x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

American football: Emirates getting ready to play in new park

Try-outs this summer had the aim of unearthing a team capable of representing the UAE in a one-off exhibition match against Team USA.

DUBAI // In what could one day be considered the most important interception in the history of American football in the UAE, Abu Dhabi has snatched the inaugural outing of the country's first semi-professional team from its Dubai neighbours. And in a bid to leave its own studded stamp, the name of the team is set to change too.

The Dubai-based American Football Academy (AFA) is the brainchild of two Emirati businessmen who studied in Arizona and fell in love with the American brand of football. It was announced in June that the AFA planned to hold try-outs this summer with the aim of unearthing a team capable of representing the UAE in a one-off exhibition match against Team USA, a semi-professional outfit from the US. The Emirates squad, consisting of 33 local players, 12 semi-professionals from the US, and trained by Rex Stevenson, a self-professed "old-school" football coach with 35 years of experience, would be known as the UAE Stallions. Yesterday, Stevenson, sitting amid plaques and pigskins in his spacious office near Safa Park, chuckled cheerfully as he explained recent changes.

"The interest that we have seen coming out of Abu Dhabi forced us to rethink," he said. "It seems there are a lot more Americans down the road: we were getting calls, e-mails, our website was getting messages and everybody kept asking when they were going to get an academy." Stevenson acted quickly in order to answer and appease. The AFA will expand in the coming months, opening an office in the capital, hopefully, by January. The biggest development, however, sees the planned exhibition match - the Academy's ultimate advert - move from Dubai to Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sports City with the team being rebranded as the UAE Falcons.

"The majority of the sponsorships we have secured are from Abu Dhabi and the folks down there prefer to call the team after their national emblem," Stevenson said. "I actually agree with them because when I thought 'Stallions', I thought about Rocky Balboa. This is much better; it is like the American eagle; it inspires patriotism." With three try-outs completed and a month's break for Ramadan, Stevenson is preparing for his final push for fresh blood. The Floridian has scheduled three trials in the space of two weeks taking place at Safa Park on September 11, 18 and 25. And while he is keen to attract as large a pool as possible, he is quick to observe that not everybody is cut out to play.

"I was speaking to somebody the other day," Stevenson said. "He was telling me about rugby being so rough and I explained to him that he should imagine running as fast as he possibly can and then colliding, square-on, with an opponent who is doing the same thing. This is not rugby; this is a collision sport." The AFA's promotional flyer puts it more plainly: "American football is a physically tough and very demanding sport. Don't waste our time and yours [unless] you are ready to lay it all on the line and give 110 per cent total effort."

Stevenson said he hopes the exhibition match against Team USA will be something akin to an "American national day" complete with tailgating and cheerleaders, but added that the intent is to generate public interest in a sport that is misunderstood or simply unrecognised. "Back home, if I walk on to a football field with a ball and nobody is around, within an hour I'll have hundreds of kids around me because they all want to play football," he said. "Here, I could spend the rest of my life standing there and nobody would come near me because nobody knows what an American football is. We have to educate the people - and the only way to do that is to have that football game."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae