American football enjoys a thriving subculture in Germany
The Berlin Adler will face the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes in the German Bowl
For the NFL, winning over Europe has been a tantalizing but elusive prospect
Europlayers was started in 2000 by Anthony Bodineau, a French citizen
BERLIN -- Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Sportpark sits just east of where the Berlin Wall once stood, on the front line of the Cold War. The distance from the stadium to West Berlin is just a few hundred yards, but between them stood a concrete barrier and a stretch of land known as the Death Strip, so called because East German soldiers were ordered to shoot anyone who crossed it.
It has been 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. Yet the stadium, given its location and its history as a host for Soviet-era propaganda events, is an unlikely place for American football to have taken root and thrived. The Sportpark occasionally hosts soccer but is best known as the home of the Berlin Adler (adler is German for eagle), one of the most successful franchises in the history of the German Football League.
On Sundays in summer and early fall 1,000 or so loyal Adler fans gather at the stadium to support their team. Public address announcer Roman Motzkus -- also the team's financial officer and public relations director -- keeps the crowd engaged with cheers in German and English. Near the concession stands, which serve up grilled sausage and steak sandwiches, female cheerleaders sell German baked goods to raise money for uniforms and travel. Upstairs in the VIP section, boosters enjoy a traditional German buffet of sauerkraut, sausage and potato salad, as well as the best view of the action.
It's admittedly a few rungs below the NFL. The Adler are inconsistent in the secondary, on the offensive line and in special teams. But overall Berlin, which will face the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes in the German Bowl on Saturday in Frankfurt, play at a surprisingly high level. With three former American collegiate players -- linebacker Patrick O'Neal, running back David McCants and quarterback Jon Grant -- among a roster made up mostly of German players, the Adler could compete with a mid-level Division I team.
American football will never come close to challenging soccer's dominance in Europe. But the Adler and their fans, along with others across the continent, make up a thriving subculture that has embraced the American game. In Germany alone there are hundreds of teams, thousands of players and tens of thousands of fans who closely follow the German Football League. To some, these numbers -- minuscule compared to soccer -- represent the future of the sport. For the NFL, winning over Europe and turning football into a truly global game has been a tantalizing but elusive prospect.
NFL Europa's 2007 closing left a football void across Europe that teams such as the Adler -- who for years played in the shadow of Berlin's NFL-backed franchise -- are attempting to fill. Across the continent, amateur and professional club teams provide the only opportunity most European football fans have to see the game played live and at a reasonably high level.
Germany, which fielded five teams during NFL Europa's final years, has more than 300 club teams playing in professional and amateur leagues under the governance of the American Football Verband Deutschland, or German Football Federation. The country's best teams play in the GFL, the 30-year old equivalent of German soccer's Bundesliga. As in European soccer, at the end of each season the worst teams in the GFL are relegated to the second division, while the best teams in the second division move up to the top flight. The process is repeated with teams at the top of the third division and the bottom of the second division.
Predictably, play drops off dramatically from flight to flight. Torrance Brown, a running back with the first-division Weinheim Longhorns, who started his career in Germany's third division while serving in the U.S. military, says he had 3,000 all-purpose yards and 37 touchdowns in just nine games in his first third-division season. (It's impossible to verify those numbers, as third-division statistics are poorly kept. But anecdotally it seems such numbers are common for Americans in Europe's lower divisions.)
Unlike NFL Europa, which as a developmental league for the NFL did not limit the number of Americans on each team, the GFL has strict rules concerning the use of U.S. players. Only two Americans can be on the field at one time -- on offense those are usually the quarterback and a running back or receiver; on defense Americans tend to play linebacker or defensive back.
In the GFL, U.S. players are paid for playing in 12 league games, plus two games in a Europe-wide competition.They're also provided with a car, accommodations, meals and health insurance for the season. The cash is not enough live on -- as little as 100 euros per month (around $146 dollars) in some cases -- so the majority of U.S. players in Germany and elsewhere in Europe return to the States after the season to pursue other playing opportunities or to work outside of football.
"We leave our homes and essentially our lives for nearly half a year," says Stephen Stokes, a running back from the Los Angeles area who plays in Finland. "Realistically I'm trying to play in North America, but I'm stuck in a trap where I could stay home and wait for something to happen or come to Europe and be active. You try to wait as long as possible to see if anything comes up, but you don't want to pass on a contact in Europe."
Head coaches, many of whom are American, are usually full-time employees, but most of the rest of the staff is part-time or volunteer. Some players and coaches come to Europe through connections with friends or contacts who are playing overseas. Others arrive via Europlayers.com. Players post their profiles to the site, which are reviewed by agents and coaches in Europe. If there is interest, the team reaches out. Some players and coaches say that within days of posting, they were on flights overseas with a contract and guaranteed salary -- albeit a small one.
Europlayers was started in 2000 by Anthony Bodineau, a French citizen and American football fan. Late last year, Canadian Roger Kelly, who worked in public relations for seven years in the Canadian Football League, joined Bodineau, with the goal of expanding the site and improving its visibility.
"It's amazing how many people don't know about the opportunities to play football overseas," Kelly says. "Europlayers has shown many players and coaches that there is more out there than small amateur leagues in the United States and Canada."
European players have a much different experience from their American teammates. Most make no money -- in fact, some teams charge dues to Europeans to be part of the club. Most Europeans join their local club as teenagers and, as in soccer, are signed to developmental squads if they show potential.
''There are European guys on my team with jobs outside of football and families," says Chris Calaycay, a Hawaii native who coaches the Vienna Vikings in Austria. "Football is something they do in their spare time. This is as amateur as you can get."
Each season ends with individual countries' versions of the Super Bowl. There is also a knockout tournament, similar to soccer's Champions League, sponsored by the European Federation of American Football in which top teams from each country play to reach the Eurobowl and be crowned European champions.
Federations around the world are governed by the International Federation of American Football. Formed in 1998 with eight members, IFAF now oversees nearly 60 federations. It stages the IFAF World Cup every four years for mens' national teams, as well as championships for junior teams. (The U.S. participated in the World Cup for the first time in 2007 and won the tournament, with a roster of recent collegians who had not signed a pro contract.)