The Any Given Sunday Night – Paolo Bandini.

A great tool in increasing the popularity of the NFL in the UK is coverage in mainstream media. Paolo Bandini of The Guardian is the journalist driving forward coverage of the sport in the UK. Through his work on the Talkboards on the Guardian website, debate and chatter is whipped up into a frenzy on a weekly basis through a prediction league and other football-based anecdotes, and we thought we should try and grab an insight into Paolo’s personal experiences within the game.

Paolo obliged, and gave us a wonderful interview here at Any Given Sunday (Night), letting us know how he got into the sport, his thoughts on the season, and his predictions for the big prize at the end of the campaign.

Welcome to Any Given Sunday (Night), Paolo. Let’s begin by hearing a bit about your background with the NFL. How did you get into the sport, and which team, if any, do you follow?

I first got into the sport while visiting some family friends in Arizona when I was a teenager in 1997. I had been broadly dismissive of the NFL as a kid – football (or perhaps I should say soccer) was always my main sport, compared to which the American game looked far too complicated, as well as slow with all those breaks for adverts. But we were lazing around when a Cardinals game came on the television and I decided to try watching properly for once.

With a few pointers from my friends it didn’t take long to realise the sport isn’t as confusing as it looks, and when I got back home I decided to pick up a copy of Madden 97 on Playstation. It wasn’t long before I was totally hooked on that, and when I got chatting to another friend of mine at school (who I had known for years without ever talking about American football) he told me he was crazy about the NFL.

A few days later he came up to me and said he’d done some research and there was an amateur league in the UK. The next thing you know we were both trying out for the then newly-formed London Blitz youth team, along with one other friend we roped in. That was pretty much that – I wound up staying with the Blitz youth right through to 19, and even wound up as one of the captains for the Great British youth team as we bombed miserably at the European Championships!

Anyway, the NFL team I root for is the Cardinals – entirely because of where I was when I saw that first game. I probably could have been luckier in that regard, but hey – through my job I had the incredible privilege of being there to see them play in their first ever Super Bowl two years ago, and even though they lost that was something pretty special.

What are your thoughts on the season so far? Is this one of the most unpredictable seasons you have seen in a while?

Absolutely. The NFL has long prided itself on parity and this idea that any team can turn things around very quickly with the draft and free agency, but you wouldn’t have found a lot of people predicting that the Kansas City Chiefs would win the AFC West in preseason, nor that the Cowboys would go 6-10 (indeed, many had them going to the Super Bowl), while the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts would be scraping into the postseason on the last weekend.

I think despite this notion of parity we’re used to having one or two standout favourites going into the play-offs but while the New England Patriots are favoured right now, even they have had some funny games – most obviously getting blown out by Cleveland. Three weeks ago the Packers nearly beat them with Matt Flynn under center.

What’s notable to me is that in the last five seasons we have always had at least one team win its first 10 games. Everybody knows the – disputed – stories about players from the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins getting together each year and pop a bottle of champagne after the last team loses its perfect record. This season they were celebrating as early as week five. Nobody even got to 4-0 – the Chiefs were the last ones unbeaten and then only because they had a bye in week four.

The NFL regularly wows us with last-gasp victories and high-scoring match-ups. Personally, what is the greatest game you have ever seen?

God, there are plenty. The Cardinals’ win over the Packers in the wildcard game last year was preposterous but brilliant, and I was watching on television when the Titans pulled off the Music City Miracle in against the Bills in 2000, then again when the Colts came from 21-3 down to end the Patriots’ hoodoo over them in the 2006 AFC Championship game. I named that as game of the decade when I was doing an awards run-down last year, but if I’m being totally honest I think the one that will probably always stay with me and will always stay with me was Super Bowl XLII, when the New York Giants derailed the Pats’ perfect season.

I was covering the game for the Guardian, and it was the first time I had ever attended a Super Bowl, so I’m sure there’s a bit of that tied up in my memory of it as well, but I have been to a couple more since and if anything they have only helped reinforce quite how incredible that game was. The Steelers’ win over the Cardinals a year later had plenty of last-quarter drama but there was nothing like the reaction in the press seats to the one I saw when David Tyree came up with that catch against his helmet.

Media credentials for an event like that always state on them that you cannot make any public show of support for either side, but all around people were just losing control – shrieking, screaming, whooping. I think the context of the Patriots’ incredible season just made it all seem so improbable. When Brady led that scoring drive in the fourth quarter I just think everyone assumed it was done. Everyone except the Giants.

How far do you think the NFL has come in Europe in recent years with the invention of the International Series? Do you think London is ready for an NFL franchise?

Obviously as a fan of the sport I’m thrilled about the international series. I think there has been some naivety about the audience that exists in the UK on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ve heard and indeed spoken to US pundits who thought it wouldn’t last, that after a couple of games the curiosity over here would fade. What I don’t think they realised is that there is a significant community of people in the UK who really follow the sport and care about it passionately – indeed, at youth, senior and university level, American football participation has been growing significantly over the last few years. We may not be back where we were during that first wave of enthusiasm in the 80s, but I certainly don’t think they’re ever going to have a problem selling out Wembley for one game.

Whether there is enough support here yet for a London franchise is a different question, though. Would the many fans who come down from, say, Scotland, really make that trip eight times a season? Especially at the moment when money is tight (NFL tickets certainly don’t come cheap)? Maybe, I just don’t know. For me, a more realistic proposal in the medium term would be increasing the number of games in the UK to maybe three per season – I know the league has mooted something along these lines during proposals for extending the length of the regular season – and ideally holding them in different cities.

I have to admit I’m pretty sceptical about the practicalities of having a team in London. New York might be a manageable flight, for instance, but west coast teams would be at such a huge disadvantage playing road games here. That said, every owner I have had the chance to speak to about this has pretty much said it’s a question of ‘when, not if’ London will get a team.

How do you find the NFL compares to your other love, football? Are there factors you enjoy more in the NFL?

Ha – I’m not sure I even know how to answer that one to be honest. I love both sports, and they’re clearly very different. Having mostly played at centre-back in football and linebacker in American football, I will say that the one factor I always enjoyed more about while playing was getting to clobber people without getting sent off!

No interview would be complete without putting you on the spot for a Superbowl prediction. Who do you think will be lighting up Texas at the end of the season?

If the Eagles get on a roll with with Michael Vick I think they could overturn anyone, but I’m finding it hard to look past the Patriots. “Never pick against the Pats” has become the unofficial mantra among many posters on the weekly Talkboard I run for the Guardian, so I’ll stick with that.

Interview by David Dickson.

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