Hockey Pads to the FAFR: The History of American Football in Russia

The history of American football in Russia (or USSR back then) started in the late 1980s, at the height of the warming of relations and the political processes that ended the Cold War.

Having seen the game abroad and on the television, several independent groups of people started practicing this new game on their own (with the oldest known mention of such a team belonging to the city of Chelyabinsk), using hockey pads and motorcycle helmets for the purpose.

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But the first “real” games were held in the summer of 1989, as the Oklahoma high school all-star teams played a series of exhibition games in the cities of Moscow, Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg) and Tallinn (in present-day Estonia).

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This series brought a lot of attention to the sport and its further development followed soon. With a help of an American promoter Tom Kelly that helped the aspiring Soviet footballers obtain the proper equipment, the first competitive team called the Moscow Bears was established in the fall of 1989, together with the sports’ governing body of American Football Union of the USSR.

The leading figure in that process was the head coach of the national rugby team Edgard Taturian, who also brought many other athletes to football from that sport. The Bears played their first game in West Berlin against the famous Adler on September 17th 1989, following it up with a game against Finland U19 national team in October.

Following this success, football teams started to form in other cities as well, with the other pioneers being the cities Chelyabinsk, Minsk (present-day Belarus), Kiev and Kharkiv (present-day Ukraine). Although some of these teams were later reorganized or temporarily seized functioning, the American football tradition lives and is extremely strong in these places to this day. By the end of the year, the first game in the Soviet Union was played, with the Moscow Bears defeating the Kharkiv Atlantes 26-0.

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By 1991, the newly-formed American Football Association of USSR had joined the European Football League (predecessor of EFAF), and a national team was formed to participate in international competition. The first an only official game of the USSR National American Football team was a European Championship qualification game against the Netherlands in Amsterdam, which they lost 7-30.

That same year, the only Soviet Championship was held, with the teams from Moscow, Astrakhan, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Minsk. Based on that competition, the Moscow Swans had also qualified to participate in 1991 Eurobowl, in which they lost to Helsinki Roosters 44-14.

American Football’s Post-Soviet Development

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the major reorganization of the sport in the region. It continued to develop, but took a different path in all of the newly-formed countries. Thus, Russian National American Football League was formed that held the first Russian championship in 1992, where the teams from Moscow, St. Petersburg and Siberia participated. However, the economic hardship that followed the dissolution of the USSR stopped the momentum of American football development, and very soon the teams found themselves unable to compete and dissolved.

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Moscow Patriots

In the mid-1990s, that the development focus of the sport has changed towards the children and youth. The first youth teams started to be established, and the first youth championship (centered in Moscow) was held in 1996.

Among the most important names for the sport during that period was the Philadelphia Eagles President and GM Harry Gamble, that conducted coaching clinics, organized tournaments for the Russian youth teams in the US, and provided a lot of publicity and other kind of support. He even coached the national youth team that saw a lot of success at the time, taking 4th place in its’ first European Championship in 1998, 2nd in 2000 losing to Germany in the Finals, and finally taking revenge against the Germans and winning the competition in 2002.

It was that generation of successful youth players that didn’t give up their passion for the sport as they grew up, and served as the foundation for it’s reemergence.

In 2002, the Russian Championship among seniors took place for the first time after a 10-year break; and although it only consisted of the teams from Moscow, it served as a key founding stone for the continued development of the sport across the nation. The competition has been growing ever since, with the number of participating teams increasing every year and helping to solidify the popularity of the sport in Russia. It was evident in 2004 when the Russian national teams has achieved its biggest success and finished 3rd in Group B of the European Championship.

Today, the governing body of American football in Russia is called the Federation of American Football of Russia (FAFR). It is a member of IFAF (and used to be a member of EFAF) and participates in all of its competitions, planning to participate in both Youth and Women’s European Championships in 2015.

Twenty-three teams participated in the national championship in 2014, with the total number of teams today being over 35, as the sport continues to grow in both quality and quantity in Russia.

Ilya Kravtsov
After being involved in bringing American football to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia, Ilya would go on to play in the Japanese X-League, helping his side Tokyo Bullseyes advance all the way to the top tier of the league and become the only non-corporate team in X-1. He's currently the defensive coordinator of St. Petersburg Griffins, as well as the head coach of St. Petersburg Valkyries.
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