- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

When Tommy Wiking (pronounced Viking) saw his first football game, a preseason game between the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings, in 1988 in his native Sweden, he hated it. But Wiking began watching the sport on television and got hooked.

Today, Wiking is the president of the International Federation of American Football, which has grown from eight members in 1998 to 47 reaching from Mexico to New Zealand and including USA Football.

“The number of players has grown even more,” Wiking said from the IFAF’s offices outside Paris. “Poland didn’t have any football three years ago, and now there are 16 to 18 teams. I don’t want to sound cocky, but in the next 10 years, I think we’ll have football being played in over 100 countries. We hear from one or two countries who want help getting started every month. I just heard from Sierra Leone. India has started to play.”

Another positive trend for football’s international growth is that the focus has changed from adults to youth. In 1990, there were just two Swedish under-19 teams. Now there are 55. Four Swedes played Division I football last year, and none was a kicker.

“Before USA Football, there was always the question of credibility for the IFAF,” Wiking said. “People asked, ‘Where are the Americans?’ When the NFL and the players association founded USA Football in 2003, we could show people that the USA was working with rest of the world to create better football.”

NFL Europa has died, but 25,000 people watched the IFAF’s German final last year. The Austrian final was televised live. And host Japan’s well-prepared team of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings pushed an all-star team of 2007 American college graduates to double overtime in the IFAF’s ninth senior national world championship.

“When they put on the red, white and blue jerseys and people were chanting ‘USA, USA,’ it was a first for football,” noted USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck.

Next year, IFAF will conduct the first world junior (under-19) championship in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“What can Americans do to help grow this great sport of yours in the rest of the world?” Wiking asked rhetorically. “They can come to Canton and watch our level of football. They can collect equipment and ship it to people in South America and Africa who need so little and would be helped so much. When people in these countries start playing American football, they like America as a country and as an idea, what it stands for.”

Hallenbeck dreams of future Peyton Mannings and LaDainian Tomlinsons wearing the red, white and blue, not in the Pro Bowl but in the Olympics just like the stars of the NBA and the NHL. If people in Calcutta and Warsaw can throw touchdown passes, why not?

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