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It happens out here, far from Prague’s resplendent center, a bus ride past the end of metro line A. Surrounded by highways and quiet neighborhoods, empty parking lots and panelaks, there is a small grassy pitch, normally used for soccer. Yet every Tuesday and Thursday, for two and a half hours, the pitch is filled with people, and a strange sight for Prague. No soccer to see here – the men (and women!) on the field are playing a very different sort of football.
Each week, three teams congregate here to master this strange game of throwing and running an oblong leather ball 100 yards, and they are far from alone. The Czech Republic is experiencing an explosion of enthusiasm in American football. I spoke with the head coach of the Prague Black Panthers, Taylor Breitzman, to hear more. On their A-team, made of the most elite players, they compete in the AFL, the Austrian Football League, against the very best teams in Central Europe (in fact, they are the only team in the AFL that is not from Austria). And of the almost 80 players on their two teams, they are almost all locals, mostly from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
It’s not just Prague. There are teams all over the country now. As Jeremy Saal, the coach of another Czech football team explains to me with wonder, “It’s amazing. There are now 17 teams in the 2nd and 3rd divisions. Even small towns like Trutnov have their own teams.” Recently put in charge of a new, upstart team, Saal is now head coach of the improbably named Hippos. With plenty of young, skilled players and an anonymous, generous benefactor, the team is poised become one of the country’s best teams.
Did I mention that there were women, too? Though American football is a resoundingly male-dominated sport in the US, there has been an explosion of women’s teams forming around the Czech Republic. The Prague Black Cats, the female branch of the Black Panthers, have been playing for a year now, with a roster of 15 players. Aside from them, there are also the Harpies, another all-woman team associated with the Prague Hippos.
And, in case you were wondering, there is no “softball” version of football for the girls’ teams. They play with the exact same set of rules as the guys. “The girls are really into it. They’ve got the jerseys, the pads, the motivation,” says Coach Breitzman. “Sometimes you’ll even see them outrun the guys.”
Of course, with the sport being relatively new here, there is some growing to do. The biggest problem the teams currently face is a lack of experience and fundamentals. All of the coaches I spoke to spoke of a common experience: a new recruit comes to the game with the perfect football physique, but has trouble catching the ball, making tackles properly, and other basics. “Strong like an ox, but with zero technique,” says Coach Saal.
Without almost any junior football programs in the country, many Czech players are coming to the game as adults, having to learn from scratch. Apart from that, strategy has also been notoriously bad in the past. Coach Saal noted that some play-calls that seemed like they had been “copied directly from Madden”, the popular NFL video game.
Aside from these growing pains, both coaches commented on the great perseverance and attitude of Czech players. “It’s amazing, the dedication you see from these guys.” says Coach Breitzman, “Some commute 400 kilometers to get here. We have some guys who work as detectives – twice a week, they drive about 3 hours to get here, practice 2 and a half hours, and then drive home. “
But what is attracting so many Czechs to a game so seemingly foreign to this country and its history? As Coach Saal says, “I think it’s the physicality of the game. Hockey is also a big game here, and it’s the same thing–hitting each other, lots of contact.”
From Katarina, a receiver for the Black Cats: “I’ve actually been watching the NFL for 4-5 years now. The most attractive thing, for me, are the tactics, the strategy. It’s not like soccer. 11 must people cooperate.”
From Ondrej Ruzicka, the founder and quarterback for the Prague Mustangs: “Its fast, hard, strategic but the biggest reason is that it sets your mind right, it makes men out of boys.”
Football made its way here from young Czechs watching the sport on TV channels such as ESPN America, or from students who studied abroad in the United States and tried it there. For a combination of reasons, it took hold and has grown steadily in the last few years.
Attendance to games is currently sparse, but growing steadily. Other than some great football, there are other major perks, including free beer at many games.
If you’re interested in joining a league in Prague, most teams are looking for new players, year-round. Contact the teams by reaching out on their respective websites.