Inside the Badalona Dracs: Building the foundation of American football in Spain

By Kyle Pinnell

From flag football to senior teams, the Dracs give young kids the opportunity to learn about and play American football in Spain

Growing up in Badalona, Jordi Soler never had to go far to find an opportunity to kick a football around. All around, kids his age playing pickup on fields tucked into busy street blocks and youth teams training in different stadiums around the city no matter the time of day. However, as Soler grew older, another type of football piqued his interest: American football.

Introduced to the sport with the weird, oblong ball through his father’s passion for it, Soler couldn’t get enough. The way American football focused more on teamwork, the snap of the ball, tackling, schemes, winning; there was something about the sport that enamored Soler despite being an entire ocean away from the sports’ highest-level professionals who played in the United States.

When he was 20, Soler put on a pair of pads for the first time and began to play American football himself. Decades later, he hasn’t looked back. Soler is now the sporting director of the Badalona Dracs, the most successful American football team in Spain’s top division, and the same team he won countless rings and trophies with. He oversees everything from the U11 to the senior teams, but has a special affinity for coaching the kids who will make up the next generation of American football players from Spain.

“Kids always want to learn,” Soler said. “They are more grateful than the older players who are a little more impatient. I have seen them play since they were little and it has been cool to see how they grow over time.”

There are many reasons why kids in Spain and Catalunya get involved with American football today. A lot of their parents played the sport at one time or another or grew up as the NFL grew its footprint internationally. Many give the sport a try with friends or siblings. Others like it because it’s a fun change up from football, or soccer, the most popular sport in the country and much of Western Europe.

“I play American football because my father played it before, when I was even younger,” said Jordi’s son, Zion Soler. “Later I started to watch the games and sometimes come to practices to be with friends. That’s when I started to play and I still do today.”

If you walk into the Campo Municipal de Montigalá on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday shortly after the sun disappears behind the surrounding mountains you’ll find several groups of energetic kids running around learning American football, scrimmaging against one another and falling in love with the sport themselves.

Many of the kids now in the Dracs Academy who spend a majority of their weeknights playing football grew up watching American football on TV every Sunday. That’s the case for both Zion and Nut Soler, who know Sunday night’s are reserved for pizza and NFL. Today, Zion can name several college stars who will be the next faces of the NFL. He watches some of college football’s best teams, such as Georgia and LSU, and calls the Miami Dolphins his favorite NFL team.

The Soler’s are not the only family with generations of American football players. Pol, Marc and Alex Bernal are three players who started playing the sport at a young age and have stuck with it.

“Some friends convinced me to come and try American football,” Marc Bernal said. “It was a great day and I loved the sport.”

Soon after, Pol and Alex began to come to the practices and still play today.

Jordi Soler has worked with the younger kids in the Dracs academy for the last five years. The program has a U11, U13 and U15 team at the youth level, with the younger kids learning about the game first before gaining more of an understanding of positions and schemes as they grow older. The foundation of it all is the flag football program.

“Flag football is the team that teaches [the kids] American football,” Jordi Soler said.

Because there is a steady progression between the flag football and senior teams, there’s always a next level that gives kids something to aspire to. U11 players want to someday play for the U13 team while older kids wish to break into the senior team. The environment the Dracs’ system fosters leads to players attending senior team games where they can dream of the future.

While the growth of American football in Spain is becoming more evident, it still has a ways to go to catch up with football or even basketball. However, there are many parts of American football that keep kids coming back, mainly in how it differs from many sports.

“You have to work as a team in American football,” Pol Bernal said. “You can’t only focus on yourself. If you play alone, you’re not going to win. You have to play as a team.”

Added Zion Soler: “I think American football in Spain is important because it’s a sport that we (as a country) don’t know much about, but we have to expand more.”

Perhaps the biggest sign of American football’s increasing foothold in Spain is how it’s much easier to play and consume the sport now than what Jordi Soler dealt with when he first started to play.

Kids today have more years of playing at a younger age than ever before because they start playing the sport much earlier. Zion has played football for seven years while his sibling, Nut, has played for the last four years. The three Bernal brothers have played for over five years. They alone are examples of the growth of American football in Spain and how the Dracs’ Academy and youth systems have helped contribute to the popularity of the sport an ocean away from the NFL. It’s something Jordi Soler plays an important role in and is something he is excited to see continue in the future.

“We’re going to have 11 players who are 15 or 16 years old that have seven years of American football experience,” Soler said. “When I started to play American football, I didn’t know anything about it. Nothing. I hadn’t seen a game. Now it’s different.”

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