Just as with 'Pants', there appears to be some debate amongst the nations about what 'Football' actually refers to. Most countries tend to mean Association Football1 when they talk about Football, but Americans most likely mean American Football, Australians probably mean Aussie Rules Football, and old private school boys could well be talking about Rugby Football.
Right. Now that's sorted, here we go.
The No.1 sport in most countries2, in which a leather ball is kicked around a playing area for 90 minutes.
22 men in brightly-coloured jerseys form into two teams3 and are overseen by a group of four underpaid traffic wardens who wear black and delight in ordering your favourite player from the field for the slightest infraction.
The field used is rectangular and about 100 yards long with a curious arrangement of posts at either end. The teams' aim is to propel a round ball using only the feet between the posts of their opposing team. This is called a Goal and is greeted with either great jubilation, or despair and thoughts of physical violence, depending on the supporters' allegiances.
Fans originally chose to support a team based on the geographic area they lived in, but this must now be disregarded due to the current surge in numbers of Manchester United fans who have never been even vaguely near Manchester. Coincidentally this increase in the number of 'lifelong fans' has occurred at precisely the same time as the team is enjoying unprecedented success. It just goes to show it's funny old game.
Football is considered by all of above average intelligence to be the finest game ever to come from the mind of man. Indeed it is very likely to be the result of divine inspiration.
A curiously-named sport in that the foot only rarely touches the ball, this game nevertheless has a trancelike hold on the middle country in North America, and this condition is spreading overseas.
22 men line up on opposite sides of an oblong ball, then wreak terrible violence upon each other until a score is made, or the ball carrier is decimated. While it has been criticised as sissified due to the heavy equipment worn by the players, those who have played the sport realise that those pads make formidable weapons to use against the opponent. The result being that, although rugby and Aussie football players look to be taking more risks, the casualty lists for American football are much longer.
The amazing popularity of this sport has many causes, but one is unmistakable. It is high drama, whether at the pee wee, prep, college, or professional levels. The professional league has only 16 games for each team to play in the regular season. Compare this to 82 basketball, 82 hockey, and 162 baseball games. This ensures that each game actually means something. Because of the 7-day interval between games, fans have plenty of time to analyse, speculate, and lay foolish bets.
The climax of the season is the Super Bowl, a one-shot chance to be a champ or a chump. It takes place on the 4th Sunday every January, and is an undeclared national holiday. People throw their own parties, or go to a local pub, which will rent enough TVs that you can see the game from every angle of the place. As they watch the game, fans cheer along with people they've never met, and hurl insults at the fans of the opposite team that would get them a thorough thrashing on any other day.
Australian Rules Football
(aka: Aussie Rules; AFL; Footy; Aerial Ping Pong; just plain stupid)
No, that is not self-congratulating sentiment, but the local description of the game called "Australian Rules Football". This game is a mix between Soccer and Gaelic Football, but the mix has rendered it completely unrecognisable.
In a very clever ploy, Australians have made certain that they will be all-conquering world champions in at least one sport (as if their dominance in cricket wasn't enough), by inventing a game that is governed by a set of rules that is so convoluted that no-one else could be bothered learning them. And yet, curiously, it appears there are no rules at all.
Firstly, you play on an oval-shaped field. This oval-shaped field is the same shape as the ball you play with - a bit like a Gridiron ball, but really, nothing like it at all. At each pointy end of the field there are four sticks lined up with each other. If you kick the ball between the middle two, you get 6 points - a "goal". If you kick the ball between outer two, you get 1 point. No-one ever accused Australians of not being able to count. Except maybe the British.
Now on this field there is a centre circle, surrounded by a centre square. There are also "50 metre lines". These are lines drawn 50 metres away from each end. The surface is invariably grass and you play the game during the Winter when it is not ridiculously hot.
Two teams play against each other, consisting of 18 players a side, with a couple on the bench. You can kick the ball or hand-pass it, which is an action whereby you punch the ball with your hand. You cannot throw it. If you kick the ball and someone catches it mid-air, it is a "mark", and they are entitled to a free kick. That is, a kick while nobody is trying to hurt them.
The rest of the time, you try and hurt each other by grabbing and throwing onto the ground. Or alternatively, you can launch yourself at someone with your hip and shoulder and knock them over. As long as you don't hit them in the head, trip them over, push them in the back or interfere with them with your hands while they are trying to catch the ball, it's okay.
No pads are used in this game, though a mouth-guard is advised. The most common injuries are damaged knees, pulled groins or severe embarrassment from having your shorts torn off you by over-zealous defenders.
This goes on for four quarters4 which are roughly half an hour and three blood transfusions in length.
Australians are pretty unique in their desire to play and watch this game. It is unquestionably the most played game in Australia. Australians generally regard the rest of the world as too small, too slow and too unfit to participate in this sport properly.
Canadian Football is about the same as American Football. There are some differences, however, and these are the major ones:
The field itself is much larger. It is 110 yards long (with a 55-yard line), the 'endzones' are 20 yards deep, as opposed to the normal 10 yards of American Football, and the goal-posts are in the front of the endzone, like they used to be in the NFL. The field is also wider and the ball is larger.
A big difference is the number of downs in which each team has to go 10 yards forward. In American football, it's four downs, but in Canadian it's only three. Also, in the Canadian version, there are 12 men on the field, not 11 like in American.
While Canadian Football has all of the usual point values (a touchdown is six points, a field goal three, a safety two, and there are one- or two-point conversions), it has one that American Football doesn't have - the Rouge. This is a single point awarded to a team that has just kicked the ball and the opposing team is unable to return it. For example, team A is attempting a field goal. The ball misses wide left, and a member from team B picks up the ball 15 yards deep in the endzone. Team B must either try to return the ball or down the ball. If team B does not return the ball, team A is awarded one point. It is essentially a penalty for taking a touchback, except the ball is placed at the 35-yard line as opposed to the 20. This rule applies to punts and kick-offs that go into the endzone as well. Also, there are no fair-catches.
In American football, offensive players (like wide receivers) cannot be moving towards the line of scrimmage before the snap. The CFL has no such rule.
Rugby, as the bumper sticker goes, is a game played by men with odd-shaped balls.
It was created at the English public school of the same name in 1823 when a boy called William Webb Ellis, frustrated at the humiliation of being picked last by a team captain, decided to cheat and promptly picked up the ball and legged it downfield. Now this being a public school little Billy did not find himself being yellow carded nor being placed in detention, but in the great English tradition of justifying anything the upper classes do was hailed as a hero and a new game was created to accommodate his waywardness. Thus rugby was formed.
As so often in English life class yet again played a role in the development of the game when two forms of rugby were later created - Rugby League and Rugby Union. In 1895 a split occurred between those who needed to be paid in order to be able to dedicate themselves to the game and those for whom the mere mention of money was beneath them, and so the professional game of Rugby League was created, first as the Northern Union.
Rugby is now played worldwide with many nations now playing both forms of the game and each type having its own vehement supporters and advocates.
The true reason for congregating around this large grassy area becomes clear soon after kick off when the chanting begins. Aspiring opera singers and beer bellies alike join together to insult the opposition using the medium of song (in its loosest form).
These songs range from character assassinations of particular players to attempts at primitive humour or, if nothing particular is happening in the game, just shouting the score over and over again.
How to Get Involved
So how do you get involved in this wonderful pastime? Well, this can be achieved in several ways. Let's look at the most common two approaches:
Playing football. To be a truly great football player you really want to start early (shortly after you can walk). The next few years should then be spent in a local park playing in a football team consisting of children your own age. At this stage it is normal to have an older male member of your immediate family to assist your development. This helpful relative should if possible, love football, but have no clue as to its tactical subtleties. They will then be able to stand at the side of the field and shout abuse at you every time you make a mistake, or generally touch the ball (which will in all probability only be four times per game). If you regularly turn out to be the kid that actually gets to touch the ball, and you survive the torrent of abuse spouted at you by your helpful family member without the need for too much therapy, then professional football may be the career for you.
The next phase of your development is to spend so much time playing football that your education starts to suffer. (There are several highly educated footballers, but most of them end up being taunted by members of their own, and opposing teams, usually resulting in a bout of recriminating tabloid newspaper articles that are both hurtful and financially damaging, and could result in a nervous breakdown similar to the one suffered by the failures in their earlier years.)
By now you should be ready to pursue your dream and become a professional footballer. Your ball skills and tactical awareness of the game will be great, and your desire to succeed will be second to none, because let's face it you won't be able to do anything else should you fail. So you're almost there, nearly on the verge of breaking into the big time. All you have to do is attract the attentions of a big football club. Here is what you should do - change your name so that it sounds as if you come from another country. No self- respecting football club will turn down the chance of signing an expensive foreign player. Practise saying the phrase "this is the only club I've ever wanted to play for". Most importantly though get a good agent, again someone who knows nothing about the game, but rather an individual who could sell refrigerators to Eskimos, and can negotiate a contract that still assures you get paid even if you have that nervous breakdown before ever kicking a ball for your new employers.
You should then be a professional football player, on your way to joining the greats like Pele, Diego Maradona, Cruyff and Billy the Fish. The world will be at your feet, huge salaries, even bigger bonuses, fast cars and beautiful if not somewhat intellectually-challenged girlfriends. But even then don't forget your roots. Drive round the old neighbourhood in your designer suit and fast car, with your beautiful girl by your side. Then go off home to your 15-bedroom mansion in a slightly more desirable part of town.
If you feel that the rigours of a career in football are not for you, don't panic! Become a football supporter. Find a local team and give them your full backing, or even better follow a team from somewhere else (Manchester for instance). Unlike playing, supporting is all about giving money, rather than receiving. Buy all your chosen club's merchandise, a season ticket to the ground, satellite TV sports subscriptions. There are lots of other things you can do when support a football club, but we won't go into those now due to liability reasons.
If neither of these interest you it doesn't mean that football isn't for you. There are many other interesting reasons to follow football. Some people gamble on football. This can be especially lucrative if you have a knowledge of electronics and/or lighting systems. Or how about manufacturing sporting goods? Many a fortune has been made by coupling good business knowledge with cheap labour costs in some parts of the world. Finally, even if you're not the sociable type, and feel that no one likes you, don't fret, simply become a football referee.