LONDON – The Bears say their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today is important, but they probably had to repeat that several times over the previous few days just to convince themselves.
Until a well-attended, NFL-hosted pep rally at Trafalgar Square on Saturday afternoon, nothing here had suggested that “American football” and “important” belong in the same sentence. We conspiracy theorists suspected but couldn’t prove that the league had promised the crowd an appearance by Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney.
When the Bears arrived at their hotel Friday morning after a seven-hour flight from Chicago, there wasn’t a mob of fans waiting to greet their heroes. There wasn’t a line of autograph seekers. There wasn’t even someone around to smack Devin Hester across the back of the head.If the Bears had picked up Friday’s edition of The Times of London, they would have had to wade through 11 pages of soccer, five pages of rugby and a page each of auto racing, tennis, cycling and track before they got to a story about the Bears.
And even then, it was about Mike Ditka.
‘‘It was nothing for [William Perry] to drink a case of beer after a game,” Da Coach revealed.
If somebody were to drink that much beer here, it’d be the only buzz associated with this game.
Can’t fault our friends
Coach Lovie Smith called the Bears’ journey to London a ‘‘business trip,” which is what you’d expect him to say. If he ever referred to a trip as a ‘‘bacchanalia,” you’d have yourself a story.
But this is a business trip for the simple reason that very few people seem to be taking much pleasure in the game being played here. Sunday’s game won’t be a sellout, though in London’s defense, Wembley Stadium seats 82,000.
Hey, fair’s fair. The majority of Americans don’t care about soccer. Why should the English care about our brand of football? The difference, of course, is that soccer fans can’t understand why the sport has failed to take off in the United States while NFL fans couldn’t care less if football goes global.
The league continues to push its game on London for a simple reason: money. If the game ever establishes a beachhead here, it won’t be long before the Chinese and all their disposable income will be buying Tim Tebow throwback jerseys. That’s the dream, at least.
When the Bears and the Buccaneers face off Sunday, they will play in front of a crowd that doesn’t know it’s an important game and, more important, doesn’t know the game.
Ambassador Lovie tried to sow the seeds of football Friday.
‘‘It’s just an international game that you should love,” he said. ‘‘Football, I mean it’s an exciting game. How could you not like it? That’s why I thought it was important for our football team to come, for guys to get a chance to see a player like Jay Cutler play.
‘‘.â€‰.â€‰. I realize soccer is a big sport, cricket is a big sport, but I think football can be a popular sport over here also.”
The Bears practiced at The Oval Cricket Ground, home of the Surrey County Cricket Club. Cutler looked comfortable with a cricket bat in his hand Friday, going deep on a few balls thrown by noted bowler Brian Urlacher. Each should probably stick with his American day job.
Baseball fell flat, too
In 2000, Sammy Sosa visited the stadium on behalf of Major League Baseball, but neither baseball nor Flintstones vitamins took off because of it. No apologies from the English were necessary. They like their sports here. We like our sports in the United States.
Football is an oddity in England, a spectacle. The NFL is talking about playing two regular-season games a year here instead of one, with an eye on putting a franchise in London.
Never mind that in the past, fans here have cheered the hardest for field goals and extra points. Maybe Robbie Gould walks out of Wembley an icon, but I don’t see that as a sign that football has finally arrived.
Meanwhile, Ditka is involved with a group that wants to bring football to India, according to The Times.
‘‘There’s 1.3 billion people over there, and they got the money and nothing to put on TV but cricket,” he said. ‘‘You say, so where are we going to get the players? We’re going to get them from India. They had 10,000 people that signed up for it already. Ten of them might be worth a damn, I don’t know.”
You have to love Ditka. It doesn’t mean you have to love football here.