There’s an awful lot that separates the United States from the United Arab Emirates, a collection of seven Muslim principalities bordering Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. There’s religion, language, culture, climate, cuisine, weather… not to mention some 8,000 miles of land and water.
And yet, the two aren’t terribly distinct, either. Both are among the richest countries in the world, with extremely low poverty rates. Both are considered a “melting pot” of cultures. In the UAE, some 85 percent of residents were expatriates in 2010, and the country has the highest “net migration” rate – the difference between immigration and emigration rates – in the world.
So maybe it’s not that strange that in a country full of expats (and rather well-off ones, at that - the average annual income is close to $60,000 USD, and most people there for business purposes are making quite a bit more), Americans have a thirst for a staple of both their homeland and their youth: football.
Heading into its second full season this fall, the Emirates American Football League is a semi-professional American Football league that currently has four teams in three cities across the UAE. If it sounds a little strange at first, that’s because it is.
Former UCONN and minor league pitcher Chris Wentzel moved to Dubai close to a decade ago. In 2010, he founded an American football club that grew to the point where they could run a full-fledged team, with full-offense versus full-defense practices. Wentzel joined forces with Dustin Cherniawski, a former Canadian Football League player who won a Grey Cup with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2005. Together, they founded the EAFL.
“American football is actually decently established in Europe,” said Wentzel, via the phone from Dubai. “You had the NFL Europe, and since that folded individual countries have sprung their own leagues.”
But that’s Europe. In the UAE, Wentzel characterized the sporting hierarchy as such: first by far is “European” football (a.k.a. soccer), second comes team handball, and then comes basketball. For now, the EAFL is content to grow internally, improving the level of play and developing more complete athletes…for now.
“The most important thing is maturing and growing the level of play among the existing teams,” said Wentzel. “People need to master an individual position – start specializing.”
Wentzel characterizes the level of play in the EAFL as about average for major American high schools, and a glance at some of the league’s highlight videos shows this assessment is, generally speaking, accurate.
“Everyone in the league has a full-time job,” explained Wentzel. “This is a hobby.”
Still, high school football is no laughing matter, and the league has it's share of very impressive players.
"While the competition is average overall due to the shear numbers, there are some incredible athletes," said Sorush "Shawn" Abboud, a wide receiver and special teams player for the EAFL's Dubai Stallians. "And the proof is the number of former NCAA D-I athletes and a handful of former pro athletes (Cherniawski) that play in the league, and only year one. Over time you will see the quality of the players improve, and don't be surprised when you start seeing many more former NCAA and NFL athletes staring and succeeding in the league."
Abboud, by day, is a managing principal at Fulcrum Capital, an investment firm based in Austin, Texas, with offices in Dubai. But not by night.
“We’re not professionals,” said Abboud. “But we’re legitimate athletes. If you want to have a ‘real-world’ job and still follow your passion, you can do that here.”
Like the Emirates themselves, the fabric of the league is incredibly diverse. Some 35 nationalities are represented amongst the players, a number that figures to grow along with the league.
“You have guys from Turkey, Germany, England, Saudi Arabia. My team’s center was Japanese!” exclaimed Wentzel. “And most guys actually have some sort of experience with American football, because many went to study in the States.”
Those who don’t have experience with American football tend to have plenty of experience with the world’s version of football (soccer), some even playing semi-professionally before their business career brought them to the Emirates. They’re drawn to the game because of the physicality is has to offer, and for the camaraderie of a team dynamic that many ex-players crave, no matter the sport.
The inaugural EAFL Championship, dubbed the “Desert Bowl,” saw the Abu Dhabi Wildcats beat the Dubai Stallions 21-12 on February 23 in front of close to 2,000 fans at the Jebel Ali Shooting Club, located in between the Emirates’ two biggest cities.
“And that was just year one,” said Abboud, his raw enthusiasm evident even through the phone. “Year two will be bigger and better, and so will every year after that.”
The four teams currently in the league – the Stallions, Wildcats, Dubai Barracudas and Al Ain Desert Foxes – all play in small soccer stadiums in front of crowds that consist mostly of family and friends. While the league could still be considered recreational, that’s changing fast.
“It’s our first ‘offseason,’ and everyone is into it,” said Abboud. “Teams are in a recruiting arms race. The competitive spirit is in full force.”
Already, rivalries are starting to form. Abu Dhabi has a mix of blue collar and upper middle-class residents, while Dubai is the place to be seen; the hub of tech, sales, finance, you name it. Abboud compared it to the difference between Houston and Dallas, or rooting for the Jets versus the Giants. Said Abboud, “The mold and fabric of the city and the teams and even the fans, it’s different.”
And yet, that is exactly what makes the EAFL just like any other sporting league in the world – American football, soccer, or whatever else.
“One thing is clear about football and really sport in general,” said Wentzel. “Sport helps bridge cultural gaps. It is a cross-cultural builder. You learn a lot about yourself and about others, but you also learn to put aside your differences to work towards a common goal.”
They’re ready. Season two starts on October 1.
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