At the International Federation of American Football World Championship, everybody knows who will win the trophy. But nobody really knows who's going to be the person presenting it.
It’s a foregone conclusion that Team USA will win American football’s version of FIFA’s World Cup, held in American football’s sleepy birthplace of Canton, Ohio. Save the hint of corruption, it bears little resemblance to FIFA’s quadrennial carnival. The game is steadily growing abroad, but America remains the king of America’s most popular and most American sport. Even without fetching Peyton Manning to toss bombs to Calvin Johnson, Team USA trounces the best players from every other country in the world.
The president of IFAF is supposed to hand over the hardware, but it’s not really clear who that is. Some say it's Finnish representative Roope Noronen, who was elected in Canton at IFAF's annual congress. But a large group of attendees stormed out of that conference to hold their own meeting, claiming that their congress was the real one, and that they had elected Tommy Wiking -- the former president who spearheaded a failed, self-serving attempt to host this event in his hom nation of Sweden.
The IFAF World Championship is not pretty. It features lopsided scores and minuscule crowds, and is constantly overshadowed by the squabbling of its organizers. But the players and their passion for football put a shine on the event. They're not paid to play -- in fact, many paid thousands of dollars to play in this empty stadium in this sleepy city in this weird tournament managed by feuding bureaucrats.
And when asked, almost all of them said that they’d do it again.
The idealized IFAF World Championship and the one that actually takes place are quite different. This tournament was supposed to be played in the sparkling new Tele2 Arena in front of a crowd excited to see the largest event in Swedish football history. But with less than eight months before the tournament, Sweden announces it can't host.
America has plenty of fields and football stuff, so it becomes the obvious replacement. The tournament is moved to Canton, which hosted the 2009 U-19 World Championship.
12 teams were set to participate, a record for an international tournament, but with the late continental switch, the field dwindles. Ex-host Sweden bowed out. So did Germany and Austria, Europe’s two best teams, because it costs a lot of money to send 45 players to another continent. Morocco was set to be the first African team ever in a World Championship, but they backed out as well. Canada backed out citing an inability to formulate a roster in the midst of CFL season.
So instead of a 12-team tournament in a gleaming new stadium in a gorgeous European capital, it's a seven-team tournament played on a high school field in Ohio's eighth-largest city.
The players at this tournament have vastly different experiences with football. Some grew up with the game. Others spent years striving to gain access to it. Some received top-notch coaching while others learned the sport from YouTube videos. Some looked forward to this event as the pinnacle of their football lives, and others didn’t know it existed until recent months, hoping to springboard into the rest of their careers.
Here in America, it’s easy to access football. In fact, the game is almost hard to avoid. It’s on our largest TV channels multiple days a week. Our high schools and colleges have teams, and football games are basically social obligations for students. Oh and hey — did you sign up for the office fantasy league yet?
In foreign countries, it’s harder. In Australia, a 14-hour time difference means QB Jared Stegman gets up at 3 a.m. Monday to watch Sunday’s NFL games, watches ‘til 9 — then goes to his full-time job as a schoolteacher:
"Mondays are rough at work," says Stegman.
But watching football is relatively easy compared to playing. Most places across the globe, football is not a professional game. The players don’t get paid to play: they have to pay to purchase or rent equipment like helmets and pads.
"I try not to count," says French linebacker Arnaud Vidallier, who spends hundreds of Euros a year to play for the Dauphins in Nice. (Yes, the English name for the team is "the Nice Dolphins." No, it’s not pronounced that way, idiot.)
Some federations can fully finance the trip to Canton, others ask players to pay out of pocket. Australia’s players pay almost $6,000 American dollars for the trip. Few countries are willing to send teams to Australia to play, so this is one of their only chances to play teams from outside their country.
"There’s a lot of credit card debt, savings, family holidays that they give up to play this game, " says Australian coach John Leitjen. "That says something about how badly they want it, how badly they’re starving for it."
Football players from overseas face an uphill battle to access the sport they love. They wheel in temporary goalposts and tape down sidelines on converted soccer and rugby fields. They trudge to their full-time jobs on injured legs. They do this in relative anonymity, and pay out of pocket for the opportunity.
This tournament is their summit. Seemingly every team has a player retiring after the tournament, using this as one last opportunity before giving up their expensive, painful football lifestyle. Japan’s Yasuo Wasisaka is 46 and he’s played in all five IFAF World Championships.
The reason this tournament exists, and should continue to exist, is for these players.
In other countries, the national team represents the top players from their nation’s limited football scene. Making the team serves as a mark of distinction, a sign that a player is the best of their nation’s best.
Not so with Team USA. NFL and Division I teams won’t release their players for international play, risking injury in a tournament that doesn’t benefit their team. So, USA Football searches for the best available players that remain professionally unsigned: players who will seize at the honor of wearing the red, white and blue, and players who need the opportunity to pick up game film to impress pro scouts.
Perhaps nobody matches that Venn diagram more precisely than Trent Steelman.
Steelman is the best football player in the recent history of the United States Military Academy. The Black Knights’ starting quarterback all four years, Steelman ran the triple option as well as anybody, setting school records for rushing and overall touchdowns. The Ravens offered him a contract after the 2013 NFL Draft, but like all Army graduates, he had to fulfill an active military duty requirement. Steelman had to turn down them down, not knowing if he’d play competitive football again.
Two years later, Lt. Steelman was serving at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga., when he got a call from Army brass, asking if he still had pro dreams. He did. So they released him from active duty, transitioning him to a role in the Army Reserves. Now he could try to make the NFL.
But NFL teams don’t run the option. Steelman tried to cut it as a slot receiver but after an invite to the NFL’s combine for unsigned veteran players, nobody signed him.
Three months after the Army let him pursue his dream, Steelman got another call, this one from Team USA coach Dan Hawkins. Unlike foreign players who circle this tournament on their calendars years out, it was the first he’d heard of the IFAF tournament.
"I get to represent my country, playing the sport I love," Steelman says. "It’s an opportunity I can’t pass up."
In the cafeteria at Walsh University, although they speak different tongues, football players from across the globe share a common language: a passion for consuming vast amounts of buffet-style junk food.
Walsh, a Division II school in North Canton, serves as the staging ground for the tournament, a mini-Olympic village. Players converge on the student center for meals and take over the game room for ping-pong showdowns and pool in their downtime. But there isn’t a ton of down time.
Normally, a football player plays once a week and has six days to recover. Here, teams play four games in 10 days. There isn’t really another option. Making the tournament longer would mean more money spent to house the already cash-strapped 45-man teams.
Fewer games would eliminate any semblance of an actual winner being selected. Twelve games between seven teams already leads to an impossible-to-decipher jumble of games that somehow sends Mexico to the bronze medal game with an 0-2 record. After the tournament, I realize I never saw an official bracket and tried drawing one. It's... difficult:
Playing so many games in such a short span of time puts a strain on everybody. Coaches ration snaps between first- and second-stringers to keep everybody fresh.
Players who suffer injuries that might typically only cost them a game miss the entire tournament. South Korea’s Ji-Woong Jo paid $2,000 to come to Canton in spite of the pleas of his pregnant wife back home in Busan, but he gets turf toe in his team’s first game. He is bound to a wheelchair until the day before South Korea’s final game.
"Now that I’ve been made into a cripple, I wonder if this was worth it," Jo says.
Team USA uses some conventional recovery methods — ice baths, etc. — and some unconventional ones, like the "zen zone."
"The zen room is my favorite part," says former Dartmouth linebacker Matt Oh. "They turn the lights down and play soothing music. It’s almost like a spa."
With so little time, the ability to adjust quickly is vital.
"I keep saying, ‘blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape,’" says Team USA coach Dan Hawkins, previously head coach at Colorado and Boise State. "Normally I’m a planner. You’d have minute-by-minute of every single day. At this thing, it’s not that way. From Day 1, you have to get out and start being functional."
It rains almost the entire tournament, and nearby lightning shortens or cancels several practices, leaving teams to scramble for indoor practice options. One night, France is forced to reschedule so late that the cafeteria closes before the team can eat. They appear doomed until heroes triumphantly emerge with boxes of cafeteria pizza. No matter what country they come from, it is bad business policy to get between a football player and his food.
In Team USA’s first game, it thoroughly beats Mexico, winning 30-6. They allow no touchdowns, and outgain Mexico 408-87. It is the closest game Team USA plays in the tournament.
Japan, up next for the United States, is probably the second-best team here.
Football has been played in Japan for over 80 years, and there’s a well-established semi-professional league, the X-League. Shinzo Yamada, who played in the XFL with the name "SAMURAI" written on the back of his jersey, coaches X-League team IBM Big Blue. He points out that football has infiltrated Japanese society to the point that it’s the subject of a popular manga, "Eyeshield 21," about a shy boy who becomes a star running back.
Against Japan, Team USA is again relentless, posting 580 yards of offense. Japan’s two touchdowns come off a trick play and in garbage time. Coach Hawkins, who compares Japan’s skill level to that of an FCS team, keeps asking his team to go for two, even when it isn’t really necessary: they convert to make the score 33-10 with eight minutes to go.
The very nature of the game of football dictates that this will not be a very competitive tournament. Almost every game is a blowout won by the team with more developed football infrastructure.
Think about how many resources are required just to play the most elementary version of 11-on-11 football. Football requires a lot of players — 22, probably more, if you want to compete without players getting exhausted. It requires a lot of equipment for all those players — pads, helmets, etc. It requires a slew of referees to properly officiate. It requires a field bookended by goalposts and hashed in yards, a particularly odd request in a world that primarily uses the metric system.
And perhaps most vitally, football requires a vast amount of expertise in performing specialized tasks. In basketball, every player needs to know how to dribble, pass and shoot. In soccer, every player with the exception of the goalkeeper needs to be well-versed in the same basic ball skills with their feet and head.
In football, there are about 10 different positional types with massively different job descriptions and technical skills. In America, players are able to receive position-specific coaching from a young age. Elsewhere?
"In Brazil, YouTube is our best coach," says Roberto Spinelli, a quarterback-turned-filmmaker documenting the Brazilian team’s tournament. He notes that he changed his grip three times off of online videos.
America has multiple professional leagues. Japan doesn’t. America trounces Japan. But Japan’s semi-pro league is more advanced than Mexico’s college league, so Japan trounces Mexico 35-7. Mexico’s college league is way more advanced than France’s amateur league, so Mexico beats France 20-7.
France is a member of the advanced Western European football community, while Australia’s football scene is a few thousand players scattered across a continent. France crushes Australia 53-3. Australia has been playing the game for decades, while Brazil just started playing with pads in the past 10 years, so Australia wins 16-8. In South Korea, the sport is still primarily played at the club level at colleges. Brazil shuts them out, 28-0.
"They have good speed, they’re good athletes," South Korea’s Seung-Jung Oh, says of his teammates. Unlike a lot of South Korea's players, he has a long American football background: he went to high school in the United States and played football at North Carolina Central. "But they are still working on learning how to play football and building football IQ."
IFAF managing director Andy Fuller says part of his organization’s job is to show players that they can connect to football in less infrastructure-heavy versions of the sport, like flag football or beach football. But the 11-on-11 game will always be the one in which players strive to compete. And the gap between nations will remain large, perhaps permanently.
Canton has football in its veins. The forerunner to the NFL was founded in a local car dealership in 1920, and although the Canton franchise of that league folded by 1926, this was enough reason to give the city the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There are plentiful signs and banners celebrating the annual Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in August, the city’s annual party. The Dunkin’ Donuts in a strip mall across from my hotel has lovingly drawn the names and numbers of every new inductee, plus Vikings and Steelers helmets to commemorate their matchup in the preseason Hall of Fame game. There are multiple billboards advertising a speech by former NFL coach Tony Dungy at a local church coinciding with the induction.
And yet nobody seems to have any idea there’s a relatively large football tournament featuring players from across the globe. I hear one man at a bus stop trying to convince acquaintances to come to the championship game with free tickets he got. Other than that, nobody I encounter has any idea this is going on.
At the 2011 championship in Austria, the smallest listed attendance for a game was 1,500, with crowds as large as 20,000. In Canton, the gold-medal game between the USA and Japan — the most important game of the tournament, held on a gorgeous Saturday evening — has maybe 2,500 fans, including players on other teams who gathered to see the game.
During the Brazil-Australia game, I hand-count every fan in the 25,000 seat stadium: I get 112.
There are perhaps 15 or so Brazilians, but they cheer as loud as 50. Pamela, the wife of Heron Azevedo, wears a green-and-yellow jersey with both of their names on it. They chant in Portuguese, banging noisemakers:
"We’re saying ‘Go Defense! Ummm …’" An English teacher, Pamela pauses as she tries to come up with a literal translation for her Portuguese. ‘The next part is basically ‘Break everything!’"
Pamela met Heron when she started playing in a women’s football league on the beaches of Rio. He played in a nearby men’s league, and went over to help out her first day of practice. At first, Pamela thought she couldn’t afford to follow her husband for his tournament. Then she realized it wouldn’t be true to their football-founded marriage to stay at home.
Perhaps in another country, this would have been an event for the whole football community — and maybe a novelty for people unfamiliar with football, a way to introduce them to the sport. In Canton, it’s just another football thing. Nobody notices, and nobody has made any attempt to get anybody to notice.
Team USA plays France for a spot in the gold medal game. The loser plays Mexico for the bronze. Beforehand, Mexican coach Raul Rivera Sanchez delivers an entire press conference repeatedly referring to France as his team’s next opponent.
At the end of the first quarter, Team USA leads 26-0. At halftime, it’s 54-0.
In the second half, Team USA is no longer scoring touchdowns against France because it wants to keep scoring touchdowns. They spend the second half trying to run the clock out.
They can’t. When Team USA calls a run play, its offensive line jolts France back, opening up huge holes for the running backs. The backs fly into open space, sprinting downfield. Some French defenders get juked, others manage to get an arm on an American only to be discarded like soggy clothing. Running just leads to more touchdowns.
France tries the pass in the hopes of cutting into the enormous deficit quickly. If they’re lucky, attempts are merely incomplete. America’s overpowering pass rush doesn’t need to blitz to sack the QB. They still do. American DB’s blanket French receivers, and when the under-duress French QB tosses the ball up, it sometimes gets intercepted.
USA ends up beating France 82-0, the biggest margin of victory in team history. They never punt or kick a field goal, scoring touchdowns on all 12 possessions until a 13th ends with the final whistle. They outgain France 334 to negative-26 on the ground.
Two days after the game, French national team director Olivier Moret is upset. Not with how his team played, but how people on the Internet responded to the scoreline.
"I read newspapers and comments on Facebook, and American people are laughing at us. It’s bad." Moret says. "We came here because we love football. We want to show to everybody that we play football. And when we play against USA, we know that there’s a big difference in everything."
While Olympic sports get big government funding, Moret’s football federation makes ends meet on its own. His team crowdsourced 25,000 Euros to make the journey to Canton. The players put their jobs on hold and show the world that people in France play football.
And they were met with derision.
"Why laugh? We know we’re a little country in football," Moret says. "We don’t laugh when the U.S. plays the best teams in rugby and loses by more than 82 points."
Team USA general manager Todd Bell argues that Team USA must participate in international competition for the sport’s sake.
"The sport is called American football," Bell says. "If America isn’t leading, who will?"
For the foreign players, the opportunity to play the United States is the chance of a lifetime. They might not beat the United States — so far, the United States has won every game in the three tournaments it has participated in — but at least they got to play on the same field with a top-notch opponent.
"A lot of countries come in and say ‘we’re going to beat the United States.’ Do they believe it? Perhaps not," says IFAF managing director Andy Fuller. "But if they continue to play and give opposing teams something to aspire to, maybe some day they will."
Australian center James Gifford is an enormous fish in Australia’s small gridiron pond. His Sydney University Lions have won 12 straight league titles, including all 11 years Gifford has played. At one point, they won 99 straight games. In 2011, he played with the Australian team against the United States — and the Americans ran away with a 61-0 win. He’s used to winning, but left the loss with his head held high:
"Towards the end of the game, we’re losing by 60, I look the guy across from me in the eye," Gifford says. "I tell him, ‘Don’t look at the scoreboard. You come at me with 100 percent of what you got. Because I’m going to try and stop you with 100 percent of what I’ve got.’"
IFAF shares more than its initials with FIFA.
Under the reign of IFAF president Tommy Wiking, the 2015 IFAF World Championship was awarded to Wiking’s homeland of Sweden, where he was also president of the Swedish American Football Federation. However, it was not to be. Deadline payments to hotels were missed. The arena never received money. Just eight months before kickoff, Sweden announced it couldn’t host the games, leading to a scramble to Canton.
There is no official account of what happened besides "financial difficulties." IFAF’s current president, Roope Noronen, merely says he "doesn’t know all the facts." The few details we do have, chronicled at length by American Football International, make it seem like something fishy was afoot.
In summary: The Swedish football federation gave responsibility for staging the games to a company called Amfium. In addition to his roles as president of IFAF and the Swedish federation, Wiking was president of this company. He was also the person who arranged the company’s ownership.
The Swedish federation gave Amfium $350,000, but the company never provided any updates on its financial state from 2013 on, despite repeated calls for transparency. It failed to wrangle other sponsors to potentially finance the expense of hosting the games. Whatever money the company did have seems to evaporate, and if it acquired any other money, it didn’t go towards hosting the games.
The same week Sweden announced it wouldn’t host the games, Wiking took a leave of absence from IFAF and the Swedish federation, citing health reasons. Oh, and by the way, Wiking was arrested on charges of embezzlement in August 2014, for reasons not related to his American football entanglements.
What exactly went wrong? It’s unclear. All we know is that Wiking oversaw it.
When the IFAF congress opens the day before the championship game, things go awry. Quickly. "Before the meeting started, there was some commotion," Noronen says. "Some people chose to walk out before the meeting started, which of course they have every right."
American Football International reports that amongst other things, the departing members were upset that Wiking was not given a seat at the head of the table in spite of the fact that he never officially resigned.
The meeting proceeds, albeit without members from Germany, Austria and several other countries. A presidential election is held and Noronen, who was previously VP, is elected president.
However, unbeknownst to the people in the congress, the members who left the room hold their own congress in a different room. Somebody in the first room tweets the results of their elections from the IFAF official account, claiming that Wiking will remain president and Noronen had been kicked out:
The IFAF condemns the unsanctioned Twitter account on the official Facebook page:
IFAF shares a picture of 33 people in attendance at the congress and issues a press release about Noronen’s election, which includes the following:
Any reports that suggest different individuals were elected to IFAF positions through the rogue Twitter account ‘IFAFofficial’ are false. IFAF does not control that Twitter account.
The IFAF Executive Board noted the contribution of former President Tommy Wiking, who was among a number of delegates who chose not to attend the 2015 IFAF Congress, despite being present in Canton.
The other congress shares a picture of 25 attendees and issues a press release on the website of the European Federation of American Football, an organization which is technically defunct after the founding of IFAF Europe.
At this point, there are essentially two IFAFs: an official one headed by Noronen and an unsanctioned offshoot with several powerful members headed by Wiking. I overhear a group of referees joking about it over lunch, asking newcomers to their table "which IFAF are you in?"
Noronen sees the move as a feeble power grab:
"Knowing these characters for a long time, I’m not surprised." Noronen says. "I see a problem with the fact that the other party chose to go outside and hold their own meeting without inviting everybody there. If they had the majority like they claimed, they should have just stayed in the meeting and voted that way."
Personally, if I usurped power of a social media account from a sport’s governing body, I’d try to steer clear of that governing body’s championship game. Why emerge from the safety of Internet anonymity to a place where every person who could possibly get angry at you would be? The unidentified person running the IFAF account in exile does not follow my line of thinking, sending tweets from the bronze medal game with pictures revealing their location.
There are under 1,000 people in the 25,000 person stadium, so I walk over and sit in essentially the exact spot from where the tweeted pictures were taken. In the row behind me, two people are on their smartphones. One is a younger woman who fits the description of a former IFAF intern who had access to the Twitter account. The other is a middle-aged man with a European accent she addresses as "Tommy." Even without private eye certification, I believe I have cracked the case and found IFAF’s rogue president and Twitterer.
She mentions people have made fun of the attendance the games have been getting, and says she’s been repeating to everyone the same quip — "I’m sure USA Football has been doing the best they could" — about the perceived lack of effort from USA Football. But before another tweet posts, they get up to walk around the stadium at halftime.
During halftime, the IFAF account tweets a different picture, from a different part of the stadium. I sprint over, and there are only three people in the area where the new photo was taken, including "Tommy" and the ex-intern. I consider this enough evidence to approach.
I ask if any of them is running the IFAF Twitter account. They look around, as if they’re confused, and eventually all say no. I ask if they’re sure. Nope! Have a nice day!
I figured somebody using a social media account to repeatedly tell the world that they are president of an organization they are not technically president of might be interested in sharing their side of their story. But instead, they prefer to hide in plain sight. A few hours later, the IFAF account tweets word-for-word the exact joke the ex-intern told earlier.
The next day in the championship game, Team USA once again takes it to Japan, running up a 31-0 lead in under 20 minutes of playing time. America wins 59-12, drubbing the second-best team in the tournament.
Steelman, who led the team in receiving in three games and in rushing in the fourth, wins tournament MVP. He’s shown he has the quickness and hands to play wide receiver, and chips in on special teams the way NFL teams will certainly ask him to. After two years serving his country instead of playing football, he smiles wide.
"It feels like home, man," Steelman says, smiling. "This feels like home."
He celebrates the win with family, friends and teammates at a Canton sports bar. He never removes the gold medal from his neck. Two weeks after the games, he signs with the Baltimore Ravens.
The tournament’s 12 games are decided by an average margin of victory of 33.25 points, with only two of the 12 decided by 20 or less points. Eleven of the games are won by the team with the higher pre-tournament seeding. The outlier? A win by last-seeded Brazil, playing in their first ever international tournament, as they shut out South Korea 28-0.
Azevedo, the guy whose wife led the Brazilian cheering section, has experienced most of the lifespan of football in his country. He started in an 11-on-11 tackle league on the beach in Rio, nobody wore pads, but the sand softened the blows.
"I remember thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if one day we could play on a real field?’" Azevedo said. "And then thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could play in pads?’ And then thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have a national team?’ And then thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could play in a tournament?’"
Brazil did all that, and more. They beat South Korea, a country with a football history twice as long as Brazil’s. Noronen says early results show that Brazil had the largest viewership of the tournament.
But after a tournament-ending loss to Australia, WR Rodrigo "Vinny" Pons can’t reflect on all the incredible things Brazil has done. He’s openly weeping, revealing to the two or three members of the press what he just told his teammates.
"I told the guys this is my last game," he says through tears. "I’m retiring. We care about each other in a way that friends don’t. We have to protect each other on the field. We have to make them better every day."
Football is growing there and across the globe, and that growth will continue.
Football isn’t growing because IFAF has everything figured out. When everybody leaves Canton, there are still two IFAFs. Nobody knows when, or even if, the parties will reconcile.
It’s not growing because the NFL is investing billions in the international development of the game. While the NFL has gone to great lengths to ensure people from across the globe can watch its product, it has done relatively little to enable anybody from outside the U.S. playing the game.
International football is growing because of the undying fervor of players like Pons, players who have fought to play football in spite of everything. These players love football. And nobody has ever successfully stopped somebody from loving a thing they aren’t supposed to love.