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American Football may not catch on in Europe the way MTV and cheeseburgers have, but NFL-style pro franchises opened for business on the Continent last weekend, whether Europe was ready for them or not. Come to think of it, whether the American organizers were ready or not. That the 10-team World League of American Football kicked off on schedule—beginning with the London Monarchs playing the Frankfurt Galaxy last Saturday night in Germany—may go down as the greatest American achievement in Europe since the first McDonald's opened there, in Paris in 1972.
Hey, last Friday, two days before the New York-New Jersey Knights faced the Barcelona Dragons, the goalposts still weren't in the ground at Montjuic Olympic Stadium in Barcelona. They were held up in Spanish customs, as was almost everything else—athletic tape, video equipment, shoulder pads—shipped from the U.S. The goalposts did arrive, but when a hole was dug for one of them, it filled with water. "We had us a nice little well," said Dragon coach Jack (el Caballero) Bicknell, who, said a Spanish newspaper, "reminds us of Gary Cooper."
The locals had a solution: "Why not just move the goalpost five yards to the left?" And why not? The end zones were already three yards short of regulation size because the grass playing surface wasn't large enough. So what would it matter if the goalpost was put near the band? The posts were finally planted late on Friday, but nobody was sure the concrete would set in time for Sunday night's game. (The goalposts withstood a torrential rainstorm.)
Then there were the buses. The Frankfurt players spent more time on buses than Ralph Kramden. Because the league is trying to hold down costs, the Galaxy's hotel is located just this side of Czechoslovakia. The players bus 30 minutes to a sports facility, where they have meetings and change into their uniforms. Then they bus 45 minutes to the practice field, and later they bus an hour and 15 minutes back to their Best Western hotel. "We ought to be sponsored by Trailways," said Frankfurt quarterback Mike Perez.
London's bus got stuck in mud one day, and 30 players were needed to push it out. Barcelona's bus came so rarely that el Caballero learned to make backup transportation plans every day. "If it weren't for Willie Nelson," Bicknell said, pulling aside his headphones, "I'd go nuts."
Then there was the food. "Hey, Chief!" Perez yelled to a teammate, defensive end Kevin (Chief) Hendrix. "How many meals in a row have we had pork?"
"I don't know," answered Hendrix. "How many days have we been here?"
Some WLAP players are wondering which will be higher—their weekly paycheck or their cholesterol count. It got so bad that when one Galaxy bus ran over something with a loud thump, the players were rooting for it to be a deer. "Hey," one wiseguy hollered, "venison tonight!"
Then there were the beds. Barcelona players were putting their nightstands at the ends of their tiny beds so that they would have something to rest their feet on. Figures. Of the WLAF's three guinea-pig European teams—the other seven franchises are located in six U.S. cities and Montreal—the Dragons were definitely running the worst maze.
For one thing, the Dragons' practice field sits at the base of a huge hill on which stand crude mausoleums that resemble apartment buildings. Barcelona ran out of room for cemeteries a long time ago, so the town began stacking corpses Lego-style in what Barcelonans wryly call "your last apartment." However, because the mausoleums are not well sealed, when the wind shifts in the direction of the practice field, the players get a whiff of their quiet but decidedly smelly neighbors. Ugh.