Two Sundays ago, I spent my first Super Bowl outside of the United States. It felt a bit sacrilegious to spend America’s Greatest Holiday in a country where they call NFL football “that elbow and rugby thing,” and refer to it as “armored egg chase.” Everywhere outside of the United States, and especially in England—the birthplace of association football—”football” is the beautiful game played exclusively with feet, not with hands and helmets.
For the first Super Bowl in four years, I didn’t have a vested interest in the game. I had no bets wagered, the Giants weren’t there to root against, my Packers weren’t there to root for, and the Drew Brees wasn’t there playing with all of post-Katrina New Orleans on his back. Still, with a considerate 11:30 PM kick-off time in London and no class until 2 PM the next day, I ventured out to the University of London’s bar for their Super Bowl party.
On the walk to the bar, I noticed that every single pub I passed (it was a half hour walk, and given that there’s at least one pub per block on London, I must’ve passed at least 3,000 pubs) was open and advertising “the Big Game.”
At UL’s bar, I expected a handful of Raven and 49er fans, a small sect of Americans wanting to watch the Super Bowl just to attain a sense of American normalcy in a foreign country, and nothing more. It was late. Kids had class the next morning. The half-time show would be on YouTube the following morning. It’s just the NFL. To my surprise, half of the bar was full of British NFL fans, all cloaked in NFL apparel, and NYU students were aplenty. Never underestimate the drawing power of a Ray Lewis speech and a Beyonce performance.
British NFL fans are nothing new to me. At my first Packers game at the old Giants Stadium a few years ago, I met some British Packer fans in the parking lot. With the expansion of NFL broadcasts overseas over the past twenty years, they had watched Brett Favre’s Packer teams dominate the mid-90s, and had adopted the Pack as their own, despite not even knowing where Green Bay was on the map.
I get the Packer connection. It’s a historic franchise that has produced winning seasons for the past two decades. It’d be the American equivalent of picking Manchester United as your favorite team. When there’s no natural connection, you fall in love with the consistent winner.
What didn’t make sense was the group of British NFL fans wearing Donovan McNabb, Mark Sanchez, Roy Williams, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning jerseys in the heart of London. The jerseys could’ve been just a novelty. When I go to MLS games at Red Bull Arena, it’s common to see American fans wearing whatever soccer jersey they happen to own to the game. The Red Bulls could be playing the Houston Dynamo and you’d still see about 30 Lionel Messi jerseys around the stadium. To these fans, wearing any soccer apparel to says, “Hey, we’re here because we know something about the sport.” In actuality, they probably know very little about the MLS, and could probably name only five European soccer players, but they know Messi. It’s a shame that Mark Sanchez was the finest representative the NFL had to offer for one British NFL fan.
At the bar, the NFL Brits noticed my Liverpool jersey. Worse, they saw that Joe Allen, the much lamented midfielder, was the name printed on the back of it. I should’ve known to not wear that shirt in public. It was only a matter of time until the crows came out to give me a hard time.
Here’s how the conversation went down, edited for appropriateness (you can probably guess where the warm beer-fueled expletives came in):
“Ey mate, are you a real Liverpool fan or a joke?”
“Well you’re wearing your crap club on yer chest with the name of a midget Welshman on the back.”
“5 European Cups, and 18 Leagues, that’s what we call history. Anyway, you have a JETS jersey on. You’re a disgrace to my city, the NFL, sports fans who grew up with a pre-sensationalist SportsCenter, and TMZ.”
“What’s a ‘European Cup’?”
I had just encountered a Londoner wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey who knew enough about Liverpool to insult me but not enough about international soccer to know about the European Club Championship… WHERE WAS I?
After further conversation and a round shared with his mates, I learned that these guys actually hated the English Premier League, and only had anecdotal knowledge of their national sport through their friend’s Twitter rampages. Mr. Sanchez has a friend who’s a Liverpool fan, so the “midget Welshman” name was fresh in his mind. They admired the physicality of American football as opposed to European soccer’s divers and whiners.
Going around the table, I got to know the background stories behind these NFL Brits. Mr. Sanchez started following the Jets after a visit to New York two years ago, at the peak of the Rex Ryan era. The lad wearing the Tom Brady jersey picked the Patriots because he’s a history student and thought the Patriots’ Minuteman logo from the 90s looked cool—ironic, considering, well, you know, these Minutemen blasted his ancestors back across the Atlantic en route to Independence. The Cowboys fan had read about Tony Romo dating Jessica Simpson in the tabloids (“She has great knockers,” according to my new friend), and started tuning in every Sunday night to Cowboy games.
They couldn’t afford to make it out to the NFL In London annual games at Wembley, but those games are “the third biggest day of the year” according to one NFL Brit. The two days above in his pecking order of grand occasions: the Super Bowl and Christmas.
These were all very random roads to fandom fueled by either whims or pop culture references, but all backed up by an exceptional knowledge of the game. These fans knew the difference between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, wondered how Kaepnerick and the 49ers’ pistol offense would fair against a strong Ravens front 7, and lamented the fact that European sports didn’t have a hard salary cap like the NFL did. Any novel reader of the game could dissect a 4-3 defense, but these guys actually knew the difference between a “hard” and “soft” salary cap. They were practically Sport Management majors!
Eventually, I left their table to participate in matters concerning Beyonce, but these fans had genuinely impressed me. I’d be hard pressed to find well-versed soccer fans at a World Cup party back in the States.
Before leaving, I asked them whether they’d like an NFL team in London one day. A resounding “YES!” was blurted in my direction. Roger Goodell, I just found your first 6 season ticket holders for your future London franchise. Finding 85,994 more to fill Wembley every Sunday shouldn’t be so hard now.
Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49