I f you've never watched a Super Bowl, tonight would be the perfect time to change that. Because the two clubs battling for ultimate honours tonight in Arlington, Texas, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, are arguably the greatest in American Football.
To see why Pittsburgh deserve top billing, you need only look at the list of Super Bowl winners. The Steelers have won six, more than any other franchise. The side which won four titles between 1975 and 1980 may be the finest the sport has ever seen. And the current outfit will also stake a convincing claim to greatness should they add the 2011 title to those they won in 2006 and 2009.
The Packers are no slouches when it comes to Super Bowls, their haul of three places them joint fourth on the all-time list. But that's not what makes the team special. Because in a country where professional sport is, as it is over here, dominated by big-city teams the Packers are an anomaly, a throwback to the days of the '20s and '30s when small-town sides briefly flourished in the infancy of the game.
In comparison to the American mega cities with their million-plus citizens, your New York, your Chicago, your Houston, your Philadelphia, Dallas and Detroit, Green Bay tips the scales at 101,412 which makes it slightly larger than Limerick. The 268th biggest city in the US, nestling on the shores of Lake Michigan in the State of Wisconsin, it's the kind of place you don't usually find in the world of big-time professional sport. The Packers are the only community-owned, not-for-profit major league sports club in America, something that gives them the kind of local connection which the GAA fan or the follower of a League of Ireland team might identify with.
It borders on the miraculous that the Packers have survived in an era when teams have a tendency to uproot themselves from one major city to another potentially more profitable location. But they haven't just survived, they've thrived. Before the first Super Bowl in 1967, the Packers won nine NFL Championships, the de facto national title back then. Add those to their three Super Bowls and they top the all-time honours list. The Packers are the ultimate giantkillers.
In the words of American sportswriter Alan Shipnuck, "There is no happier place than Green Bay on a Sunday evening after the Packers have won. The beer tastes better, the girls are even prettier and few seem to notice the bite in the air. In a town defined by its team, civic temperament can be quantified on a scoreboard."
Green Bay is the kind of place which named a street after a star player, Brett Favre, when he was still playing. Every single home game since 1960 has been sold out. There are over 80,000 people on the waiting list for season tickets. The average waiting time is more than 30 years so it's not surprising that local residents often put new-born infants on the list.
Perhaps it's not surprising that a recent Sports Illustrated poll of NFL players saw Packers fans being selected as the most knowledgeable in the league. (The Steelers came second -- these are two serious football towns.) The club's history is full of larger-than-life figures like founder and coach Curly Lambeau, who led the team to six titles in a 30-year reign and after whom the stadium is named; Vince Lombardi, who managed the side to five national crowns in nine years and whose famous maxim 'winning isn't everything, it's the only thing,' and array of motivational techniques have inspired coaches in very different sports; Don Hutson, the '40s wide receiver described by Peter King of Sports Illustrated, probably the best football writer in the world, as the greatest player ever to play the game; and events, such as The Ice Bowl, a 1967 NFC Championship match against the Dallas Cowboys which the Packers won at the death in temperatures of -25 Centigrade. The conditions were so cold that the officials stopped using whistles after the referee's froze to his lips.
In keeping with this tradition the club's run to tonight's big game has been one long battle against the odds. In their first game of the season, they lost star running back Ryan Grant and in the fifth star tight end Jermichael Finley. Neither have played since and the Packers have been cursed with injuries all year. No team which has lost as many players to injury has ever previously enjoyed a winning season, let alone made the Super Bowl.
Going into the final week of the regular season, they were 33/1 to win the Super Bowl. Needing to beat the Chicago Bears to even qualify for the play-offs, they only pulled ahead in the final quarter. Seeded in the final sixth slot, they have had to win three away games to even make the finale, becoming just the second sixth-seeded team to do so. Once more it appears that their fate is being scripted by a combination of Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg.
Yet the little club that could will start as slight favourites tonight. They have an extraordinary quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, who in just his third season has the highest rating for that key position in the history of the NFL, they have a sublimely athletic wide receiver in Greg Jennings and two of the league's best defenders, Charles Woodson, last year's defensive player of the year, and Clay Matthews III, who was second for the same award this year, a long-haired tornado of energy and aggression who sacks quarterbacks for fun.
Pittsburgh are not short of stars either. Troy Polamalu, who beat Matthews to the defensive honours this year, is sui generis, a defender who plays like an attacker, floating around to see where he can do most
damage, intercepting a pass one minute, tackling the next, sometimes sacking the quarterback.
His defensive colleague James Harrison may well be the most fearsome tackler in a league not short of fearsome characters and has been fined three times this season for dangerous hits. Pittsburgh are the league's tough guys, they win by grinding teams down before quarterback Ben Roethlisberger utilises his uncanny knack for making big plays at moments of maximum pressure. It should be a great game.
Normally I'd be cheering for Pittsburgh because of the Irish connection. The club is owned by the Rooney family whose paterfamilias Dan is the current US Ambassador to this country. And there's the small matter of several of my Connemara ancestors having decamped to the city back in the bad old days when Irish people had to emigrate because uncaring legislators left them with no choice.
But there is something about the Packers, a small-town team in a big-city sport, a Cinderella team who time and again go to the ball and turn heads there, a club with one of the greatest traditions in world sport. Who couldn't warm to a story like theirs? They will be wearing the white hats tonight, Pittsburgh the black. But that's the way the Steelers have always liked it so the Ambassador will hardly mind this small act of national treachery on my part.
Come on the Packers.
Sunday Indo Sport