What’s the difference between American football and English football?

The punchline to this joke was supplied 20 years ago by a soccer fan I met on my way to a match in London:

American football, you get up, get dressed, and go to the game.

English football, you get up, get dressed, get drunk, and go the game.

Twenty years later, I’m not sure the joke applies. The difference may now reside in where you get drunk. In American football, it’s the stadium parking lot; in English football it’s the pub.

Here’s another difference — cursing. Not just at the referees and opposing players, but also at your own team.

During the match I attended last month at Goodison Park in Liverpool, the Everton fanatics in the Gwladys Street End were cursing at their team within 15 minutes after the opening whistle. When Everton fell behind, it got truly nasty.

One fan called the Everton players “spineless c***ts.” When two Everton players pressed the Norwich City backline and two others didn’t, I yelled “press as a team.” A nearby fan yelled “f**king lazy bastards.” On it went until the end of the match.

Foul language isn’t limited to Gwladys Street or to Goodison Park. At John Smith stadium in Huddersfield (West Yorkshire), a sign over the sinks in the men’s room advises fans to “now wash out your mouth.” Below these words appears a reminder that young children are attending these matches.

The signs, one of which was defaced, didn’t deter supporters of Huddersfield Town. The language wasn’t quite as vile as at Goodison and it was directed exclusively at the referee, the nearby linesman, and certain Swansea City players who persisted in attempting to get the home team players booked. On the other hand, unlike at Goodison, the Huddersfield Town players were performing adequately.

I could not recall ever hearing language as abusive as what I heard in England at an American sporting event — and certainly not directed at the home team. But then, I hadn’t attended an NFL game in several years.

Yesterday, I went to the game between the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins. This year, the Redskins are worse than Everton at its most abject. If the NFL used the EPL relegation system, the Redskins would be dropped from the NFL and required to play next year at a lower level of competition.

I worried that my comparison of the two fan bases wouldn’t be adequately controlled. Unlike Everton, the Redskins no longer draw a full house. And unlike Everton, about half of the fans at Redskins games these days game root for the opposing team.

Fortunately, the area where we were sitting was almost full and consisted almost entirely of Redskins fans. (On the side of the field facing us was a sea of Giants’ blue).

Within about three minutes of the kickoff, the Giants were up by a touchdown. Soon, they were up by two.

But the Redskins’ fans did not turn on the team. There was no booing and no foul language.

Late in the second quarter, the officials flagged the Redskins for a dubious seeming personal foul — one that, I believe, ended up costing the Redskins defeat in an overtime game. Boos cascaded down, but there was very little cursing (except by me, under my breath).

In English soccer, the equivalent of booing the refs is to chant “you don’t know what you’re doing.” There was a fair amount of that in Huddersfield, but also much more swearing at the refs than I heard yesterday.

What accounts for the difference in fan language? Maybe drinking has something to do with it, after all.

There is also a cultural gap between the Washington, D.C. suburbs and the working class cities and towns in the north of England. It would be interesting to compare fan behavior and language at soccer matches in London with football games in Pittsburgh or Cleveland. I’ve attended baseball games in both of these American cities, but never a football game.

I’m guessing, though, that even the rabid American football fans in the country’s biggest hotbeds don’t called their players “spineless c**ts.”

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