Beyond Wembley, American football continues to grow abroad

When Tommy Wiking first watched the game of American football, live on prime-time television in his native Sweden, he thought the game was boring.

That was in 1988. Two decades later, Wiking is president of the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) and is charged with shaping the future of the game internationally, with more than 50 national federations under his control.

Clearly a lot has changed during the course of 20 years.

"American Football," as it is known around the rest of the world, will be on display this weekend when the San Diego Chargers play the New Orleans Saints in London's Wembley Stadium -- the second regular-season game in as many years played outside North America. And while NFL Europe is a dimming memory, this will not be the last meaningful overseas game of the year. After the Saints and Chargers return to the States, club and national teams spanning the globe will carry on playing the sport they have come to love.

Wiking orchestrates the development and growth of the game that has so far enticed 52 countries from five continents to become members of IFAF. Who knew that the Bahamas is establishing a flag football program, that Japan is a two-time world champion at the senior level, or that India recently joined an expanding list of unlikely football devotees that includes Serbia, New Zealand, Uruguay and Russia?

"We have reached that number of nations in a relatively short space of time, so our next goal is to oversee 100 countries," said Wiking.

Not long after he had begrudgingly watched the Minnesota Vikings take on the Chicago Bears in an American Bowl preseason game 20 years ago on his country's soil, Wiking felt an unexpected urge to learn more about American football.

He explained: "That same fall, a new cable channel started showing highlights in Sweden and I began watching because I wanted to understand the game. After a while I was hooked and I certainly never thought of it as being boring again."

Wiking was typical of a new generation of international sports fans. Teams began to spring up across the globe as other countries experienced a similar upsurge in interest in the decidedly foreign sport. Wiking took the initiative and started his own university team in 1990. He played left tackle for the Stockholm Traders and a year later was elected to the board of the Swedish federation, eventually taking over the presidency.

"I knew about finances and that was a big help to them," said Wiking, whose IFAF leadership is combined with a full-time regular job as CFO of StayAt Hotels in Sweden. "I was involved in the first ever IFAF meeting when it was founded and became president in 2006."

The delegates present at the annual IFAF Congress in Spain unanimously elected Wiking for a second term this summer. One of his goals is to generate revenue for the game internationally both at federation and local levels.

"We receive funding right now from the NFL Youth Football Fund, but we have to find revenue streams that will allow us to continue to grow," he explained. "We have high-profile events and a broad fan base, so we have to capitalize on those positives."

One of those key events is the inaugural 2009 IFAF Junior World Championship, which will bring eight nations of players aged 19 and under to Canton, Ohio, from June 27 to July 5 next year. The United States will field a true national team for the first time ever under the direction of St. Ignatius (Cleveland) High School head coach Chuck Kyle and USA Football. In opposition will be Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Sweden, along with two qualifiers from among the Bahamas, Mexico, Panama, Australia and New Zealand.

Flag football initiatives and tackle programs are being nurtured throughout the IFAF family and, in an ambitious move, the governing body also plans to include the game's female devotees in its international plans.

"Women's tackle football is growing steadily in popularity and there is definitely enthusiasm among players for an international competition of the highest quality," said Wiking. "We would like to establish a women's world championship by 2010."

Finland and Sweden met in an historic first-ever international challenge game between two women's teams earlier this month, with the Finns enjoying a 64-0 home victory.

So this weekend, when New Orleans and San Diego kickoff on the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium, Wiking will be among the 90,000 passionate football fans who have been converted to the game. This time, he will definitely not be bored and will briefly put aside his IFAF responsibilities to cheer for one team in particular.

"I'm excited," he added. "The first game I ever saw in person was in San Diego on an Monday night, which means I became a Chargers fan."

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