Zach Harrod: Forging a common path for the Prague Lions into the European League of Football

On September 23, 2022, two days before the European League of Football (ELF) Championship Game, Paris and Prague were announced as the two latest teams set to join the pan-European league.

Leading the Prague Lions into the ELF will be Zach Harrod, long-time head coach, part owner and former player, who hopes to find a common path for Czechs onto the European football stage after years of fractures within the country’s football community.

Harrod first came to the Czech Republic back in the Summer of 2002 with Athletes in Action, a Christian missionary outreach program. He stumbled upon the Lions by chance after a fellow missionary asked him to escort her to Prague as she wanted to check out the team’s cheerleaders.

With his intrigue sparked, Harrod then returned to the US and finished off his degree at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Wisconsin (NCAA, DIII) – where he played safety – before coming back to Prague in 2004 to play the next two seasons with the Lions. It was in his very first year with the team that he went on to win Czech Bowl, the Lion’s first in eight years.

As the son of a football coach himself, Harrod was determined to live a life in football, but to do this he knew he would need more coaching experience. It was with this in mind that he went back to Ohio, US, and got his first real coaching gig at HSBCU Central State University (NCAA, DII).

Coaching at Central State was such an enlightening experience. Coming from rural Wisconsin you don’t really have many touch points with anything other than white people. I was in a position where I was the only white guy on the field, period. I really did learn so much in that time and it gave me the tools to deal with the differences that I encounter in Europe too.

But still the allure of Europe, that so many Americans find themselves drawn by, was strong. Harrod again returned in 2007 and played the 2008 and 2009 seasons with the Lions where he enjoyed the hay-day of Czech football, the 00s.

Despite Prague’s long history of competitive football, it has never been seen as a hub for the sport in Europe. Teams in the Czech Republic are international in intention and desire growth but have different ideas on how to get there leading to a dispersal of talent across multiple teams.

These differences have been so intense that they even led to a split within the Prague Lions back in 2009, a split Harrod was in the middle of, which left the Lions with just five senior players and the formation of yet another Prague team, the Blackhawks, who later merged with the Prague Panthers to become the Prague Black Panthers.

The political landscape of football in the Czech Republic has remained tumultuous since the Prague split in 2009 with teams playing in various leagues across Europe such as the Austrian Football League and the Central European Football League (CEFL) as well as the domestic one in a hope to establish Czech dominance.

During this time Harrod put it on himself to grow the team from the ground up, investing heavily in the youth program. Within four years of the Prague split, the Lions senior team had returned to the Czech Bowl. Their Junior team continued their overwhelming success too, winning nine out of 18 National Championships.

It is the future of the youth programs in Czech Republic that Harrod now feels are cemented with the founding of an ELF team:

Kids will no longer have to look outside Czech Republic for opportunities. We lose way too many guys to other leagues and sports. I’m excited that we can now keep our young talent. We have homegrown heroes here. I want to keep these guys. And now we can. 

People know me here. I own part of the Prague Lions. I don’t have any other clothes so the other parents at my kids’ school know who I am. And all of a sudden, other parents are coming up to me and saying wow, you guys are doing something big. And now it’s real. We can change the sport in five, 10, 20 years. We can have kids at the NFL’s International Pathway Program and go on to play in the states. I can’t wait for the next Czech Sandro Platzgummer [New York Giants] or Bernhard Raimann [Indianapolis Colts].

But it was in 2018 that Harrod began to start feeling burnt out. Fourteen years in Prague as a player and a coach, now with a wife and child, amongst all the politics was beginning to wear on him. It was during this time that a road-trip around Iceland became the knife’s edge of Harrod’s run in Europe:

When we were driving around Iceland there were some long roads. The serenity of all really allowed me to dwell on my time in Prague outside of all the politics. My wife and kids sometimes fell asleep and I used this time to pray and think. Which direction should I go in? I decided that if I was going to stay in Prague, with the Lions, I needed more for us, for the team.

It was after this soul-searching trip that Harrod went to the then president with a spreadsheet of all the money he had raised for the team over the years and the contributions he had made on-field. He made a successful bid for the team and became a part owner with a small group of US investors. 

It was from here on out that the Lions became not just a local football team but also a business; and in the back of Harrod’s mind all the time was ‘how can we become a professional, competitive team?’

And in 2020, just after the Covid-19 season, rumors began to swirl about the formation of a pan-European league that shared the very same vision as Harrod, the European League of Football.

The Lions continued to compete in 2021 and 2022 in the CEFL cup as well as their domestic league, but in the background Harrod was making moves:

We were still competing, just as we always had done on the field, but off the field I was working the phones and LinkedIn, calling contacts. We needed investment if we wanted to be in the ELF. 

My sister has been the Press Secretary for the US ski team for the last eight years. She ended up providing me with the contact that made this all possible.

Harrod’s meetings with Commissioner Patrick Esume began in late Spring 2022. To his surprise, Prague had been in ELF’s sights since the beginning, it was only a matter of who and when. Harrod wanted to make sure it was the Lions and after countless meetings, shimmying around numbers and projections, he received an email from Esume’s secretary at 7am on the Tuesday before the ELF Championship Game in Klagenfurt; They were in.

Prague will undoubtedly be an ideal location for ELF’s newest franchise as one of the cultural capitals of Europe. Whether or not they can produce the on-field product to compete with a league that seems to be improving year on year at an alarming rate is another story. But for Harrod, there is little uncertainty: 

When I look at our talent here, I think there are 10 plus Czechs playing in the top European leagues. Just getting everyone on the same page is tough and being able to work through our differences will be a challenge. But if we can bring in the right Czech guys, some good Americans and EU’s, we can make some noise. We have the talent here to do that. We will make some noise in this league.

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.