American football – a combination of early rugby and football – has been in play officially since 1869 in the US. In Dubai, its history is somewhat shorter, though it has been played in colleges around the UAE for a number of years, according to Canadian expat Dustin Cherniawski, a former pro player in the Canadian Football League and general manager of the Emirates American Football League.
The EAFL itself was only established in mid-2012, but it has already amassed a healthy collection of players. ‘There was no men’s tackle football league in Dubai, and there was definitely interest for it, so we started the EAFL as a framework in which those guys could play,’ he explains. Since May last year, the league has grown from 35 men meeting to play in Safa Park to a four-team league with more than 170 members. They have even set up a kids’ league for under 18s, split into juniors and seniors. ‘It’s been fantastic – the uptake has just been huge,’ adds Dustin.
Despite what you might expect, Americans don’t actually make up the majority of the sport’s participants in Dubai. ‘It’s probably 40 percent western expats and 60 percent Gulf Arabs, Egyptians, Lebanese, Sudanese – we have about 17 different nationalities playing with us. The Canadians, Americans and Brits are often the more experienced players, but they’re certainly not the majority.’
Despite its professional-sounding name, the Emirates American Football League is a volunteer-run organisation, and is open to men of all abilities – something Dustin is keen to emphasise. ‘It’s completely amateur, and there’s no experience necessary. The vast majority of our players have either never played football before, or played a little when they were kids,’ he explains. ‘But it’s competitive, because everybody is at the same level.’ The current league is made up of four teams from across the UAE; the Abu Dhabi Wildcats, the Al Ain Desert Foxes, Dubai Barracudas and Dubai Stallions. Typically, each season runs for eight games, plus play-offs and all-star games with the UAE Falcons. ‘We do one match per week at each level, which takes into account the busy schedules of expat life, as well as making sure we don’t dilute the football viewership. If there are two games going on, we don’t want fans to have to choose which one to watch, and we want players who don’t have a game that weekend to support the ones who do.’
Speaking of spectatorship, the turnout is impressively high, with between 300 and 500 fans turning out for each game – something Dustin attributes to the size of the teams. ‘The cool thing about football is that you have 40 guys on each team, so if they bring a few friends each, before you know it you have a few hundred spectators. There’s strength in numbers – that’s football for you!’
If you’re looking for an even easier way to get into the sport, flag football comes highly recommended – and there’s a Duplays league just around the corner. ‘It’s a much easier way for people to get introduced to the sport,’ Dustin explains. ‘The contact level is almost non-existent. It’s basically the touch rugby of American football. The nice thing about it is that you don’t need any equipment – you just show up and play, and you can play it in running shoes rather than cleats [studded shoes].’ It could hardly get any more accessible. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and try something new this week.
A season with EAFL costs Dhs1,500 per person. Matches are free to attend, but donations towards running costs are welcomed. www.eafl.ae. Duplays’ flag football league starts on Tuesday January 15. www.duplays.com.
Two for the girls
Duplays’ next mixed rugby league begins on Tuesday January 15.
Dhs475 individual, Dhs3,420 team. Tue-Wed 7pm-9.30pm. Until March 20. Wellington International School, Umm Suqeim, www.duplays.com (04 447 2394).
A ladies-only footie league also gets under way on Tuesday January 15.
Dhs55 one session, Dhs220 four sessions. Tue 7.30pm-9.30pm. Until February 5. Dubai American Academy, Barsha, www.duplays.com (04 447 2394).