When American Football Tried To Crack Europe

  With the 2018 NFL International Series fixtures being announced within the last month or so, it sees London hosting three-games with Wembley Stadium hosting two and Tottenham Hotspur Football Club playing host to the first at their brand new stadium. The explosion of the game on this side of the ‘pond’ has seen people within the sport has not gone unnoticed, with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Mayor of London, talking about the English capital being the focal point of American Football in Europe. There have also been mutterings about London netting an NFL Franchise of their own in the future. Technically speaking, London did have a team in the NFL back in the day, but that was in the form of the former ‘World League of American Football’ days.

So with the game on an uplift on these shores, here is a look back at when American Football tried originally in expanding their game across the globe. Before the National Football league burst onto a world scene in the 80’s, it saw the NFL looking to promote the game outside the US in the early 1970’s with an exhibition game that took place in Paris in 1972 and saw a group of players featured in a one-off game that saw NFL Bleu against NFL Rouge.

In 1974, it saw announced in New York City that a new league was to be created and would be including Europe as part of the new set up. The idea was the brainchild of both Bob Kap and Adalbert Wetzel, with the ‘Intercontinental Football League’ being set up.  

Both men were looking to tap into a foreign market and the idea of bringing ‘Gridiron’ overseas for the first time in a league structure was unheard of. Bob Kap was a former football coach in the defunct North America Soccer League and saw him in charge of the Dallas Tornados. Kap came to the United States as an immigrant, having fled his homeland of the Republic of Yugoslavia as it was then during the 1956 uprising. While at Dallas, he also worked under the former owner of the NASL and founder of the Kansas City Chiefs in Lamar Hunt, so there were some strains of American Football links behind him. 

His business partner was a West German entrepreneur in Adalbert Wetzel, as Wetzel owned German football side Munchen 1860 and had him onboard giving the creation of this new league some creditability. The league itself featured six-teams and were to be split into two divisions, with one division being German-speaking and the other being more of a continental division. Teams pencilled for the IFL league in 1975 season were the following:

German Division:
  • Munich Lions           –  Germany 
  • West Berlin Bears   –  Germany
  • Vienna Lipizzaners –  Austria
Continental teams
  • Rome Gladiators              –  Italy
  • Barcelona Almogovares –  Spain
  • Istanbul Conquerors       –  Turkey

There were four more European cities that were to be included for the following year with; Paris Lafayettes of  France, Copenhagen Vikings of Denmark, Rotterdam Flying Dutchmen of the Netherlands and the Milan Centurions of Italy, all seemingly ready to join the year after. However, things didn’t go to plan and never saw a ball snapped in anger, as a few factors put paid to the league never getting off the ground.

Many reasons have been given as to why the league never happened, and those reasons bandied have ranged from an economic recession in American at the time, there was also the NFL players going on strike that summer too and also some political problems that saw friction between the US and Europe. Another reason given was that Europe wasn’t ready for the game to come overseas and in truth, that seems a more likely explanation. In 1982, it saw Channel 4 starting to broadcast weekly highlights of the NFL to viewers in the UK, and in 1986, it saw an estimated 4 million people staying up through the night to watch the infamous ‘1985 Chicago Bears’ thrashing the New England Patriots at Superbowl XX.

The NFL then tried to expand into Europe, following games being played in Canada, Japan and Mexico in years gone by. In 1983, it saw Wembley Stadium playing host to an exhibition game with the Minnesota Vikings beating the then St Louis Cardinals (now Arizona Cardinals) 28-10 to win the ‘Global Cup’. Three years later, it saw the World Champion Chicago Bears facing the Dallas Cowboys and kickstarted annual games played in England up until 1993. Sweden, Germany and Spain

WLAF (1)
World League of American Football logo between 1989-1997  Pic: SportingLogos.net 

With the league becoming more popular in the 80’s, it led to the NFL owners unanimously voting for a spring development league and saw the commissioner at that time in Paul Tagliabue backing the plans for it in 1989. The new development league was called the ‘World League of American Football’ or ‘WLAF’ for short. It saw 26 of the 28 owners in the NFL at that time, helping to fund the league with $50,000 each from the teams to cover the costs. Of the 10 teams in the league, it saw the WLAF office owning five of the sides when the 1992 season came around with three of the five European side being owned by the league.

 

The teams for the Inaugural season of the World League were split into three division and saw 2 three-team divisions and one four-team division.

European Division
  • London_Monarchs_Helmet London Monarchs                   (1991-1997 / 98 as England Monarch)
  • Barcelona_Dragons_helmet   Barcelona Dragons                (1991 -2003)
  • Frankfurt_Galaxy_helmet  Frankfurt Galaxy                    (1991- 2007)
North American EAST division
  • New_York-New_Jersey_Knights_helmet_1991-1992  NY/NJ Knights                           (1991-1992)
  • Orlando_Thunder_helmet_1991-1992  Orlando Thunder                       (1991-1992)
  • Montreal_Machine_helmet_1991-1992  Montreal Machine                     (1991-1992)
  • Raleigh-Durham_Skyhawks_helmet_1991  Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks      (1991)

North American WEST

  • Birmingham_Fire_helmet_1991-1992       Birmingham Fire         (1991-1992)     
  • San_Antonio_Riders_helmet_1991-1992       San Antonio Riders     (1991-1992)   
  • Sacramento_Surge_helmet_1991-1992    Sacramento Surge         (1991-1992)     

 

On Saturday, March 23rd, 1991, it saw the opening game taking place at London’s Wembley Stadium, as the hometown London Monarchs beat the Frankfurt Galaxy 24-11 to become the first franchise to win a WLAF season game. The teams in the WLAF played off for the World Bowl, much like the NFL play for the Super Bowl. In the first final it saw two European sides facing off at World Bowl I, as a crowd of 61,108 watched on as the London Monarchs shut out the Barcelona Dragons 21-0 at Wembley to become the first-ever World Bowl champions.

  • Ohio_Glory_helmet_1992 Ohio Glory (1992)

Prior to 1992 season kicking off, it saw the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks being replaced by the Ohio Glory who played just one year in the WLAF and following the Skyhawks 0-10 season, it saw the Glory faring not much better despite a 1-9 record that saw them beating the Frankfurt Galaxy in Week 7.

Following the 1992 season, it saw three franchises leaving the league in Sacramento and San Antonio, and brought a halt to the league with reports of next to no interest at all in the WLAF from within the United States. A reporter from the LA Times had been quoted as saying “American fans were less likely to shell out their hard-earned dollars to watch games which featured ‘roster-cut leftovers’ “. After two seasons of World League Football, it saw the league losing money with $7 million dollars being bandied about just in the first year alone.

With a hiatus of the league for two-years, it saw the NFL playing a couple of exhibition games in Sweden, Spain and Germany, both when split and then Unified too. In July of 1994, it then saw the announcement of the league coming back undergoing a huge overhaul with the WLAF now being shortened to the ‘World League’ and having the American sides leaving and having the ‘World League’ entirely made up now of just European teams. The reboot in 1995 saw a 10 team league now shrinking to a six-team league, with three new sides being included. 

  • Amsterdam_Admirals_helmet         Amsterdam Admirals  (1995-2007)
  • Rhein_Fire_helmet       Rhein Fire                      (1995-2007)
  • Scottish_Claymores_helmet     Scottish Claymore          (1995-2004)

Fox Broadcasting Company became the co-owners of the league and was a huge benefactor in getting the World League back on its feet and also had Reebok sponsoring the teams and manufacturing the uniforms off all the sides in it. Not everything was sorted, as the London Monarchs were forced to find a new home following high costs too much to hold games at Wembley and so saw Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane being home for the Monarchs. The WLAF also granted London an exemption in the league, as their pitch was 93 yards long as opposed to a full sized 120-yard scale.

2WLAFlogo
World League Logo – PIC: Worldleagueofamericanfootball

The first season of the revamped league saw one of the three expansion sides finishing top of the standings, as the Amsterdam Admirals finished with a 9-1 record and hosted the World Bowl in ’95. It saw the Dutch side facing German side Frankfurt Galaxy at the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium and saw in front of a crowd of 23,847, the Galaxy pulling off a shock upset to beat the Admirals and win their first of many World Bowl titles.

While Amsterdam had a successful season in their first year, the same couldn’t be said for the Rhein Fire or the Scottish Claymores though, as the Edinburgh based side finished bottom with a 2-8 record. Roll forward a year later, and the Scottish Claymores went from the ‘outhouse to the penthouse’ with the Scottish side claiming a 7-3 record to finish top of the standings and saw them holding the World Bowl at Murrayfield Stadium and beat the defending champions the Frankfurt Galaxy 32-27 at home in front of the biggest crowd to ever watch an American Football game in Scotland, with 38,982 to witness the Claymores victory at World Bowl IV.

 

In 1997, it saw the remaining founding side of the World League in the Barcelona Dragons finally lifting the title at World Bowl V, as the Dragons beat the Rhein Fire 38-24 at the Estadi Olimpic de Montjuic in Barcelona, and was also the venue for the 1992 Summer games. The Monarchs moved away from White Hart Lane to play their home games at Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea F.C and saw the London Monarchs blowing the biggest lead in World League history, as they held a 23-point advantage against the Barcelona Dragons but went on to lose 37-32.

NFL_Europe
NFL EUROPE Logo 1997- 2006

The ‘World League of American Football’ was then given a name change for the start of the 1997 season, as it was known now as NFL Europe. It also saw the Monarchs dropping the London from their name and changing it to England, to which they split their home venues between Crystal Palace, Ashton Gate home to Bristol City FC and finally Alexander Stadium in Birmingham. Sadly, the move and name change didn’t help much and saw them folding after the season. World Bowl ’98 saw the Battle of Germany, as Frankfurt Galaxy took on the Rhein Fire and saw the side from Düsseldorf claiming their first taste of success to become champions.

Before the 1999 season, it saw a third German side joining the league as the Berlin Thunder took over the Monarchs and saw half the league coming from Germany. Frankfurt then won their second World Bowl beating the Barcelona Dragons in Dusseldorf at World Bowl VIII to claim a 38-24 victory. As the new Millennium came around, it saw the league beginning to suffer problems and with the demise of the England Monarchs in 1998, it saw the Barcelona Dragons now altering their name to FC Barcelona Dragons to gain fans and saw their fanbase dwindle and struggle with finances and was finished after 2003.

  • Hamburg_Sea_Devils_helmet       Hamburg Sea Devil   (2005-2007)
  • 135px-Cologne_Centurions_helmet     Cologne Centurions (2004-2007)

By the time the 2005 season started the league was now effectively an All-German league with many Pundits dubbing the final two seasons as ‘NFL GERMANY’ as with Frankfurt, Rhein Fire and Berlin already in it, it saw the Cologne Centurions joining in 2004 and the Hamburg Sea Devils joining in 2005 for the remaining couple of seasons. It did see one side breaking up the German sides in the Amsterdam Admirals who were the only non-German side in the competition. The league was renamed a fourth and final time as ‘NFL EUROPE’ became ‘NFL Europa’. Following the 2007 season, the league then came to an end after fifteen seasons of American football and saw the Hamburg Sea Devils being the last ever champions of the competition as they defeated the most successful side in the league in the Frankfurt Galaxy.

The league’s purpose was to originally develop players and set up them up careers in the National Football League but instead it turned into a league that was low on money and loss a heck of a lot over the years too. Only die hard fans cared about the league and so the end of the 2007 season the NFL decided to put it out of its misery and shut the doors on NFL Europa for good. 

Pretty much most of the teams had a star in the making or in some cases, a couple of handy players at their disposal, as former quarterback Brad Johnson played a part in the success of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that won Super Bowl XXXVII, as Johnson played a season with the London Monarchs. In that one season, Johnson picked up 2,227 yards and threw for 13 Touchdowns in his solitary year overseas.

In 1996, it saw the biggest name to date in the league at that point in time, with the London Monarchs signing former Super Bowl winner William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry. Former Pro-Bowler David Akers played a year with the Berlin Thunder before Akers became a mainstay in the league and saw him playing 17 years in the NFL, with stints at Atlanta, Carolina and Washington. Akers will be more known for his time with the Philadelphia Eagles and saw him playing during the Eagles Super Bowl run in 2004.

Staying in Germany and moving to the Rhein Fire, it saw a couple of famous names in their own right amongst their ranks too. Firstly, Defensive-End Terry Crews, now you’re probably thinking you’ve heard that name before but can’t remember it being too much on a Football field. Well, you’d be right. Terry Crews who was an 11th round draft pick for the LA Rams back in 1991, saw his career never really taking off and had him playing just four seasons of NFL football with stops off at San Diego, Washington and Philadelphia, before stopping off in Dusseldorf. However, Crews is more well known for his appearance in Old Spice advertisements.

The second Fire player is a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Line-Backer James Harrison. Harrison, who now plays for the New England Patriots, saw him lining up for the Rhein Fire in 2003 and helped the Dusseldorf side to reach World Bowl XI where they would go on to lose to the Frankfurt Galaxy. The former Kent State player saw his stand out moment coming at Superbowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals when he Intercepted a throw for a 100-yard touchdown off a pass by former NFL Europe Alumni in Kurt Warner. 

The Amsterdam Admirals had a few handy players over the years too. As Kurt Warner cut his teeth with the Dutch side in 1998 and saw Warner using his experiences as a stepping stone to go on and have a successful career and included being named MVP at Superbowl XXXIV as part of the ‘Greatest Team on Turf’ in the St Louis Rams. Warner in the World League led the way with Touchdown passes and yardage with the Admirals in 1998. 

Amsterdam had two up and coming quarterbacks that year, as with Kurt Warner being the main guy for the Admirals they also had Jake Delhomme, who would go onto to lead the Carolina Panthers to their first Super Bowl appearance in 2004. However before that, Dehomme moved teams in 1999 and saw him switching Holland for Germany and the Frankfurt Galaxy to be exact, and he picked up a World Bowl title with the Galaxy in only season.

Back in 1995 it saw the start of the greatest kicker in NFL history, as for the Amsterdam Admirals they had kicker Adam Vinatieri and saw the him kicking 13 out of 14 attempts during his time there in World League. That high standard set him in good stead and helped him kick two field goals that won two Super Bowl titles for the Patriots over the years. The 4-time Super Bowl winner enjoyed his stay with the Dutch franchise and saw him being part of the team that made it to World Bowl III, but lost out to the Frankfurt Galaxy. 

Coming full circle, it saw in 2007 the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell bringing for the first time ever a regular season game outside the US and saw the Miami Dolphins facing the New York Giants at Wembley Stadium in front of 81,176 and has since had almost every team play in London with only five sides having not, with the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks being the sides yet to play in the UK. Over the past few years, it has seen more games played out of Wembley and saw last year Twickenham Stadium hosting two games. 

British fans love their sport and especially American sports too, as sports from across the pond have always been well supported on these shores too. Whether you attend American Football, Basketball and Ice Hockey, you’ll see fans wearing jerseys of their favourite teams in the US or Canada. 


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