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US football slowly wins popularity

It was a scene familiar to many American football fans - the tiny stadium packed with a rowdy crowd, the opposing teams yelling at each other and butting helmets as they revved up for the big game, cheerleaders prancing, beer being drunk and spilt, high-energy music and chants of "go, offence, go!" echoing around the field. The only strange part of this football contest was that it was being played in Slovakia, at Bratislava's Štadión Istrochemu.
Slovakia, Americans are often told, is a country devoted to its hockey and soccer - a nation that dismisses traditional American sports like baseball and football as boring and confusing. But while many Slovaks remain uninspired by baseball, organisers of a six year-old American football league say their game is beginning to catch on with players and fans alike. Team owners add that with better coaching and more lucrative sponsorship, the game could become a national favourite.


The Bratislava Monarchs lost 34-14 to the Brno Alligators on June 6. Monarchs' Coach Ľudovít Gálka said the Alligators capitalized on his team's weak secondary by dropping their quarterback back to pass 42 times, compared to only 22 run attempts. Another Monarch weakness is their throwing game. Brno stacked the line and dared Bratislava to throw the ball, which they did on only 11 of 60 plays. The result was a fourth-quarter Monarch lead of 14-7 turned into a 20 point thrashing by the American-led Alligators. Gálka said that Brno's American coaches "exploited our weaknesses."
photo: Ján Súkup

It was a scene familiar to many American football fans - the tiny stadium packed with a rowdy crowd, the opposing teams yelling at each other and butting helmets as they revved up for the big game, cheerleaders prancing, beer being drunk and spilt, high-energy music and chants of "go, offence, go!" echoing around the field. The only strange part of this football contest was that it was being played in Slovakia, at Bratislava's Štadión Istrochemu.

Slovakia, Americans are often told, is a country devoted to its hockey and soccer - a nation that dismisses traditional American sports like baseball and football as boring and confusing. But while many Slovaks remain uninspired by baseball, organisers of a six year-old American football league say their game is beginning to catch on with players and fans alike. Team owners add that with better coaching and more lucrative sponsorship, the game could become a national favourite.

The scene at Štadión Istrochemu on Sunday, June 6 lent some credence to the owners' belief that American football is steadily winning interest and support in Slovakia. "I love American football!" exclaimed one young man at the game, which featured the Bratislava Monarchs and the Brno Alligators from the Czech Republic. "I love the hitting, the excitement, the uniforms. It's not slow like baseball - it's quick and fun to watch even though I still don't understand all the rules."

The Alligators and the Monarchs play in an eight-team league known as Česká Liga Amerického Futbalu (CLAF), which was formed in 1991. Although the league did not have enough teams to begin playing games until 1993, fans and players have responded warmly - so warmly, in fact, that the league expanded into Slovakia three years ago by adding the Monarchs - one of two teams in Slovakia, along with the Ostrava Steelers.

No John Elways here

The level of play in the CLAF falls far short of what one sees in the National Football League or in the Division 1 college level, and players and officials acknowledge that American football will probably never become as popular as hockey, soccer or tennis in the countries of the former Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, they insist that the game is catching on.

Brno head coach John Croft, an American from Kentucky who played high school football and went to Brno four and a half years ago on a mission for his Wesleyan Church, said that the sport is no longer a mystery for its relatively large fan base. "The game is growing fast. Guys are taking it much more seriously now, and people are getting more interested," Croft said with a wave of his hand at the three or four hundred fans that squeezed into the tiny facility to take in Sundays game.

Ľudovít Gálka, Bratislava's head coach, agreed. "It's definitely growing," he said. "There is a high demand for more teams. I have many kids asking me about junior teams."

Gálka added that Slovak and Czech teams playing the American sport could improve only to a certain level without further assistance from American coaches and players. Lamenting his team's 34-14 loss at the hands of Croft's Brno squad on June 6, Gálka said that the future of football in Slovakia depended on the accessibility of American game strategies. "Today was a perfect example," the frustrated coach said. "Their [American] coaches can see our weak points and they can exploit them."

Gálka said he believed that Slovak players could be as good as American players if they received proper coaching. "Slovak people are built for American football," he said. "We have tall, heavy, strong guys who have successfully competed in US body-building competitions."

But unless expert coaching is provided, the talent of the Slovak American football player may remain untapped. "Right now, we have to practice with books and videos," Gálka said. "I mean, I think it's great what we've built without American help, but the biggest problem is coaching. We can't develop without it."

Why American football?

Gálka recalled that when communism fell in 1989, he began receiving western television broadcasts of American football. "After the fall of the regime, I watched those games and I was going crazy," he said. "But I couldn't understand anything and I wanted to know why one team was happy, why the crowd was cheering, and so on."

His interest inspired him to purchase books and videos so he could study the game. Eventually, he began playing a video game version of American football on Sega which provided him with his "first knowledge of the rules and the playbooks." When, four years after the revolution, he discovered that the Austrian Football Association was interested in starting a team in Bratislava, he became convinced that Slovakia could support a team. Gálka formed the Monarchs, and entered the Czech League in 1996.

Many players also came to the game by unusual routes. Petr Klíč, a lineman for Brno, said he got his start "in a funny way. I decided that I was a bit fat and a bit slow, so I thought that football was a good sport for me. But then I discovered the spirit, the tactics and the strategy of the game and I decided that it is a very good sport."

Brno's Croft said that as the popularity of the game has increased, so too has the quality of the players. "The quality has gone up a lot in the last two years," he said. "There used to be four teams that played well, now there are six. Three years ago, there were very few big games, but now we have more."

Bigger than hockey?

Will American football ever become bigger than hockey in Slovakia and the Czech Republic? Eduard Žižkovský, president of the Prague Lions, laughed outright at the notion, but then observed that the game has great potential for growth, particularily if the younger generation took up the sport. "It depends on schools. If high schools and elementary schools form teams, then it can grow a lot," he said.

If the league hopes to grow, however, it will have to overcome its greatest handicap - the dearth of sponsorship. Prague-based teams attract the most sponsors with the Lions leading the way (Žizkovsky's team has 16 sponsors, including Adidas, Snickers, Levi's, Boeing and American Express). On the other hand, the Monarchs currently boast only six sponsors, two of which are the erotic nightclubs "Mila" and "Moulin Rouge."

Croft said that the Monarchs organisation did not have enough money to pay players. "Right now, our players have to pay for their own equipment, for the bus, everything. Until we can attract and pay players, we'll lose them to hockey because they get all the sponsorship." Croft added that the team's 1999 spring tryout attracted 70 players, only 15 of whom stayed after learning they would have to pay to play.

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