When football's World Cup descends upon the heart of Europe today, national pride will be on the line for hard-hitting athletes sporting the red, white and blue.
But don't be fooled: the lager-swigging, German-tongued fans in these stands won't be gazing upon Hope Solo or the rest of the U.S. women's footballers. Rather, they will be soaking up a genuinely American variety of football, the kind involving pigskin and shoulder pads.
Team USA — the reigning champion of this slightly lesser known World Cup — kicks off the festivities today when it faces Australia in the opening Group A match of the International Federation of American Football World Championship. That game will be the first of the team's four contests spanning eight days in host country Austria, where the tournament's eight national teams will collide in a display of American football's burgeoning popularity across the globe.
If you weren't familiar with this international competition held every four years, you're not alone. Maurice Banks — a former defensive back and team captain at Georgetown — had a similar reaction upon hearing about the tournament a few months ago: What now?
"I really didn't know too much about it," Banks admitted.
Banks' former Georgetown teammate Matt Bassuener got a call from Team USA coach Mel Tjeerdsma this past winter asking him to help fill the team's quarterback position for the competition. Bassuener — the starting signal-caller for the Tulsa Talons in the Arena Football League — didn't hesitate to drop what he was doing and accept the opportunity to represent his country on the world stage. He then offered Tjeerdsma a suggestion: Take a look at Banks, who was playing professionally in Austria at the time following an assistant coaching stint at Georgetown in 2010.
Tjeerdsma, who retired from college coaching in December after 17 years at the helm of Northwest Missouri State, watched film on the 27-year-old Brandywine, Md., native and immediately liked what he saw.
"He's a big defensive back, which we think we're going to need to be a little physical," Tjeerdsma said. "He's a great young man. Character is still our number one thing. We want good players, but we have to have good characters because we're going to be out of our country for 15 days, so we can't have those kinds of problems."
Unlike many of his teammates, Banks brings a wealth of international playing experience. After a successful career at Georgetown, where he was a two-time All-Patriot League selection in 2004 and 2005, Banks served as a player-coach for the Marburg Mercenaries in Germany. The pinnacle of his pro career came in 2007 when the Mercenaries reached the Euro Bowl, where a crowd of about 20,000 gathered to watch the most important American football game in Europe. Banks then transferred to the Bergamo Lions in Italy, where crowds often numbered in the low hundreds. He returned to the States shortly thereafter to play for the Boise Burn in the AFL2, competing against his old teammate, Bassuener, in the process.
Unfortunately for Team USA, Banks hasn't had much time to share his experiences with his teammates. While other countries' geographical logistics and fewer leagues have allowed national teams ample time to integrate players in practice, the complex and widespread nature of football in the States meant Tjeerdsma had only one week (June 27-July 4) to gather his 45-man roster on the practice field.
"Hopefully we'll be able to put it together really quickly," Banks said before training camp. "I know the rest of the teams, like Austria, have been practicing together since February, and we're only going to get a quick week of practice before we get out there and play. Hopefully, we'll be able to jell and mix very quickly so we can get back to the championship."
That championship took place in Tokyo at the tournament's previous showcase in 2007, when the Americans, playing in their first IFAF World Championship, edged Japan 23-20 in double overtime. The Japanese had claimed the previous two titles, including a 2003 slugfest that ended in a 6-0 victory against Mexico in the final. Japan should only be stronger this year. According to Tjeerdsma, more than 60 Japanese colleges have organized football teams, and several Japanese scouts furthered their country's knowledge of the sport when they spent time with Urban Meyer when he was coaching at Florida.
Indeed, Japan isn't the only country expanding its participation in the once-exclusively American game. Thirteen years after its formation, IFAF boasts 59 member countries. Any of the seven countries in this year's tournament — which also includes France, Mexico, Germany, Austria and Canada — has the potential to dethrone the U.S.
The opportunity to represent their country will need to be motivation enough for the Americans. While that other men's World Cup allocates millions of dollars to each participating team, this one promises no financial benefit to players and coaches. To journeymen like Banks and Bassuener, that's just fine.
"It's just a great honor to have the opportunity to play for the U.S. team," Banks said.
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