Not That Kind of Football

“You’re not from here.”

Several times a day I would be called upon to explain my presence in Spain. Typically the query would come in response to some inappropriate action that instantly identified me as a clueless foreigner. Biking on the road, expecting free water at restaurants, and holding doors for people were all actions that shouted: “I’m not from here.” Usually, I was greeted with an inquisitive look, a sympathetic smile and then a question regarding where I was from.

“Canada,” I would state proudly.

Most Spaniards seemed to dismiss this fact as trivial, then consciously categorize me as “American,” before proceeding to their next question: “What exactly are you doing in my country?”

Let’s be clear, football is a trigger word for most Europeans and the citizens of Spain are no exception. Unfortunately, it’s not the type of football that you or I am accustomed to and that’s where the confusion begins. Spaniards reserve the term “futbol” for the hallowed category that contains Jésus, Mama, and the siesta.

All of my conversations in Spain seemed to take a predetermined route that would touch on a few topics before invariably arriving at the following interjection.

“You mean football as in soccer?”

Now, because I was constantly being asked this question, I became very well versed in my response, even in Spanish. In fact, my little spiel became so well rehearsed that I knew how to carry the entire conversation moving forward. I nailed my opening statement, knew how to entice interest with a question, then how to educate with the answer. I knew my facts, and, if the person seemed insouciant, I learned how to make them feel just a tad ignorant. Usually, the dialogue would end with the person staring at me perplexedly while trying to discern if what I was saying was true.

And the thing is, it is true. American football does exist in Europe, and on a scale grander than most can imagine. Forty-one of Europe’s fifty countries have American football teams, with more than 1500 teams spread across the continent. Furthermore, there´s talent, lots of it.

I played for a first division team in Spain, the Murcia Cobras, who, let me just say, were phenomenal in making my stay comfortable. Someone from the team was forever coming up to me and asking if everything was okay, if I needed anything. These guys would give you the shirt off their backs, literally. I know because it happened once. Anyway, I’m getting distracted. Let me return to the talent.

Our team was comprised of three NCAA players, a CIS player, an ONEFA player, and a Swedish National player. Our offensive line alone looked like they could fend off an attack from a Tyrannosaurus. Never had I played with such confidence. Playing receiver, I could dance and doddle all I wanted, just knowing my quarterback wasn’t facing any pressure in the pocket.

The real gem on our team though, you might be surprised to learn, was a national player. Kevin Gramage, our Spanish-born running back was remarkably talented. His movements were so graceful and precise that you knew you were witnessing something special every time he touched the ball. He was as skilled as he was knowledgeable, and the confluence of the two made for a very dangerous weapon on the field. Being born in a country that´s passionate about the wrong type of football didn’t prove to be any sort of hindrance for Kevin. He could play, period.

What’s more is that, every team in the league appeared to have themselves a Kevin, sometimes two. Along with the exceptionally talented import players, teams were stacked. Games were incredibly volatile as both sides would have a bench full of athletes capable of late-game heroics.

European American football surprised me in more ways than one, but none so much as the level of play. I grew up playing football in a country that is passionate for hockey, and yet talent still emerged. Every country has gifted athletes who, for one reason or another, end up deviating from their nation’s traditional sport.

Playing overseas allowed me to discover how the sport I was passionate about has developed in other parts of the world. The Americans I played alongside were technically sound, scrupulous and diligent. The Mexican players were physical, polished and tough. But what really surprised me, what really facilitated my hope for the sport, was the local talent.

It is rather humbling to fly across the Atlantic and discover that there exists a market for the sport you love. I travelled to a foreign country and formed bonds with people on the other side of the world all because we shared an infatuation with football. That’s what took me aback. My Spanish teammates may not have had access to the coaching that North Americans were subjected to from a young age, but what they lacked in formal training, they made up for with a passion for the game, and a hunger to learn. The future for American football overseas is bright, so long as there is a group that recognizes that football is quite different than futbol.

Ben von Jagow is an aspiring travel writer from Ottawa, Canada. He recently finished his first season of European football with the Murcia Cobras, a first division team from the south of Spain. For more of Ben’s work visit