Tuesday, December 7, 2010


It was Sunday night and I was watching a game of American Football on TV.

Actually, no, that is a complete lie. For a start, I wasn't really watching the game since a large plate of nachos had appeared which was commanding my attention. Secondly, this was Canadian Football. Prior to that evening, I wasn't aware that Canadian Football differed from its southern counterpart. It appeared to be an equally inaccurately named sport in which players with incredibly padded upper bodies manipulated a non-ball like object without their feet. Fans around the room assured me however, that not only did the Canadian Football League (CFL) have different rules from the National Football League (NFL) in the USA, but that they both came into being quite independently at around the same time.

The story goes that in the mid-19th century, McGill University in Montreal learnt a variation of Rugby from the British Army who were garrisoned in the city. Over the border, meanwhile, Havard started playing what was known as the 'Boston Game' which was similar to football (ok, ok, 'soccer') but allowed the ball to be carried. In 1873, Yale University invited Havard (among others) to a convention to produce an official set of rules for college soccer football games. Harvard boycotted this, since Yale refused to consider the variations used in the Boston Game. Yale returned the favour by declining to play this mutant game with Harvard the following year and Harvard, in a huff, invited down McGill to play instead.

When McGill arrived, it became obvious that there were many differences between the Canadian game and the Boston Game, the latter of which still retained many of the features of soccer football. A hybrid of rules was mashed together for the tournament, but the Harvard team liked the new tactics so much that they adopted purely Canadian rules for the second half of the game. In 1875, Harvard managed to convince Yale this newest variation was a great idea, although Yale attempted a show of authority by insisting on a round ball for their match. This was almost certainly singularly pointless since people had lost interest in kicking it.

Nowadays, there are several subtle differences between the sports on either side of the border. The CFL have an extra player, giving 12 men per side, who plays a backfield position. The pitch is larger, being 110 yards long by 65 yards wide, compared to 100 yards long by 53 1/3 yards wide. The ball is also a slightly different variation of not-round-and-ball-like. I was assured there were also some rule differences, but the basic concept of men wearing tight Lycra over their oversized pads while wrestling with one another seems remarkably similar.

The particular match that I was being instructed on was the 'Grey Cup', the championship of the CFL and equivalent of the USA Super Bowl. Having watched both, I would say there were some very noticeable differences that had nothing to do with the number of players or pitch size. For a start, the outside temperature measurement seemed to consist of the same digits, but with a minus sign in front of them. Players wore long sleeved shirts under their padding and mist rose from their mouths. The half-time musical act were forced to wear fingerless gloves and the necessity of layers made the chance of a 'costume malfunction' considerably lower. Oddly enough, the coach of the winning team still got covered with Gatorade.

Bizarrely, the CFL had a brief splurge where it expanded to include a number of teams from America. Since the two versions of North American football are still very similar, it is not entirely obvious how they sold this idea. The incorporated teams weren't even from confused border towns --perhaps angling for hospital as well as stadium access-- but from places that included California, Las Vegas and Baltimore. This USA invasion ran from 1992 - 1996, after which the league became entirely based in Canada once again, although this was in part because the only non-Canadian team to win the Grey Cup, the Baltimore Stallions, moved to Montreal.

So the game that started off being the same as real soccer football in the USA, was corrupted by the Brits teaching Rugby to the Canadians. Of course, we may yet come around full circle since interest in soccer is rising in the USA, who even bided to host the 2018 World Cup. Undoubtedly, this enthusiasm is due to their success in the last world cup in their match against England, which was summerised so perfectly by the New York Post:

World Cup Shocker: USA WINS 1:1

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