An ELF shaped shadow looms over the GFL

As an opening weekend of GFL football saw arguably the highest level of play in Europe return, there loomed a large European Football League (ELF) shaped shadow over teams like Frankfurt Universe and Stuttgart Scorpions – who have ELF teams – the Frankfurt Galaxy and Stuttgart Surge – literally next door.

In the 2018 German Bowl, one of the showcase teams of GFL, the Universe, lost by a field goal to the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns. The following year they went 12 – 4 before falling to New Yorker Lions in the semi-finals. Being one of the powerhouses of German football, Frankfurt has consistently been a contender for years. So when they were handed a merciless 72 – 0 defeat by the Munich Cowboys last week, shudders were sent down Europe’s football spine. 

All European teams face attrition as it is for the majority an unpaid sport. The combination of COVID halting recruitment and forcing early retirements only exacerbated this but Frankfurt Universe experienced this on another level. The team had just three returning players from the 2019 season; a tight-end, a kicker and a defensive end. The rest of the team was made up of those playing in either lower leagues or Frankfurt’s junior programs, who have had limited experience in the GFL to say the least. Most of the team, along with Executive Director Alex Korosek, migrated over to the newly formed ELF squad Frankfurt Galaxy, in a revival of the old NFL Europe side, reminiscent of when the now ELF “commissioner” Patrick Esume was heavily involved with the NFL subsidiary.

So when in April 2021, Esume of the ELF said that their intention was not and never will be to steal GFL players, there were those in the GFL who may have felt quite dismayed. In the opening weekend alone, the total score of the winning and losing sides combined equaled 268 – 67 – and 41 of those losing points were scored by the Dresden Monarchs. Whichever way you look at it, there seemed to be teams, like the Universe, who were struggling to compete in a way that they were accustomed to, due to a massive drain of not only players but also funds.

There are however two sides to every coin. When the ELF was announced, there was massive hype within the football community as speculation arose about the revival of NFL Europe which those over 30 nostalgically reminisce over. The difference this time is that the league would be dominated by Europeans and not Americans, which was the model NFL Europe operated on. If this was to be, the question then arose, ‘where would these players come from if leagues in Europe have organically grown after the dissolution of NFL Europe?’ As the majority of teams are situated in Germany it would therefore prove logical that the prospect of a bigger stage and promises of professionalization would draw in the top talent from GFL teams.

As the European football community watched from afar, and the 2020 season dissipated in front of their eyes, anticipation began to mount over the apparent clash of the titans; which league would come out on top, ELF or GFL. The suspense appeared to manifest into a fictional rivalry where the essence of the game as an amateur’s sport was in jeopardy. This narrative would be one easily applied to explain the score differentials in the opening week but when in actuality simply reflected every other opening weekend in the GFL; whether that be Dresden claiming a 49 – 13 win over the Dusseldorf Panther in 2019 or the Potsdam Royals battering the Hildesheim Invaders 56 – 0 in 2018.

There is no question that teams like Universe lost a significant amount of talent and money but those that left were in search of a new environment where they were told that football can be played at the highest level possible, a level that has been missed in Europe since NFL Europe packed their bags and left. And those new to the Universe will still be on the field every weekend trying to hone their skills and compete to the best of their ability. All teams rise and fall, it’s part of the football cycle of life (remember when the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins used to be great?). But there are still teams like Dresden and Cologne Crocodiles in the GFL who have shown that they haven’t missed a beat and can still operate at the level we are all accustomed to seeing.

ELF is the new good looking kid on the block but it remains to be seen if the standard of football they produce is different. They are aiming to create a more professionalized league in Europe while adding an extra layer of inclusivity to European football, but if this experiment fails it may be teams like Frankfurt Universe who have paid the price in the long run.

Daniel Mackenzie is a Press Association graduate who works in journalism and communications in the third sector. Daniel began playing football for the London Warriors and Team Great Britain and has since played across Europe.