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Monday 6th February 2017
A proper football fan's quest for revenge on an epic Super Bowl Sunday.

If you've read David Blatt's excellent history on the beautiful game, The Ball is Round, you know whether it's played indoors or out, kicked, handled, or sometimes dribbled like a basketball on a round field with four uprights at each end that are monitored by umpires who used to dress like they were auditioning for Fantasy Island meets The Matrix, it's all football. Be it soccer, rugby, gridiron, Gaelic, Aussie Rules, futsal, or any other variation, they're all relatives descended from the football played in nineteenth-century English schools. You can have your favorite but there's no reason to go hating on family.
That is unless you're watching the Manchester United/Leicester City tilt in your favorite café, wondering whether your Reds will ever manage to finish their chances, when a friendly female patron who has tried to chat you up before asks whether you're going to watch the Super Bowl (no, as a proper football fan you're not) and if you're rooting for the Falcons because, don'cha know, Tom Brady's super-model wife is so stuck up the Patriots don't deserve to win, her diatribe causing you to completely miss the critical two minutes when United hit a brace through Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimović on their way to a 3-0 victory. Were that the sort of intuitive timing that interested me, I'd still be married. If the like ever happens to you, feel free to curse the NFL until you're blue in the face.

I suspect but don't really know why this lady had her panties in a Bündchen over the New England quarterback's better half. To me, Tom and Gisele seem your typical two-income multimillionaire family. Still, desperately wanting to get back to the match lest I miss another goal, I didn't pursue the matter. But once Anthony Taylor blew the final whistle and my blood pressure had again receded below aneurism-inducing levels, albeit not quite back to normal, I resolved to watch the "Big Game." Moreover, I decided to urge on the Patriots. Even though they are the establishment team in a billion-dollar league filled to bursting with establishment teams. Even though both the head coach and quarterback are rumored to be close friends with Donald Trump. Even though they have been caught cheating on more than one occasion. That's right, baby. Stand between me and one United goal, much less two, and I will sell my soul to any corporate devil to gain vengeance.
It may seem hypocritical to label the Patriots the ultimate establishment club when I support United. I don't know, maybe it is. For me, the difference is personality continues to exist in the Premier League. English football, admittedly in dwindling numbers, still has celebrities willing to say whatever is on their minds regardless the consequences. All European football does, for that matter, although my proudly American unilingualism leaves me in the dark to many of the best continental rants.

My appreciation for people who wear their emotions on their sleeves should probably make me a fan of whichever club Sam Allardyce happens to be managing at a given moment. Or Harry Redknapp in his day. I love listening to both.

Even though I am a United fan and José Mourinho's shirtsleeves have produced many crimes of passion, the Special One is an outspoken football figure I emphatically do not like. His hiring to lead my club despite the repeatedly borne out suspicion he cannot keep his ego from self-destructing every three years or so has taken years from my life. That's alright, though. Hating a personality is almost as enjoyable as idolizing one.

Mourinho's inability to capitalize twice when offered glorious opportunities to gain points on the clubs higher up the table inspired. When they do well, it presents a moral dilemma. For instance, United finally making good against the Foxes after both Liverpool and Arsenal lost on Saturday, has me wondering, though not yet completely sold, on the saying "third time pays for all" as it might relate to the Portuguese. Being seduced by the dark side is another pleasurable experience, even though I will always resist to the bitter end, Darth Mou.

American football used to overflow with audacity. Joe Horn pulling cell phones from goalposts after touchdowns. Terrell Owens celebrating on an opponent's midfield logo. Mark Gastineau inventing the sack dance. Joe Namath posing for Playgirl and wearing full length fur coats (not at the same time). Just about every Oakland Raider from the owner on down proudly deviated from societal norm in some fashion. Now, excepting Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, independent thought does not exist in NFL ranks. Every onfield expression of joy is penalized fifteen yards even when they keep their shirts on. Taking a political position will almost certainly get you traded. Just ask Chris Kluwe. After openly supporting same-sex marriage, the former Minnesota punter (an actual athletic position in gridiron football, rather than someone who likes the occasional wager) found himself packing his bags for Oakland. As a result, every player interview or coach's presser is filled with the same banal, uninformative corporate-speak. It's gotten to the point Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is lionized for his curmudgeonly minimalism. Curse that woman for making me root for him.
Before you ask, I don't know what Belichick was doing under the table before wrestling with the microphone. I do know his technophobia is so pervasive he's also decided to boycott the NFL's official Microsoft sideline tablets and is unable to correctly name any social media platform. The point is I miss guys who don't hold back. Like Jim Mora. They've never had doubledeckers in Indianapolis even though I've heard it doesn't rain there in the summertime. Nevertheless, after one ignominious performance, Mora found a bus large enough for his entire 53-man Colts roster to be thrown under.
Another thing English football has, like every part of the world Columbus didn't "discover," is promotion and relegation. The US Constitution holds it "to be self-evident all men are created equal." In other words, every American has the chance to realize their dream. Yet, in order to prevent the worst among its richest sports teams from falling to their true level of incompetency, less well-heeled clubs are permanently bound from reaching their full competitive potential. Socialism is a dirty word best left to Europe except when it comes to America's sporting franchises. After their loss to United, Leicester may very well be facing the drop one season removed from shocking the planet by winning the Premier League title. Nevertheless, the first part actually happened. It is a rags-to-riches (and back to rags) story that can never be written in the so-called Land of Opportunity.

Instead, we have a competition for which, speaking of socialism, the level playing field extends to a strict cap on wages. A perennial underdog is not a club lacking revenue. It's one whose management doesn't know what to do with the obscene wealth they're guaranteed no matter how pathetic their onfield efforts.

The Atlanta Falcons are about as close to a Leicester City as the NFL can come. Their hard-luck billionaire owner is Arthur Blank, whom I already despised for paying $150 million to Major League Soccer, not to promote an otherwise ineligible lower-league side, which would have been bad enough, but to conjure a top-flight club from thin air, then have the round spherical objects to name it United. With the Falcons, he stewards a club which has largely been a doormat, save for one previous Super Bowl appearance. The Dirty Birds are more famous for seeing their former star quarterback and supposed messiah, Michael Vick, imprisoned for running an illegal dog-fighting ring in his spare time. In this, they're actually more virtuous than the Patriots, whose one-time tight end, Aaron Hernandez, is serving a life sentence for murder while being tried for another, unrelated killing.

This isn't another reason to revile the NFL, however. English football is not immune from players with felonious tendencies, such as Joey Barton and Adam Johnson. Vinnie Jones went from Queens Park Rangers to a successful Hollywood career. I hesitate to call it acting, though. Considering he was fined and sentenced to community service during his QPR days for assault causing actual bodily harm and criminal damage, he already knew a thing or two about dodging bullets before Guy Ritchie discovered him.
No, every sport, except maybe synchronized swimming, has its criminal element. A better reason for disliking American football, unless you have a persistent bladder condition, is its stop and start nature, with commercial breaks after every change of possession. That's what makes it the perfect American sport and spawned a legion of iconic Super Bowl commercials. Still, my money will always be on a good Paddy Power ad every time.
That said, the Falcons made it to this Super Bowl because those aforementioned guaranteed revenues allowed them to stumble onto a second, even more messianic quarterback less than two years after parting ways with Vick. Matt Ryan was named the league MVP going into the Super Bowl, having led the NFL's most potent passing attack. No worries there. Brady, after serving a four-game suspension to start the season due to Deflategate, piloted the second.

So, with the game set to start just after six-thirty and yours truly being one of the few Americans who does not own a television or have a broadband account (in order to force myself to leave the house), I set out for my local supermarket at five-forty-five. Having ordered a tuna sandwich, some cold chicken wings, and a super-sized cola from the deli, I settled in at a table in their wi-fi equipped atrium with five minutes to spare. After former President George HW Bush (the elder) was wheeled out for the ceremonial coin toss, a US Navy seaman pushing his chair, wife Barbara riding in a golf cart alongside, and Secret Service agents trailing behind, searching the crowd for fans holding something other than a large plastic cup filled with the world's most expensive beer, Atlanta kicked off, having won the toss but deferring possession until the second half.

To begin the game, the Patriots went three and out, then punted, pinning the Falcons at their own eight-yard line. Rather than passing right out of the gate, Ryan handed the ball to running back Devonta Freeman for a thirty-seven yard gain. When Ryan did drop back to throw, he was sacked, forcing the Falcons to punt on their first possession, as well.

Right about then, the supermarket security guard strolled past. Unlucky enough to have drawn the short straw to work the shift during the game, he noticed I was streaming it and instantly became my new best friend. For the rest of the evening he managed to pass my table every ten minutes, the equivalent of a sustained offensive drive in game time.

The remainder of the first quarter played out similarly to the start, neither side making much headway. Early in the second, though, New England running back LeGarrette Blount was held up by one tackler, then stripped of the ball by Deion Jones. Atlanta had the first turnover and possession in Patriot territory. Ryan threw two passes to primary receiver Julio Jones to get the Falcons inside the twenty, then kept handing the ball to Freeman until he ran it in for a touchdown from the six. After the extra point, Atlanta were up seven. The security guard thought I was joking when I told him. New England's reputation for winning big games was that strong.

After he went back to his rounds, Atlanta's defense stopped the Pats again, then Ryan completed four passes to reach the end zone a second time, extending their lead to fourteen.

On the following possession, the Patriots pieced together a drive, aided by two defensive holding penalties. Just as it looked like New England might be the first team to come back from more than a ten-point deficit, Brady threw an interception on a slant route, the defender returning it eighty-two yards to make the lead twenty-one.
Before the half ended, Brady marched the Pats deep into Falcon territory again. This time a holding penalty forced them into kicking a field goal to go into halftime down 21-3, leading in every statistical category except the important one, and an ass-chewing from Belichick surely in the cards. It could have been worse. The taciturn coach could have left them on the field to suffer through the Lady Gaga half-time show.

Revenge may best be a dish served cold. My plate, unfortunately, appeared to be frozen solid.

In the second half, the Patriots stopped Atlanta but dropped two catchable passes on their first drive. Atlanta moved quickly down the field to extend the lead to 28-3. The security guard was becoming quite excited. It emerged he had $250 riding on the Falcons, and another $250 on them scoring twenty-eight points. More than halfway home, it was looking like he was in for a big payday. The stream began showing pictures of Arthur Blank and his wife, dancing and celebrating with every big play from their Falcons. The guard told me they were famous for this and had also bought a Super Bowl ticket, airfare, and accommodations for every Falcons employee. Blank wasn't too original when it came to naming soccer teams but he apparently wasn't a bad guy otherwise.
My new best friend began to worry that it was all too good to be true, however. "You watch," he said. "These Patriots will come back. They love to make short passes up the field, nickel and diming you to death. Plus, they own the referees. They'll start getting calls."

As predicted, New England refused to surrender. They "nickel and dimed" their way into Falcon territory, including an atypical 15-yard scramble for a first down from the normally immobile Brady. After the Pats managed their first touchdown, Stephen Gotkowski doinked the extra point off the upright. To add insult to injury he botched the onside kick, giving the Falcons possession at New England's forty-one. Yet, the Patriots defense had also come back to life. Atlanta was suddenly the side with a quarterback under pressure and receivers with butter fingers. Belichick's half-time speeches must be much more communicative than his post-match media sessions.

The third quarter ended with another example of what is wrong with gridiron football. The Falcons, forced into punting again, allowed the forty-second clock to run down before snapping the ball. When the referee's whistle blew and the yellow flag fluttered to the ground, there were three seconds remaining in the quarter. Atlanta was penalized five yards for delay of game but the NFL sees no reason to restore such wasted time. The referee repositioned the ball, signaled the timekeeper, and the final three seconds ran off without the Falcons having to run a play.

They still led 28-9 as the fourth quarter began. Nonetheless, the security guard was more convinced he and they were doomed. New England scored another field goal, but time was their enemy now more so than Atlanta. Down sixteen with nearly half the quarter gone, they needed two touchdowns with two extra point conversions. Brady's offensive linemen were finally giving him time. His receivers were no longer dropping passes. The first touchdown and conversion arrived. The security guard began speaking in tongues.

Atlanta gave him momentary hope, however. Ryan drove them into field goal range, the opportunity to make it a two-score game again very real. But the Patriots dug in. They pushed the Falcons back on three straight plays, those predicted penalties somehow materializing. On fourth and thirty-three, the Falcons were forced to punt.
Matt Bosher's kick pinned the Patriots inside their ten-yard line. They had most of the field to go to erase the remaining deficit. Atlanta's pass rushers found one last push, nearly sacking Brady in the end zone for a safety. Instead, he managed to throw the ball away for an incompletion. On the next play, receiver Chris Hogan saw a perfect pass tipped away at the last moment. Then Brady completed a pass for a first down. And another. And another. The last one an amazing catch by Julian Edelman, who juggled another tipped ball, but kept it from rolling off a defender's shin onto the turf. Video review showed the ball a centimeter or two from the ground when Edelman pulled it in. If you ever wonder where cliché originates, it's plays like that. Game of inches, indeed.

From there, Atlanta's demise and my revenge were inevitable. Brady threw another touchdown pass. The two-point conversion on a direct snap to the running back was successful. Atlanta had nearly a minute to drive into field goal range and save their blushes. New England didn't let them. In the first overtime in Super Bowl history, New England took possession. Brady calmly directed them down the field. Six plays later, they were on Atlanta's fifteen. A defensive pass interference play at the goal line moved them to the two. After an incomplete pass, Brady gave the ball to James White who ran it in. Bill Belichick smiled for the first time in two years. New England had improbably won what will likely go down as the greatest Super Bowl ever, giving coach and quarterback five victories in seven trips together.
Even though I had not allowed my frustration with the talkative woman in the café to show, meaning I can only gloat on the inside next time she crosses my path, my revenge was complete. It would have been sweet, too, were it not for Arthur Blank and his wife's sad faces on my monitor, now looking more like extras from The Walking Dead than contestants on Dancing With the Stars. His magnanimous gesture to his employees had been cruelly transformed into another dreadful working weekend by the Patriots. Then there was the live, in-person disappointment I knew the security guard had to be feeling, $500 almost in his hand, now never to be seen. He smiled manfully, however, thanking me for letting him peek over my shoulder whenever he could. What could I say? It's the story of my life, too. Can't win for losing. Thankfully, United have Watford on Saturday.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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