Ordinarily a trip to Detroit, the most blighted of US big cities, would not be considered a perk. But for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks, getting to spend this first, frigid weekend of February
in Detroit is the sweetest reward imaginable.

Detroit is hosting this year’s Super Bowl, the 40th edition of the National Football League title game, and it is the Steelers and the Seahawks who will be going head-to-head on Sunday at Ford Field for the championship.

It is a match-up that has the potential to yield a terrific game. It is also a contest with a fascinating cultural and economic sub-text.

Detroit is home to the US automotive manufacturing industry and it is no exaggeration to say that the industry’s decades-long death spiral has devastated the city. In the past half-century, its population has fallen by more than 50 per cent to below 900,000. As of 2004, more than one-third of the residents were living in poverty. Last year, the unemployment rate was 14.1 per cent, nearly triple the national rate, while 374 homicides – the majority of them unsolved – were recorded, a figure that places Detroit among the most violent cities in America.

In an effort to put its best face forward for the Super Bowl, the city has tidied up downtown, repaved roads and demolished abandoned buildings. With three casinos in town and more than 30 new restaurants, fans will not lack for entertainment, and the city is banking on a nice windfall. It could certainly use one – in recent years, bus routes, garbage collection and other essential services have been slashed due to lack of funding.

Detroit stands as the most poignant symbol of the demise of the rust belt but Pittsburgh, another industrial hub, has also suffered, if not quite so harshly. What cars were to Detroit, steel was to Pittsburgh, and the decline of the US steel industry took a brutal toll on the city. In recent years, Pittsburgh has reinvented itself as a technology hub (thanks largely to the presence of Carnegie Mellon University), but tens of thousands of working-class residents have left, the city is in dire fiscal shape, and there is a sense that the community’s character has changed and not for the better.

One reason the city is so fiercely attached to the Steelers is that they are seen to represent the Pittsburgh of old and to operate according to the old rules. If the NFL can be said to have a blue-collar team, it is surely the Steelers, who play a gritty style of football and keep the flashiness to a minimum.

The team was founded by the legendary Art Rooney in 1933. He was succeeded as president by his son Dan, who is now 73 and still signing the cheques. The same continuity can be seen on the sidelines: remarkably, the Steelers have had just two coaches, Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, in the past 37 years.

Noll’s durability was easy to explain: he led the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s and that squad is recalled as probably the greatest in NFL history.

Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, has had nothing like that success. He has taken the club to the play-offs in 10 of his 14 seasons but has yet to deliver a championship. Between 1998 and 2000, the team missed out on the play-offs. With any other team in any other city, Cowher would almost certainly have been fired. Yet the Rooney family stood by him and a city built on loyalty – where workers gave their all to the industrial giants and were rewarded with secure jobs and comfortable, dignified middle-class lives – generally applauded them for it.

If Pittsburgh is a symbol of the industrial age, Seattle is one of the lodestars of the digital era. Redmond, Washington, just outside the city, is home to Microsoft. Paul Allen, who co-founded the company with Bill Gates, happens to own the Seahawks. In addition to providing software for the knowledge-based economy, Seattle provides its fuel – Starbucks, of course, which is based there, as is Amazon.com.

When the Boeing Corporation, once the fulcrum of the local economy, announced five years ago it was shifting its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago, the blow was quickly and rather painlessly absorbed. Seattle had already moved on.

So who looks to have the advantage in tomorrow’s battle of the hardhats and the latte-sippers? Seattle had the best record in the National Football Conference and comfortably defeated the Washington Redskins and the Carolina Panthers to book their place in Detroit. But the bookmakers have made the Steelers slight favourites and with some justification.

Pittsburgh have been impressive in the play-offs, winning games on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos – tougher teams than Seattle had to face. The Steelers would also appear to have star power and sentimentality on their side.

The likeliest hero to emerge from the game is Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The 23-year-old wunderkind has been brilliant in the play-offs. Leading his team to a title on Sunday would cement his status as the Next Great One.

Then there is Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis, affectionately known as “The Bus” (owing to his comically stocky build). Bettis is 33 and is considering retirement. For this reason, and because the game is being played in his native Detroit, Bettis’s team-mates were determined to get him to his first Super Bowl, and the emotional edge will clearly be with the Steelers.

The Bus rumbling to victory in the Motor City – it does have an undeniable ring to it.

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