IFAF Rift Causing Serious Damage In Europe

When Team Belgium head coach Lee Rosky contacted Lars Carlsen, head coach of Team Denmark to play a game in 2017, he received an answer he was not expecting.

A resounding NO.

Now anyone who knows Lars Carlsen, who has run Denmark’s national team programs for 20 years, knows the last thing he would want to do is turn another coach down. But, due to the split in the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), the easy-going Carlsen had no choice. He could not allow his Danish team play Belgium in a game he would otherwise love to play.

The Danish Federation of American Football (Dansk Amerikansk Fodbold Forbund – DAFF) support the so-called IFAF New York faction while the Belgian federation are supporters of ‘IFAF Paris’.

Lars Carlsen:

“The situation is very frustrating and is taking focus away from football. We are using many resources on this; resources that we could have used developing football. I hope the situation will be solved soon, so we can get back on track for the best of football.”

Needless to say Rosky is equally frustrated.

“The game is growing across the globe and IFAF should be helping in this, not hindering due to political games. In Belgium the national team has made great strides in the last three years and we want to continue to grow. Take the program to the next level. We have coaches and officials who are giving up their time to make this happen but we are limited in what we can do because of an IFAF line in the sand that is unnecessary. We will continue to battle for the game that we love and I hope that very soon IFAF will be a positive influence in this process.”

This situation preventing international American football from being played appears to be more long term than short term. A resolution does not seem to be close. Neither side of the IFAF split has budged and there has been no indication that a settlement has been sought through the CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport based in Lausanne, Switzerland. And even if it has, CAS takes four to six months to issue a ruling in normal cases.

The effects of the impasse are being felt at all different levels of American football in Europe.

European Junior tournament diluted

The IFAF Europe U19 European Championships are scheduled for 2017 and the lineup includes Austria, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, SwitzerlandSerbia, Italy, Russia and Hungary. Missing from the competition owing to political differences will be Great Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. None of these four countries applied to play in the tournament which was won two years ago by Austria, who defeated Germany in the final. Denmark finished third ahead of France in fourth.

European Qualifiers relevant?

Four teams are slated to play each other in 2017 to qualify for the European Championships to be held in Berlin, Germany in 2018. Great Britain, Denmark, Italy and Sweden are scheduled to meet in October 2017 to determine the two teams to advance to the A group joining Germany, France, Austria and Finland. However, since only Germany, France, Austria and perhaps Italy politically able to play each other, the qualifying games would seem to be of no relevance.

Champions League gone?

In 2016, 13 club teams from around Europe competed in the largest international club competition in the world, the IFAF Europe Champions League. After three months of games, Poland’s Wroclaw Panthers emerged victorious defeated the Milano Seamen in Wroclaw, Poland. In mid-December, IFAF Europe competition committee chairmen Romeo Tjoe-A-On stated that only five teams – the Istanbul Koc Rams (Turkey), Istanbul Bogazici Sultans (Turkey), Kragujevac Wild Boars (Serbia), Lisboa Devils (Portugal), and Moscow Patriots (Russia) would play in Champions League. Apparently that has changed.

The Lisboa Devils have pulled out along with Serbia’s Kragujevac Wild Boars. According to Devils head coach Andre Amorim his club felt that the tournament was not viable in its new form:

“One of the reasons we will not participate in the IFAF Champions League is the poor model that was created for this year’s league. I believe that the IFAF organization did its best with what they had but the reality is that most teams didn’t participated due to all the sketchiness that is going around.”

The Wild Boars have opted to play in the Central European Football League instead. Apparently at least one of the Turkish teams has also pulled out along with the Moscow Patriots.

Repeated attempts to contact Tjoe-A-On for a statement or confirmation have been met with silence. In fact, there has been no communication at all from the IFAF Europe Executive Committee and its president Enrique Garcia de Castro (Spain), despite repeated requests for comment.

Big6 affected

Even the top club tournament in Europe, the Big6, felt the effects of the split in IFAF. Sweden’s Carlstad Crusaders were forced to turn down an invitation to participate in the prestigious event following the orders of the Swedish American Football Federation, who are pro IFAF New York. IFAF New York has not sanctioned the event. The Big6 is run under the auspices of the German Federation of American Football, an IFAF Paris supporter.

Austria puts football first

One country that refuses to be drawn into the politics is European American football powerhouse Austria. While not siding with either faction, Austria remains open to playing in all tournaments and in all situations regardless of politics.

The Austrian U19 national team played in the IFAF U19 World Championships in Harbin, China in 2016 organized by IFAF New York and is now preparing to defend its title in the 2017 U19 European Championships, a tournament run by IFAF Paris.

The Austrian stance is clear according to Dr. Gregor Murth, vice president of the American Football Bund Österreich (AFBÖ) and former vice chairman of IFAF Europe:

The position of AFBÖ is always the same. Our top priority is American Football. We think the best way to promote the sport is to have as many games as possible. As a federation it is not our job to have games or championships canceled. In the over 14 years as a board member of AFBÖ I cannot remember that we have blocked any team from participation in any game.

So for us the top priority is not who is hosting a championship. If there is one we usually want to participate. As we badly want to be successful and win, we have started preparations over a year ago and of course we have spent money, received some public funding and we have a group of players wanting/deserving to play. Why should we drop out of this now?

The European Junior Championship was awarded to France when Europe was still working in IFAF Europe under Goran Nisavic. So in my eyes there was full European consensus over all groups that this should be played in France.

We see the ongoing conflicts – which have already plagued EFAF and eventually led to its shut down – as something we have to live with. It is not new and it is not going to go away soon. Even if one side e.g. wins the CAS case it is just a snapshot. As the representatives of the countries do not change, even if you reset the whole situation you will end up with a room filled with the exact same people and the fighting will start all over. The fight is not about anything connected to football. It is personal and political luggage that people don’t want to leave behind.

The only way to solve the conflict is to build trust, ignore provocations where possible and concentrate on Football. If a majority of countries is able to that, everything will be fine.

We at AFBÖ deliberately ignore the conflict where possible and try to have our teams participate in whatever competition they like. We will not punish our players and/or teams for the inability of the leaders of the European federations to reach common ground.

I think it is very sad if some federations do not participate. They seem to see a solution to everything with CAS. But after over a year I still have not seen the CAS case materialize. Even if I personally do not believe that this is a solution to the problem at hand, it is of course a legitimate option. But if you make this step football is no longer your top priority. And that is a mistake.

Is there an end in sight?

With both factions firmly entrenched, will a ruling from CAS even make a difference? Based on conversations with members of both groups it does not seem likely. In fact, neither side seems to think there is any middle ground at this point.

So what happens? Is IFAF no longer a functioning body? Even if the IOC recognizes American football, the organization itself is not serving its members well and promoting the game of football properly. No matter which side you believe in and support, by drawing a line in the sand, demanding that the other faction comply, you are doing even more damage.

Someone has to step up, cast aside the politics and bring both sides together. Otherwise 20 years of hard work will be wasted and American football will flounder on an international level, despite the explosive growth of the game worldwide.

Roger Kelly is an editor and a writer for AFI. A former PR Director the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League for 7 years, he now lives in Sweden writing about and scouting American Football throughout the world.