P. Manning diminished), Seattle O sharp, repeat.

With Denver fielding what was, statistically, the greatest single-season offence off all time and Seattle rolling out a league-best defensive unit, expectations were high for an archetypical unstoppable-force-versus-immoveable-object clash. And, as it’s supposed to, the unstoppable force stopped and the immoveable object moved. Except the direction the immoveable object moved wasn’t away from the unstoppable force, but downfield, towards the Denver end zone, with the ball, on yet another interception return.

Peyton Manning gears up for another shot at the Seattle defence. © Jerry Paffendorf

It was as if a game had been arranged between the Arsenal Invincibles of 2003-04 and the Bould and Adams-led stonewall of 1998-99. But, instead of the obvious outcomes – another one-nil to the Arsenal or an Henry and Vieira masterclass – the George Graham holdovers had somehow thrashed the pass-and-move maestros 5-0.

It wasn’t just that English football’s greatest ever backline had neutralised and then brutalised Wenger’s magnus opus. Nor was it that tempo, precision and athleticism had failed to exhaust and torment the acme of the English 4-4-2. Rather, it was as though, to a man, Bergkamp, Pires, Ljungberg, Cole, Campbell, Lauren, Toure, Gilberto, Lehmann, Henry and Vieria had failed to show.

And yet, for all this, this year’s Super Bowl was still better than half the World Cup or European Championship finals played in my lifetime. And for one very simple reason: in the NFL, there is no tactical trade-off between a strong defence and an aggressive, creative offence.

An NFL defence can be every bit as disciplined, efficient and ruthless as a football one, but never at the expense of their attacking options or the overall quality of the game.

When a team loses the ball (provided an interception isn’t returned for a touchdown), there’s a pause and 11 offensives players are replaced with 11 defenders. This means an NFL coach never has to ask himself ‘is it an extra linebacker or another wide receiver I need?’

Provided they stay within the salary cap, then, teams’ ability to excel at offence and defence is circumscribed only by how well they draft, develop and coach players.

Legion of BoomTassotti, Baresi, Costacurta, Maldini

Defending in the NFL and the Premier League. © Taku. © IRRI Photo.

So, while you can admire and adore a tough centre back or a flying left back, it is only in the NFL that defences can produce players who are the equal of offences; players who can be glorious and ugly, creative and brutal in equal measure. Defending in the NFL is something that can be enjoyed as a populist pass time, not in the masochistic, monastic or snobbish way of those who profess to prefer a well organised back four to a free-flowing possession-hungry midfield.

As a result, the answer to the question ‘when was the last time a Super Bowl was ruined by a negative coach?’ is: ‘not in my lifetime’. The same can not be said for the finals of the major football competitions.

Only two of the seven World Cup finals I’ve seen have actually been good games; games of appreciable skill, fluidity, precision and verve. Four of the five that weren’t good were actually dreadful, with Holland (2010), Italy (2006 and 1994) and Argentina (1990) determining successfully to spoil the game.

It’s notable that the most interesting moments of the last two World Cup finals were acts of violence: Zidane’s glorious head-butt and de Jong’s shameful karate kick. In other words, the only truly memorable events in the last two matches of the world’s biggest sporting event have been essentially non-footballing actions.

Note: neither of the two most famous kung-fu kicks in footballing history resulted in red cards. Cantona had already been sent off for kicking Richard Shaw.

When executed correctly, the kung-fu kick need not always spoil a game. © Lordcolus

The best final of my lifetime was Argentina’s 3-2 win against Germany in 1986 – which also happens to be from my favourite World Cup of all time. But then perhaps being nine is the best time to enjoy football.

The Euro finals don’t fare much better. Three of the last seven have been good, with two – 1992 and 1988 – being classics. 1992 wasn’t exactly a technically great game, but it was one of football’s great under-dog stories. (When Greece triumphed against the odds 12 years’ later, it was much less appealing spectacle, which tells us, at least, that you can win matches by parking buses, but to win hearts you must get off the bus and run around a bit.)

1988 was a much more clear-cut classic, not least because it featured what I regard as the greatest goal in an international final. Watching Marco van Basten’s volley again it’s unnerving how long the ball is in the air; it just won’t come down. And then, when it does, the otherworldly body control defies belief. Watch the replay and you see van Basten lands perfectly in-stride and on-balance after striking the ball. The grainy nature of the film and the uncanny slowness of it all makes you wonder if you’ve accidentally clicked on a Pro Evolution Soccer re-enactment of the moment.

Van Basten was too tired to control it. Lazy bastard.

Goalwise, major football finals have tended to produce slim pickings. Seven of last 14 teams to contest a World Cup final haven’t scored in normal time. The average score after 90 minutes was 1.57-0.43. Likewise, five of the last 14 teams to play in a Euro final haven’t scored in normal time, giving an average 90-minute score of 1.71-0.29. If that seems a bit abstract, the average score in the 380 Premiership game last year was: 2.02-0.78 – about 0.4 of an extra goal for both winning and losing teams, meaning that, while the margin of victory is typically similar, big competition finals produce fewer goals that a standard Premiership game. Over the last 26 years, a World Cup or Euro final has seen the winning team score 19% fewer goals than a Premiership match while the loser scored 54% fewer goals.

Now, while final score is no measure of the quality of a football game, I don’t think it’s unfair to use it as an indicator of its openness. Compared to the NFL, football’s big occasions don’t measure up so well. Seattle’s 35-point margin of victory this year is two more points than the combined margin of victory for the winning teams in the previous six Super Bowls.

In fact, the last nine Super Bowls before this year’s have been won by an average margin of 6.56 points – less than a touchdown and extra point.

The last time a team lost a Super Bowl by more than 14 points (two TDs with extra points), was 2002-2003 when the Raiders got a 48-21 spanking. And the last time before Denver that a team scored fewer than 14 points in a Super Bowl was Seattle’s 10-21 defeat by Pittsburgh in the 2005-06 season.

SB margins

The last ten Super Bowl points spreads.

Meanwhile, the average score from the last ten Super Bowl’s (this year’s included) has been 27.40-18.00. The average score in the 256 regular season games in 2013-14 was 28.76-17.71, which means recent Super Bowl’s (including this year’s blow-out) have seen winning teams scoring just 4.8% fewer points than in the regular season while the losing team actually scored 1.6% more points than in the regular season.

What does all this redundant precision tell us? That Super Bowls tend to be played with an openness and offensive intent (as measured by the score and points spread) that pretty closely resembles any NFL normal fixture, while international football tournament finals are cagey, low scoring affairs, lacking the flair of a top flight game in one of Europe’s better leagues. Put simply, in the Super Bowl, nerves or tactics don’t get the better of the occasion.

Football NFL

(If this, or any other of my criticisms of football as we know it today – wages, concentration of talent, quality of administration, for example – doesn’t sound all that remarkable, I put it you that this is not because it’s not important, but just that, as football fans, we’ve got quite used to simply taking what we are given by the game, without any hope of improvement. The moment everyone believes nothing can be done, they’re right.)

Another measure of quality, albeit more subjective, is memorability. I recall only four things from the last World Cup final: the foul and attendant outrage, a deep distaste for van Bommel, Fernando Torres’ broken lumbering and Iniesta’s limp winner.

Compare that with my favourite recent Super Bowl XLIII in early 2009. Held in Tampa, it began with Jennifer Hudson singing the national anthem before a squadron of Top Gun F16s did a flypast. Then, appearing on the pitch only two weeks after they shot to world attention for their astonishing landing of a plane on the Hudson River, was the crew of US Airways Flight 1549, led by the endearing Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger. They took the applause of the crowd before the coin toss ceremony, a ceremony itself that was performed by General David Petraeus, formally the most senior American solider in Iraq, later the sexually incontinent director of the CIA. All this happened before a single second of play has elapsed. At halftime Bruce Springsteen did a medley of his greatest hits.

Granted, those are non-sporting memories, but it does go to show that World Cup finals have an ineffable greyness to them. It’s always mildly surprising how little imagination appears to go into their staging.

In the game itself, there were numerous remarkable events, not least the sight of James Harrison, a 17-stone meathead with enough rage to scare a roid dealer, intercepting the ball in his own end zone. This supreme power machine, built for short sprints and fearsome upper body power, raced 106 yards to the other end zone, before being felled at the goal line and having to receive oxygen on the side line.

http://www.ohio.com/sports/harrison-td-caps-first-half-1.25852?ot=akron.PhotoGalleryResponsive.ot&s=1.124004

There’s football lung-bursting runs and then there’s NFL lung-busting runs. © AP

Later in the game, down 20–7 going into the final quarter, Arizona, led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, scored 16 unanswered points to take the lead with less than three minutres remaining. On the day, Warner, playing in his penultimate season, threw for three touchdowns and 377 yards – the second best performance in Super Bowl history. (Warner, not by coincidence, also had the first and third best Super Bowl stats of any quarterback.) And yet it was not to be. Pittsburgh marched back down the field to win the game, with Santonio Holmes pulling in an incredible catch with only 35 seconds to go.

Several recent Super Bowls have been decided on literally the last play of the game, with the advantage swinging repeatedly in the final quarter of the game. If only football’s big games could say the same.

Were previous finals before 1988 any better? I don’t know. I haven’t watched them, though match reports suggest not.

Football, it seems, is a sport frequently overwhelmed by its own occasions.

There’s an argument that knockout football isn’t really football at all. The game really only makes sense as a league, where enough games are played to iron out the element of randomness in a game where scoring is so difficult. Leagues, of course, are anticlimactic in a different way: the winner is usually decided several games before the end, creating a series of dead rubbers.

And that’s the flaw in big football matches: with individual games so hard to win and the possibility of a worse team wining if they defend in numbers, it becomes impossible to ensure open attractive games.

It’s a big problem and one that won’t be solved by arguing about extra time, replays, golden goals or penalties. Big games will continue to make negative tactics likely until something fundamental changes.

Like what? Well, how about, for example: bigger goals?

The current goal height (2.44m) and width (7.33m) of goals has remained unchanged since the 1880s. This gives an area of 17.86m2 in which to score.

According to the BBC, the average UK man in the 1870s was 1.67m high. Figures for 2010 show the average UK man is now 1.77m high – ten centimetres taller.

This should, of course, have been a useful diagram, showing the impact of growing a goal in proportion to the growth in average height over the last century and a half. Except, I’m too rubbish. I tried and I tried in half a dozen different programmes, but I couldn’t get something less than risible. So here’s a weak joke about someone who was actually a decent player.

The world’s first goalpost in Sheffield, England. Brian Deane missed his first open goal here in 1882. © Magnus Halsnes

Relative to player height, then, goals have shrunk by over 11%. Scale up a goal to the proportions of a modern day player and the posts would be 44cm further apart and 15cm higher. With an area of 20.10m2, strikers would have 12.5% more target to hit. For a player lining up a shot, that’s basically increasing the goal by an extra ball’s width at each side of the keeper and raising the bar by three-quarters of a ball.

In simple terms, almost every shot you’ve ever seen hit the post or bar would’ve gone in.

Even then, you could argue, coaches would adapt. As shots would be more likely to go in, the catenaccio would return, with players instructed to close down even tighter and prevent shots. You might find, though, that the increase in fouling this would bring would create more free kicks near goal, which would be even more valuable than they are now. The game could become a stalemate, decided by the quality of free kick taking rather than open play.

With ever more riding on the outcome of football’s big games, it’s hard to see what measures could be taken to prevent the sport’s showpiece occasions being huge disappointments. Does anyone really expect Brazil 2014 to deliver a classic final? Reading the British papers, right now it feels like if we get away without civil unrest and stadium collapses we’ll have done well.

Like tennis, football is a game that sometimes seems like it’s running low on options. Woven into its very design are a set of assumptions about human physical limits that are centuries out of date. Players now are too big, too strong, too quick, too well coached, too tactically aware and too well rewarded for finals to be meaningful affairs. Change will require considerable tinkering with the rules and playing space – unlimited substitutions; the return of subbed-off players; a bigger pitch; one fewer outfielders – and the outcome may be something far different to the game we know now. Either that or we stop pretending that football will deliver on the big occasions and consider dropping the knockout element of the final stages.

The Super Bowl, meanwhile, no matter how big it grows, will always be able to make you this promise: one team can fail to show, but a team can never spoil it by playing negatively.

 

 

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