US-Style Football Gains in Spain

A restructured World Football League opens in 1995, aiming for more teams, new fans

ON a dirt field where soccer nets serve as goalposts and a circle marks the 50-yard line, the National First Down School is holding a scrimmage.

First, there's calesthenics. "Uno-dos-tres," the teenagers count in Spanish. Then they call the plays ... in English.

"One of the worst things is how to explain what a `snap' is," says team director Felis Iglesias. "There's no Spanish word for this."

If Americans want to know how American-style football will play in Europe, let them come to Barcelona.

Football's biggest draw in Spain used to be the Barcelona Dragons of the upstart World Football League. This year the league decided to restructure itself and canceled the next two seasons. That will leave many of the game's new-won fans in the lurch just as they are beginning to pick up the game.

"The first season, people came because they wanted to spend three hours in `America,' but they didn't understand the game," says Rafael Cervera, a spokesman for the Dragons. "This year I think many of them understand the game much better." Attendance at one game reached 49,000; at another, 42,000.

The National Football League hopes to rekindle the enthusiasm in 1995 with a restructured league and more European teams. The World League, a project of the NFL, had three foreign teams - Barcelona, London, and Frankfurt.

"The problem with the World League was over here," says NFL communications director Greg Aiello, reached in New York. "It was successful in Europe."

Enrique Garcia de Castro agrees. "It's very spectacular and it's very technical," says the Barcelona resident. "You have the helmet; the way of playing is new. You play in a team, really; each person has a specific thing to do. For this, I think, it's good."

Isn't it complicated?

"The first time it's difficult," he says. "But after two or three games, it's easy to understand."

Nearly everyone here mentions the spectacle aspect of American football. The regalia of the game - helmets, pads, and jerseys with English words - are new to Spaniards. Youngsters regard it with something approaching awe.

"They love putting on the equipment," says Daniel Glatz, the coach of the National First Down School. "They love being American."

Unlike the American system, clubs rather than schools sponsor sports activities here. Spain now has 35 American football clubs; 30 are here in Barcelona. Part of that comes from the interest generated by the Dragons. But Barcelona, which just finished hosting the 1992 Olympics, has always been a sports-minded city.

Fans readily adopted the Dragons, for example, even though they were virtually an all-American team (two Spaniards). They cheered linebacker Eric Naposki and cornerback Charles (Cacahuete) Fryar ("peanut," in English). The team, in turn, adopted the crowd's cheer: "Ole, ole, ole! We are the Dragons!"

"It was a different experience," recalls Jack Bicknell, coach for 10 years at Boston College before coaching the Dragons for their two seasons. The fans "just chant and sing in the stands. Sometimes you wish they would be quiet. But they were very supportive."

If football does take off in Europe, fans could use more training. At one home game, the Dragons scored a safety and no one (including the announcer) knew whether to boo or cheer. Then there was the time the San Antonio Riders ran onto the Dragons' field and acknowledged the crowd's whistles, thinking they were cheers.

Spaniards boo by whistling.

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