“Halfback passes to centre, back to wing, back to centre, centre holds it! Holds it! Holds it!”
The tension around Springfield is palpable. The footballing might of Portugal and Mexico are taking a break from the heady heights of the Maracanã, the Camp Nou and other such glamourous stadiums to the backwaters of the United States of America. Why, one might ask? Because this was the halcyon era of the Simpsons, a time where the writers still took the time to develop a back story to feed the overall episode plot.
In this episode, the soccer was a precursor to Homer getting a gun and joining the NRA. The premise looks at how one small scuffle at the Mexico-Portugal game spills over into a full-scale riot, which develops into a series of lootings around the town. In the aftermath, the Simpson family look into a home security alarm. Perturbed at the $500 fee, Homer takes matters into his own hands and purchases a handgun, much to the chagrin of Marge.
As wonderful, thoughtful and downright hilarious as this episode is (see Moe turning one gun into five, and Bart innocently telling a local hooker that he is “looking for a good time”), this article is not designed to look at the overall episode. Instead, I am looking in particular at the first few minutes. This is Heart of Football, after all. We’ll leave the gun debate to others. We prefer our shooters to be centre forwards taking a pop at goal!
In the previous nine seasons of The Simpsons, I struggle to recall one instance of a central character having any vague interest in the sport. The beginning of this episode puts this concept on its head. It begins with an advert for the big game, with Bart asking Homer why he’s never taken him to a soccer game and both vocal Simpson kids urging their parents to take them to the match. “It’s all here, fast kickin’, low scorin’ and ties… you bet!”
As if this brutal (and not entirely unfair) summary of the beautiful game wasn’t enough to tempt the viewers, the commercial then jumps into naming a string of the stars on offer. Rather than shouting out the names of the rising stars of the time, such as the mercurial Luis Figo or future El Tri captain Rafael Marquez, we are treated to a string of, at best, generic, at worst, stereotypical, Brazilian-esque names. Homer is largely dismissive of this, having never heard of the players in question. As soon as the mention of autographs being signed is mentioned then he is sold.
It is worth noting at this point that this episode aired in 1997 (and was most likely storyboarded somewhere between 1995 and 1996). The impact may have been more suited to an earlier season, as by 1997 the USA were three years removed from having hosted the FIFA World Cup, and it is hard to image even the Springfield residents, hardly the Ivy League stomping ground of America, were this oblivious to non-American football. But I digress…
The cut-scene takes us to the Springfield Stadium, more commonly seen hosting events like the Springfield Speedway, featuring Truckasaurus, but a more traditional sporting event is taking place. It is game day, and Springfield regulars like Barney, Apu, the Lovejoys and the Springfield Elementary bullies, to name but a few, are all spread out throughout the scene.
We are brought back to Homer, who claims “I’ll kill myself if Portugal doesn’t win”. This, along with the entire opening segment, is a wonderful example of the power of live sport, and football in particular. The fandom, the need to be involved. 24 hours prior, Homer wouldn’t have given a damn about this sport, he hadn’t even heard of this game, and yet now, minutes before kick-off, he has developed a real attachment to the team. I found this myself in 2010 when I went to an NFL game for the first time. Twelve years on and I still love the Denver Broncos, out of sheer happenstance…
The downside of this episode is that it is a product of its time. The previously mentioned ‘star-player’ names don’t age particularly well, nor does the next gimmick. Bart gets snacky and shouts over to the snack vendor “hey paella man, over here!”, to which the worker obliges by filling up a bowl of piping hot paella and throwing it – frisbee style – into the 10-year-olds hand. Again, it was probably filed under the category of satirical, a play on the usual US-sports tradition of calling for a hot dog or plate of nachos – the custom being you pass your dollars down the line and in return the crowd passes along your snacks. In 2022 it feels that the paella is a little on the nose, but it is important to remember that this was made for 1997.
While the episode let’s itself down in terms of some of these jabs at the Hispanic stereotypes, it earns itself a pat on the back for dealing with the issue of commercialisation. Lisa looks on in delight as Brazilian legend Pele walks onto the field towards the microphone. Instead of hyping up the match, he is there to sell. “Pele is king of the soccerfield. To be king of your kitchen, use Cressfield Wax Paper”. He is then handed a comically large bag of cash and walks away. This was very much a time period where football was transitioning away from a purist sport and big money sponsorships and player endorsements were rife in the big leagues.
Two and a half minutes into the episode and the game kicks off, with Mexico passing amongst each other, Portugal holding a strong defensive line and the fans going wild. This goes on, and on, and on, with neither player moving an inch in any direction. After 15-20 seconds (hats off to the animators for presumably taking a half-day here…), the crowd starts to quieten, the excitement turning to an air of disappointment. Silence fills the ground before Homer stands and shouts “boring!”.
TV broadcaster Kent Brockman gives his account of the game, evidently losing the will to live with every sideways pass. “Halfback passes to centre, back to wing, back to centre, centre holds it! Holds it! Holds it!” The camera then pans along to the commentator next to Kent, a parody of a typical South American commentator who repeats every word that Brockman says, only with an incredibly passionate, fast-paced enthusiasm. While previous stereotypes in this episode feel a little uneasy, this particular instance hits the mark perfectly.
Krusty the Clown’s Shakespearean #2, Sideshow Mel, simply can’t bare it any more and begins to walk out. Moe, ever the aggressive type, decides to do the same, cutting Mel off. Well-meaning moustachio Ned Flanders tries to placate them and ends up getting a punch to the face as a thank you, and within seconds the entire stadium is embroiled in fisticuffs. Some may see this as a slight on football, with the game coming out of the 90s a much more reformed game than the thuggish days of the 70s and 80s. For me, I found it amusing. I can see why this may rub people up the wrong way, yet realistically it is a little bit silly to get too wound up by a cartoon…
This was an episode in the era where Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein had a huge influence over the show and they deserve huge credit for the direction that The Simpsons took in the late 90s. While the football segment only lasted little over three minutes, it is one of the most iconic sporting scenes depicted in the show. As a diehard football fan myself, it makes me wince to see some of the ways that Americans view the sport, but their job is to ramp up the exaggerations. It is a cartoon after all, not a documentary. IMDB rates this episode as an 8.3/10 and overall it is hard to argue here. Admittedly that is based on the entire show, not the vacuum of the episode’s preamble, however if you bother to finish The Cartridge Family, and you should, then you will not be disappointed.