The Super Bowl build-up in the States adds intrigue to local American football league, which appears to be thriving, writes Gary Meenaghan.
Emirates American Football League feeling super
In the early hours of Monday morning, before the call to prayer rings out across the UAE and before the sun begins to slowly edge itself over the horizon, one of the world's most-watched sporting events will be kicking off 13,000km westwards in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Mardi Gras fever is starting seven days early this year as spectators flock to the city nicknamed The Big Easy to watch the Baltimore Ravens face off against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. The city's renowned Bourbon Street will be thronged with revellers, while those fortunate enough (and wealthy enough) to have landed tickets – average price US$2,516 (Dh9,233) – will pack the Mercedes Benz Superdome.
Yet, on Saturday, Dubai showed that distance does not denote disregard. The embryonic Emirates American Football League got into the Cajun spirit, hosting its own big match: the Dubai inter-city derby at Jebel Ali Shooting Club.
Dubai Stallions beat Dubai Barracudas, 18-6, under a grey firmament and amid splotchy, sporadic rain showers. A lazy Louisiana afternoon this was not.
Instead of French Creole architecture, spectators were treated to deserted desert plains; instead of alligator nuggets and gumbo, fans munched Arabic shawarmas and potato fries.
And while, yes, the grass was wet and the spectators huddled underneath the covered grandstand, the rain failed to dampen the spirits.
"I like it; It reminds me of high-school," said Janelle Erickson, a Dubai-based copywriter from Minnesota who has attended four previous EAFL matches.
"You can walk the sidelines of the pitch, everyone is sitting in the bleachers, you can look around and chat. It feels like a small-town football game rather than a college game and that's nice. It reminds me of home."
There were perhaps around 100 spectators, the majority of whom were friends and family of those involved – Erickson is friends with Stallions quarterback Chris Wentzel – however Dustin Cherniawski, the league's general manager, said he had noticed a spike in interest in the run-up to this weekend's game.
And he reckons he might know why.
"It's been really good this week in particular because a lot of people are Google-searching 'American football, Dubai' looking for [where to watch] the game and they are ending up on our website," he said. "For us, that is great because we have actually been getting a lot of emails from people just saying 'I had no idea [the league existed]'."
Although there was an impressive sense of organisation – live commentating, food stalls, music, fully kitted officials, prize raffles – Cherniawski said he was not surprised to read such emails, given that, courtesy of a practically non-existent budget, the league has undertaken little promotional work.
That is not to say it is struggling.
The nascent four-team league launched in November and, according to Cherniawski, the response has been "overwhelmingly positive".
"We were hoping for 120 players in our league this year and we are currently at 210," the Canadian said. "So overall it has been a big success and proved that there is definitely a demand for American football out here."
Although the accents on the field sound predominantly North American, there are 25 nationalities registered and players coming from countries such as Lebanon, India, Sweden, Scotland and Egypt. Cherniawski said "maybe a third" of the 210 players were from the United States.
Shawn Abboud, a Texan who plays wide-receiver for the Stallions but did not feature in yesterday's match, said it is impossible to compare the level of football played in the EAFL with anything back home because "there is nothing like this in the US. There you play college, then pro then you're done, but here we have some guys who have never played before and others who played at quite a high level".
Wentzel only ever played high-school football and yet is undoubtedly the Stallions' standout player. Abboud calls him "truly, a phenomenal quarterback", while Cherniawski says he is the "emotional and physical leader out there" and is "doing very well".
Wentzel himself said he is "just trying to do my best" and is enjoying "playing ball". He works for a real estate asset management group and will be sleeping when the Superbowl kicks off.
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