Exciting ELF opening day delivers on many lofty promises, with room still to grow

Only time will tell how June 19, 2021 will be remembered, whether as the start of something truly monumental or merely a footnote in the convoluted story of American football in Europe, but there is little doubt that those who tuned in to the opening day of the European League of Football witnessed a moment in history.

When the new league took the field after months of both hype and consternation within the European football community, it had a lot to live up to. After all, this was professional-style football with all the trimmings that commissioner Patrick Esume was selling to consumers, the natural and necessary next step for the game.

Some doubted whether that was a promise that could be delivered upon. The ELF’s ramp up was at times chaotic, with teams dropping in and out and name changes galore. The marketing had glitz, but some questioned the substance of some teams. Others balked at the 99.99€ price tag for a season’s pass, wondering what the league could do to justify charging the same as NFL Game Pass.

Those questions won’t disappear until the ELF proves longevity, but Saturday went a long way to quieting them. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch and there will be no one mistaking it for NFL Europe, but that was not the bar it needed to cross. With impressive production quality and strong, if expectedly sloppy, performances on the field, Esume proved his experiment both legitimate and promising.

With two exciting games on offer, here are my take-aways from the debut double-header.

Game 1 – Wroclaw Panthers 55:39 Cologne Centurions

Photo: ELF

Jakub Mazan is far from the most recognizable name in European football, but he will forever be remembered as the answer to the trivia question ‘who scored the first touchdown in ELF history?’ I expect it won’t be the only things fans will remember about him once the season is through.

Mazan and the entire Wroclaw Panthers offense were incredibly impressive in the opener. That won’t surprise anyone who watched how they utterly dominated Poland in 2020, but to do it on this stage against what the ELF hopes can be a premier market in Cologne was a major statement. That is particularly true after the team faced turmoil late in preparation, weathering the departure of anticipated starting quarterback Cody Williams and running back Lamar Carswell.

Despite that, head coach Jakub Samel had his team looking like they’d played together for decades, not weeks. Quarterback Lukas O’Connor was on point throughout, with the all-Polish receiving core of Mazan, Przemyslaw Banat, Wiktor Zieba, and Bartosz Dziedzic giving the Centurions fits. Former Florida Gator Mark Herndon was explosive in the backfield, with Frenchman Phileas Pasqualini pounding out his fair share of yardage behind a bruising offensive line. Corner Darius Robinson might as well have been on the offensive side with a pair of interceptions and a touchdown return.

It was almost immediately clear that the Panthers were the better team in this one, but full credit needs to be given to the Centurions for battling back throughout and pushing their opponent to the brink. Receiver Quinten Pounds was electric with the ball in his hands, but speedster Madre London will be the one defenses lose sleep over. He sliced through the Panthers with impunity in the second half on his way to a three touchdown performance.

The Panthers may have confirmed their competitiveness, but this game was a bigger victory for the league than even the team. Exciting from start to finish and full of big plays, the product delivered and there was no more professional looking venue than Stadion Olimpijski in Wroclaw to showcase it, even if the atmosphere failed to shine through the screen.

The broadcast itself lived up to the billing, with multiple camera angles, close-up shots and projected first down lines that North American fans take for granted. The English play-by-play was a highlight, well-researched, crisp and informative. While a color analyst would be a welcome addition, the quality and content was hard to fault, even when there was the occasional growing pain.

Cologne Centurions QB Danny Farley getting a pass off. Photo: ELF

Game 2 – Barcelona Dragons 17:21 Stuttgart Surge

The second game of the day was somewhat less triumphant for the league, but was not without its highlights. In particular, it quickly became apparent that Spain’s Estadi Municipal de Reus is going to be a fun venue for the league. The fan energy was palpable and the band was a fantastic addition, giving it a college gameday feel. For a league that also sells travel packages, that’s a huge win.

The Dragons themselves looked promising despite the loss and you can see the impact that their trio of former Canadian Football League head coaches has had already. Defensively, there is talent in the secondary and Mike Tavarres can get after the passer. On offence, Antonio Monton had both touchdown’s but receiver Jean Constant looks like a difference maker and Remi Bertellin impressed as well.

Unfortunately, the team’s undoing was what many speculated when the ELF entered a less developed football market like Spain. Size was a problem and the offensive line struggled, with quarterback Zach Edwards running for his life throughout. He flashed brilliance, but got caught doing too much on more then one occasion and needed to get the ball out quicker.

The Surge lived up to their name and built as the game went on, in large part thanks to a talented defense led by former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Dale Warren in the middle, Ben Wenzler at corner and Nick Wenzleburger at safety, with big Sercan Vardar flashing up front. Quarterback Jacob Wright kept his poise in the dying minutes and made big plays with his legs when needed, finding Pascal Floser with 1:40 remaining for the game-winning touchdown.

While the exciting finish was some redemption, the ELF’s second broadcast lacked the crispness of the first. There was no English broadcast feed, but the German had almost as much dead air and the commentary was sporadic. That silence undermined some of the game’s more exciting moments, particularly for those paying a pretty penny for the full experience.

Though related to both games, it also became apparent following Stuttgart’s victory that the ELF would not be providing same day statistics for their games. In my opinion, this is the league’s most egregious mistake. Stats are one of the biggest hurdles of European football but they are the life blood of a fan base and a crucial marketing tool. The ELF is doing much that other league’s in Europe can’t fathom right now, but on this they are behind places like Austria with no justifiable excuse.

Overall, it was both an exciting and promising coming-out party for a league that faces no shortage of detractors. The Sunday double-header to round out the weekend is anticipated to be even more competitive and should be well worth the price of admission for the skeptically curious.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.