(Inter)national football leagues: American football around the globe
American football joins rugby and soccer as sports of choice for many nations throughout the world.
The popularity of American football is undeniable, as evidenced by the all-time record 111.5 million people who tuned in to watch the Seattle Seahawks crush the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Those millions who've watched the “big game” over the years have likely heard announcers tout a familiar claim that the Super Bowl is broadcast in 225 countries around the world and watched by a billion people. The widespread influence of America’s most watched sport has taken on a new life; now, dozens of those countries where the Super Bowl is broadcast have competitive football leagues of their own.
The International Federation of American Football (IFAF) counts 64 member nations spanning North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania, all of which have their own federations dedicated solely to American-style football. As expected, the rules vary from one federation to the next – many countries sport only youth leagues or flag football clubs – but one thing remains: tradition.
“Sports in general have lots of traditions, and football is certainly no different,” Israel Football League commissioner Betzalel Friedman told From The Grapevine. “To me, personally, one of the most important traditions of football is sportsmanship – players and fans included.”
Along with tradition, Friedman said American football also encompasses the values of togetherness, unity and teamwork.
“Football is the ultimate team sport,” said Friedman, whose IFL is sponsored by Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots. “It’s physical, it’s strategic and there’s a place for everyone on the field, big or small. In addition, a superstar needs the other players to support him whether he be a quarterback, running back or wide receiver. It’s not like basketball or soccer where you just give the ball to LeBron or Messi and get the heck out of the way.”
Here are a few of the finest American football leagues around the globe:
Team USA Football celebrates a big win at the International Federation of American Football World Championship in 2011 in Vienna. (Photo: Herbert Kratky/Shutterstock)
Maybe it isn't fair to include the United States on this list. But, in all fairness, the NFL isn’t the only game going on here in the states. An independent nonprofit group, USA Football, acts as ambassador for American football across the nation and worldwide. Conducting more than 100 annual football training events each year, the organization has coached more than 16,000 youth football coaches who have passed their knowledge and skills on down to more than 350,000 youngsters.
USA Football is also the country’s only member of the IFAF, and has twice won the federation’s Championship of American Football: in 2007 and 2011, the only times they competed. USA will go for a third title in 2015 when the championship game – held every four years since 1999 – takes place in Stockholm, Sweden.
The Swedish American Football Federation boasts more than 7,500 members. (Photo: Swedish American Football Federation)
Speaking of Sweden, the 2015 championship hosts boast a pretty decent federation along with four talented national teams that include the Stockholm Mean Machines. For a short time, the Machines were led by former University of Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins, who helmed USA Football to its second world championship in 2011 in Austria.
Founded in 1984 and headed by Tommy Wiking, who also currently serves as IFAF president, the Swedish American Football Federation has more than 7,500 active members, ages 13 to 21, playing for 76 different clubs. SAFF has also begun promoting flag football and, in 2008, the federation’s national women’s team squared off in their first-ever competition, an away friendly against Finland.
Among Sweden’s most successful football imports is linebacker Carl-Johan Bjork, who played three seasons with the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe before briefly joining the practice squads of the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys.
Members of the Herzliya Hammers get ready for a game in 2013 at the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, which was donated by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (Photo: US Embassy Tel Aviv)
It could be argued that there’s no American football league with more genuinely American influence than Israel’s, where the Israeli Football League (IFL) league has long been sponsored by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
What started out in 1989 as a touch football league has turned into five leagues fielding teams in both tackle and flag football. IFL Commissioner Friedman said the league has recently put together a national tackle football team ready to showcase its skills within the next year. Meanwhile, in flag football, Israeli stars Dani Eastman and Yael Freedman were recently named World Championship MVPs in men’s and women’s competition, respectively. Eastman, who plays running back, wide receiver and defensive back for the Judean Rebels, is also the two-time reigning MVP of the IFL. The Tel Aviv Pioneers are the current champion, having won Israel Bowl VII over the Jerusalem Lions. Israel Bowl VIII will be held in April 2015.
While the IFL aspires to NCAA rules, they currently field teams of 9-on-9 to better match the smallish pitch at Robert Kraft Stadium, which is only 60 yards plus endzones. Friedman said the IFL will be moving to an 80-yard field in 2015.
Countries all over the world field formidable American football squads, including Mexico, whose 2011 national team beat up on Austria 65-0 in the 2011 International Federation of American Football Championship. (Photo: Herbert Kratky/Shutterstock)
More often associated with “futbol” – the soccer kind – Mexicans have been playing American football since the early 1920s, and with considerable success. Like in Turkey, American football gained traction at different colleges and universities before the first professional championship was played in 1928.
Today, Mexico has many leagues with college, junior and youth leagues playing under the auspices of the country’s national federation. Mexico also boasts a number of players with some NFL experience, all of whom excelled in their native country before progressing to the world’s highest stage.
Mexico is also home to the Aztec Bowl, an NCAA-sanctioned Division III bowl game hosted intermittently since 1950. Since 1997, that bowl game has also featured an American Football Coaches Association All-Star team against a team of Mexican All-Stars.
Australia didn't fare so well at its one and only international championship in 1999 – finishing last – but the Land Down Under shows an unbridled enthusiasm for football. (Photo: Herbert Kratky/Shutterstock)
One of only three countries to represent Oceania in the IFAF (American Samoa and New Zealand are the others), Australia has strong presence of American football despite the land down under’s very real affinity for the hard-hitting sport of rugby. Gridiron Australia is a quarter-century-old organization responsible for the play of more than 70 amateur football teams ‘balling in all six of Australia’s states and two territories.
The Aussies have twice fielded national teams that competed in the IFAF World Championship, but with limited results:Australia finished fifth in the first-ever 1999 competition, but came in dead last out of the eight-team field in 2011.
Australia’s most notable export, Hayden Smith, currently a rugby player for London’s Saracen club, served a brief stint as tight end for the New York Jets. On Dec. 23, 2012, he caught his one and only NFL football pass before being released a year later and returning to Saracen for a second time.
Team Japan celebrates after a touchdown at the International Federation of American Football World Championship on July 15, 2011, in Vienna, Austria. (Photo: Herbert Kratky/Shutterstock)
American football has a particularly big presence in the little island nation of Japan. Celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2014, the Japan American Football Association oversees close to 400 teams with 20,000 players. JAFA has three different leagues that include more than 60 semi-pro and corporate-sponsored teams, about 220 university clubs and more than 100 high-school squads. Each league concludes with its own bowl game.
Japan is also home to the Koshien Bowl, established in 1947 and the oldest bowl game in the nation’s history. That bowl game determines the best collegiate squad each year. In 1948, the Rice Bowl was developed as an East-West all-star game before rebranding in 1983 to a game in which the winners of the Koshien Bowl and Japan X Bowl square off to determine the nation’s best club; the game is held every year on Jan. 3. The Japan X Bowl, called the Tokyo Super Bowl when it was established in 1987, determines the semi-pro champions each year.
Japan knows a thing or two about world-stage bowl games, too: Before USA Football came along, Japan’s senior national team earned back-to-back IFAF world titles (in 1999 and 2003). They finished second in 2007, and dropped to third in the IFAF’s last big game in 2011, but have qualified for the 2015 bowl with hopes of reaching the top once again.
A player from Team Football Canada kicks a PAT at the International Federation of American Football World Championship July 11, 2011 in Graz, Austria. (Photo: Herbert Kratky/Shutterstock)
Helping complete the North American trifecta, Canada has been playing American football nearly as long as Americans themselves (or maybe longer), and boasts a football-playing nation of more than 400,000 total ‘ballers – all of whom are the end result of a variation on the long-popular sport of rugby.
To hear them tell it, the notion that Canadians play American football is a misnomer: Some claim Canadians are responsible for the game, with the first-ever incarnation of what is now American football being played at the University of Toronto in November 1861. Football Canada was established about two decades later in 1884 (then known as the Canadian Rugby Football Union), with the purpose of organizing playoff games between various rugby union champions, but later grew and developed into the national governing body of all amateur football in Canada.
The name Football Canada was eventually adopted in 1986, and the league became an official member of the IFAF in 2004. In their first bid for a world championship in 2011, the Canadians fell short only to USA Football, and will look to best their second-place finish when they try again in Stockholm in 2015.
MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE: