The N.F.L. season kicked off, over the past two weeks, with the great Peyton Manning first tying the record for touchdown passes in a game—he threw seven, in the slightly distracted, hurry up, head-bouncing, “guys, we got work to do” way that underscores his unexcited greatness—and then, against the Giants, outduelling his little brother Eli. Though others have thrown seven T.D. passes in a single game, it had been almost fifty years since anyone has; looking at the other record holders, and meaning no disrespect to Joe Kapp, it does seem as though they had accomplished it in a time with a different and less rigorous game.
Peyton’s performance remains of the kind that a distinguished nonathlete such as myself can find inspiriting, since it is, or seems, so purely cognitive. Watching him these first two weeks, I was reminded of what a peculiarly mental task quarterbacking is, in a way that maybe throws sideways light on the Jets’ own poor, now apparently nevermore Mark Sanchez. Sanchez’s trouble is neither one of courage nor of confidence; it’s that he can’t keep his mind on two games at once. Peyton is able to play a peripheral-vision-and-foot-coördination game, noting where the onrushing giants are coming and slipping around them (this may in large part be an ear-foot game, with what he hears counting as much as what he sees) and at the same time remain completely focussed on the hand-eye-coördination game taking place twenty or so yards ahead of him. He avoids the rush and completes his passes, doing both at once and not, as with poor Mark, one at a time, in unsuccessful sequence.
And yet what is really on my mind as the N.F.L. season begins is the English Premier League—the other kind of football.
One of the reliable and yet ever-surprising things in life is that we take up some idiosyncratic passion only to look up and find that it has, somehow, become a popular craze. In this case, my nineteen-year-old son developed a strange passion for English top-division football. I had put it down to the oddities of his transatlantic upbringing when, right on cue, I learned that the English Premiership has emerged from the specialized cable channels and week-in-review shows where had been hiding for the past twenty years with a significant investment by NBC, which successfully bid two hundred and fifty million dollars on a three-year deal for broadcasting rights. (The league’s previous partner, Fox, had been paying just twenty-three million a year.)
I find, talking to the eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds in his cohort, that they all are astonishingly knowledgeable about European football: one roots for Inter Milan; there are a couple of Arsenal supporters; and one, on a trip to Amsterdam, came home with, and won’t remove, an Ajax cap. My son has gone for Chelsea, the West London side that I began supporting during a long winter many years ago in London, at a time when they were, if not exactly pitiful, then far from the Russian-money-fuelled dynamo they are now. Chelsea is now more his team than the Jets, or even the Mets or Yankees, and he follows their news at an ocean’s distance, online on Reddit and various Chelsea forums and boards, as passionately as I once followed the Montreal Expos or the Habs from the nearby pavement outside the Forum.
The apparent explanation for their enthusiasm, I suppose, is that they played soccer (as I will call it henceforth, for fear of endless “which football?” confusion) in school, but I don’t really think that’s it. This is primarily a spectator phenomenon, as reflected in that astonishing NBC deal—the network has even sent taxis around New York with the colors of the leading Premiership teams—and it surely has to do with something larger, even portentous: soccer, all hype boiled off, is indeed the global game. And my son and his friends are, in an unexcited, matter-of-fact way, a global generation.
NBC made a brilliant decision in exactly this vein: to leave the announcing in the hands—or, rather, throats—of the British, fully half the appeal of English football always having been the diction and style of its commentators. Ten years ago, NBC would doubtless have insisted on flat-footed, consonant-crunching Americans, to try to make the game accessible: “Think of the center midfielder as—well, he’s, like the quarterback of the whole team, what they call the ‘side’…” The English announcers move beautifully from the laconic to the passionately understated, rarely giving way to cliché; my favorite locutions involve either endless indirection (“What can he conjure up here, the Spaniard?”) or else a nicely crafted telegraphic (“Ramires. In space. Oh! Optimistic.”) “Optimistic,” I should add, indicates an air ball. Its companion word, “cynical,” modifies a cheap move: “Two fairly cynical fouls conceded by Chelsea in the last few minutes.”
That the British sound is the desired one on American commercial sports broadcasting is in itself kind of amazing. But there they are: not just Chelsea and Man U. but West Bromwich Albion and Fulham, playing on NBC in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, once the territory of Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola.
What really has made this happen? As I say, it’s the global thing. And this is true in two senses. First, the teams themselves, far from being peculiarly English or Spanish, are now amazing Star Wars bars of many nations: Chelsea is a mix of Czech, English, Brazilian, Belgian, and Spanish players, with our great Côte d’Ivoire striker Didier Drogba not long parted. The heart-eye coördination that is the essence of fandom—as hand-eye, and ear-feet, is of quarterbacking—has been mostly successful, with some sad exceptions, at welcoming alien or remote types. European football has become the first sport to follow the scary, exciting rules of the new world coming: it’s not where you are from but what you are doing right now, wherever you happen to be. (That this comes at a cost to local affiliation and cultural cohesion—there was some nice footage on a reality-television show about Liverpool, with the Brazilian players and their beautiful wives seeming as bewildered in the North of England as the Roman legionnaires must have been two millennia ago—may well be true. But there it is.)
Part of the joy of following a sport is the bubble-gum-baseball-card phenomenon: it always has been just as much fun to collect the cards, digest the averages, and order the gear as to watch the game. Soccer offers a universe of worldwide dimensions: you follow the transfer market as players pass from Brazil to Russia to China and then back to Birmingham, and it makes our docile, regimented procession from high school to college and then on to the pros look dull. The N.F.L. and N.B.A. drafts are heavily policed by the N.C.A.A. at one end, and by the obviously anti-free-market practices of the team owners at the other. Soccer is, right now, just more fun to follow for a fan, with more moving parts to watch and worry over—a much more intricate wiring of heart-mind coördination.
I don’t mean in any way to idealize the conduct of soccer. The crowding of the best players onto a handful of teams is already fierce in the Premiership, and worse still in Spain; at some point, all of those Aston Villa and Crystal Palace supporters, faced with one more year of London and Manchester domination, are going to rebel the only way fans can: by losing interest. And soccer has a concussion issue of its own, though, to be sure, it is less of man-to-man collisions than of head-on-ball ones. (The stadium violence and hooliganism that scarred British soccer for so long do seem blissfully gone.) But for the moment, by chance and planning both, it is the game that represents the future, with globalization as an unexcited fact rather than a scary phantom.
Which leads us to the bigger question: As we complacently watch the renewal of our own little insular games, as odd to the world’s sports as Australian fauna is to the rest of animal creation, can we really be sure that they are not just about to vanish into the past? Could American sport go the way of American steel, baseball become Detroit? This seems unlikely—large though NBC’s investment in the Premier League is, its investment in the N.F.L. remains incomparable, somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion dollars—but then change always does until, all at once, it doesn’t. Surely, at a minimum, if I were a commissioner or official of any of our national sports, the idea of internationalizing them would be urgently appealing. They’re trying; basketball, especially, is making an effort. But when will the N.F.L. finally plant that team in London? The travel constraints don’t really seem that hard to overcome. And yet these seem like distant, lazy-minded prospects. The N.H.L., meanwhile, which should be every bit as international as soccer, at least in the northern hemisphere—club teams playing club teams across the Atlantic, and national meeting national regularly, not just every four years—has, as I have complained again and again, turned in on itself in brutal insularity. There are lots of European players, but the collision of European and North American styles, once so bracing, is much muted.
Now, someone might point out that my son’s eye-and-heart coördination has been be drawn away as part of a youthful detour, and a practical one—he was raised as a Jets fan and, at the moment, the best way to be a Jets fan is to look at anything but how they’re playing. That sort of comfort ignores the quick quality of change. We complain about the concussions and regimented violence and commercial cynicism and sheer monotony overtaking our sports, about how joylessly repetitive and thuggish they’ve so often become, and the then wake up and find our teen-agers rooting for some small city in the English Midlands, or a biggish one in Northern Italy. Inter Milan! The day of reckoning, or levelling, may be a long time off, but if I were Roger Goodell, I would be listening to those English voices on Saturday mornings and—maybe even a little cynically, if not entirely optimistically—thinking about them, hard.