The head coaches of both teams that will be playing in the 47th Super Bowl tonight in New Orleans know each other very well: they are brothers. The elder, 50-year-old John Harbaugh, is head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. His younger brother, 49-year-old Jim, manages the San Francisco 49ers. Even the most daring Hollywood director wouldn’t concoct such an unlikely cast. But in the Super Bowl, truth is often stranger than fiction.
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The Super Bowl is an American national holiday, for all intents and purposes. Last year’s game had the highest viewer ratings in American television history, and the second highest in the world, after the UEFA Champions League soccer finals. The ritual of families or friends getting together to watch the Super Bowl on widescreen televisions has its own name: “Super Bowl Sunday”. On this day, America consumes the most food, except for Thanksgiving, and certainly the largest amount of calories. To make a crude and sexist generalization, one might say that most of the men are interested in football while most of the women are interested in the commercials – leaving each gender time to eat and gain weight between plays or the next round of ads.
The CBS television network charges $3.8 million for every 30 seconds of advertising, and this year the traditional accompanying scandals have a distinctly Israeli flavor. The network nixed an ad from SodaStream, but not because one of the company’s plants is located near Ma’ale Adumim, across the Green Line, but because of pressure from competing soft-drink giants, Pepsi and Coca-Cola. An ad from the Web hosting company GoDaddy.com starring Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli drew a lot of attention when CBS censored some of Rafaeli’s more provocative closeups as she kissed a young, fairly dorky-looking nerd who, luckily for him, understands computers.
Coca-Cola’s ad also got some harsh criticism from groups representing Arab-Americans because of what they called its “racist” depiction of a camel-rider in the desert. Groups representing black people and Jamaican ex-pats got upset over a Volkswagen ad that portrayed a white person speaking in a Jamaican accent. An atmosphere of scandal also hovered over the performance of the singer Beyoncé, who will be performing during the halftime show, after it was learned that she had lip-synched the American national anthem at President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony two weeks ago. Gay-rights groups got in on the act as well when one of the Baltimore players spoke in favor of same-sex marriage while another player from San Francisco said he was opposed to gay members on his team’s roster.
This Super Bowl is also a tale of three cities. First among them is the host city New Orleans, which hopes that the event will help it emerge from the doldrums that have plagued it since Hurricane Katrina hit it in 2005. Although the nightlife in the famous French Quarter is livelier than ever and hotels are at full occupancy, entire quarters of New Orleans are still abandoned, with thousands of their former residents gone to live elsewhere. The city’s officials hope that some of the fame and stardust of the Super Bowl will linger even after the game is over.
As for the two cities whose teams are participating, it is a matchup of opposites: not just East Coast versus West Cast, but also a city of color and radiance versus the one with image that’s dull and the gray. On the one side there is sparkling San Francisco, lively, liberal and cosmopolitan, a bastion of technological innovation and artistic avant-garde, and on the other side Baltimore, a struggling metropolis with contrasted with glory days in its past, a shrinking population in its present and a crime rate that continues to rise, as captured in the lauded television series "The Wire."
Even in football - there's also a game going on, after all - the advantage lies with San Francisco, even if the gap between the two teams is less dramatic than the one between their cities. The 49ers are known by the nickname given to the fortune-seekers who streamed into California in the middle of the 19th century during the state's Gold Rush. They are a well-established team that has never lost a Super Bowl match, holding second place in all-time Super Bowl victories, with five. The 49ers have a rock-solid defense and a crushing offense, and most bookmakers and statisticians, including The New York Times' famous election analyst Nate Silver, predicting a surefire victory for San Francisco, with sizable victory spread.
Baltimore is a city with a splendid football tradition, but most of it belongs to the Colts franchise, which moved to Indianapolis in 1984. The Ravens franchise, whose name comes from the poem "The Raven" by the writer and Baltimore resident Edgar Allen Poe, came to Baltimore from Cleveland in 1996, where they played under the name the Browns. In its 16 years in Baltimore, the franchise has amassed a fairly good record: one Super Bowl championship, twice American Football Conference champions and four times champion of its AFC North division. Still, the Ravens are considered inferior in almost every aspect to the 49ers, except for in a few specific positions like field goal-kicking.
The offensive game of both teams will be led by two brilliant quarterbacks, the Ravens' Joe Flacco and the 49ers's Colin Kaepernick. The former is relatively media shy and inconspicuous while the latter is a shining superstar and favorite of sports commentators. Both quarterbacks have great throwing arms, and are particularly good at long-distance passing. Both of them are capable of pulling last-minute victories from the jaws of defeat. Both can be instruments of last minute, heart stopping sports drama. Because of this, and not just because of the hype, the hoopla and the food, tens of millions of viewers will remain glued to their TV screens until the game's very last second.