Review of Touchdown in Europe

Foglio, Massimo with Ford, Mark. Touchdown in Europe: How American Football Came to the Old Continent. Published by the author (Foglio). 269 pages. Bibliography. $15.00 paperback.

Reviewed by Russ Crawford

touchdown-in-europeMassimo Foglio, who is, according to his brief bio on the back of Touchdown in Europe: How American Football Came to the Old Continent, an IT professional, and Mark Ford, a lawyer from Kentucky, have produced an interesting work on the history of American football in Europe. Both are fans of the sport–Foglio has also occupied several positions in Italian football–and both are members of the Professional Football Researchers Association, with Ford having served as president of the organization. Foglio self-published the book, and it is not a typical academic treatment of the subject. It is however, a fine work on the history of the spread of gridiron football to Europe. What Touchdown in Europe lacks in scholarly structure (there are no conventional citations and no index), it makes up for in the stories it tells about how the game has traveled across the pond. Most of the work was undertaken by Foglio, with Ford adding to the research and helping with translating from the original Italian.

There is much that the football fan will find fascinating in the book. Foglio and Ford have followed the dictum that one should remember to “put the ‘story’ in history.” One story that stands out is how the unlikely combination of Penthouse Magazine and Mormon missionaries helped build a football culture in Austria (p. 207-209). In addition to that gem, the other creation stories of American football teams in Western Europe are also fascinating.

Much of the content follows the history of the several hundred, if not more than a thousand games that American servicemen played in England and on the continent during the twentieth century. In this, Touchdown in Europe expands on the scholarly work done by authors such as Wanda Ellen Wakefield in Playing to Win: Sports and the American Military, 1898-1945 (1997), S.W. Pope in Patriotic Games: Sporting Traditions in the American Imagination, 1876-1926 (1997), and my own Le Football: The History of American Football in France (2016) in exploring the role that the American military played in sponsoring football and other sports for service men, and later servicewomen, serving abroad.

It also complements work on the history of football’s spread beyond North America done by Lars Dzikus in “American Football in West Germany: Cultural Transformation, Adaptation, and Resistance,” a chapter in Turnen and Sport: Transatlantic Transfers (2004) edited by Annette R. Hoffman, Le Football, and Michael Wood’s dissertation topic on the history of football in Cuba that he will hopefully turn into a monograph one day.

Foglio has organized Touchdown in Europe into an introduction and ten chapters, followed by his Acknowledgements, a Bibliography, and a list of websites. The Bibliography, which is organized alphabetically, is unfortunately difficult to use in any meaningful way. While there are French, German, and Italian sources, much of the research seems to have been done using sources written in English, particularly Stars and Stripes, the American military newspaper.

The introduction discusses, in a general way, the role that the military played in bringing the game to Europe. He makes the point, however, that these servicemen and the leagues created to organize their activities had no intention of exporting football to Europe. They were playing for the love of the game and for the various reasons the military found to promote games such as helping their personnel avoid venereal diseases, among others. The authors make it clear that this was in no way a “colonization” effort (p. 3), or what might be termed cultural imperialism. My own research on the game in France has led me to agree with this conclusion and argue for a global marketplace of culture where cultural products must serve some significant purpose for the indigenous population before they are accepted.

Chapter One attempts to nail down the exact date of the first football game in Europe, and points to an 1897 Thanksgiving Day game in Levallois, France, where American students studying art in Paris demonstrated their game to the locals. Foglio, or Ford, based that on a report carried in Le Figaro, the French newspaper. There was only the one mention that they found, so it is unclear if that game ever took place. I would agree that the first game was played in France, but would argue that there is concrete evidence that demonstrates it took place in Nice in 1909, and was played by crews from American warships that were part of the Great White Fleet.

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1909 edition of La Vie au Grand Air showing two American naval teams playing in Nice

Despite missing that game, Foglio does chronicle a number of other games played between naval crews in England that played the first game there in 1910, and the first game in Italy in 1913.

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Coverage of the first game in the UK by The Graphic, 1910

The second chapter details the games played primarily in France during World War I, and after the war in the InterAllied Games, which involved teams based in France and Germany that took place in 1919. This includes an account of the championship game played in Paris, during which the commanding general of the victorious 89th Division ordered his men to win the game after they trailed at halftime. His men complied and defeated the 36th Division, 14-6. This chapter and many of the others contain detailed accounts of the games and the star players that Foglio reconstructed from newspaper reports, which make interesting reading, not only from a game standpoint, but also as how sport writing changed, or did not, over time.

 

Chapter Three considers the 1938 tour of France sponsored by Paris Soir, a French newspaper. The brain child of correspondent Kurt Reiss, the tour matched two all star teams of American college players led by Jim Crowley of Fordham University. The two squads played six games in various locations across France, with each team winning three. This was in line with the plan that Crowley made, according to Foglio. Beginning in this chapter, the author begins consideration of the awful press that American football has received in Europe. When the French press was not complaining about the huddle, they were playing up the danger of the sport and maintaining that the game could never succeed in their country. In any event, the grand plans for a French American football league did not come to fruition since World War II broke out not long after the last game.

The next chapter considers the football games played by the military during that conflict, and once again, these were extensive. The military remained concerned about keeping their soldiers busy when not in combat, and football was an important part of that. There were several grand spectacles held in various locales that were dubbed “Bowl Games.” Foglio provides detailed game reports for many, including the Tea Bowl played in . There were also various leagues that played wherever American GIs happened to find themselves. One interesting story concerns the Barbed Wire Bowl, a game held in the United States between teams made up of German prisoners, and the subject of a previous post by Foglio. Others involve German threats to attack the Spaghetti Bowl, and the necessity of providing air cover against Luftwaffe attacks on the Tea Bowl. Security precautions during wartime, therefore, had to be a little more extreme than requiring clear bags.

The Cold War period is the topic of Chapter Five, and here we hear of the army and air force leagues that played games to remind servicemen and their dependents of what they were guarding back home. Once again, Foglio uncovered obscure games that must have been huge at the time. The Freedom Bowl, for instance, was played between the champions of the Air Force and the Army in 1961, and was played between all-star teams in 1962.  The Berlin Airlift, aside from overcoming heavy odds by supplying a major city by air, also provided the impetus for the Vittles Bowl, which helped raise money to support the airlift. The first game in 1948 was successful, and although the Soviets lifted their blockade the next year, there were two more games in the series. These games deserve to be remembered, as do the more than one thousand games played by Army and Air Force teams in Europe, and Touchdown in Europe provides those now forgotten contests with their due meed of glory.

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Bob Kap (left) with Lamar Hunt Dallas News 1967

The fascinating Bob Kap, best known for importing European soccer players to be NFL kickers, forms the basis for Chapter Six. Foglio tells the story of the innovator and entrepreneur from what is now Macedonia, who came to the United States and became a leading prophet of the religion of football. Kap was obsessed with convincing Europeans that football, American style, was the future. His International Football League, which existed primarily in his dreams, staged tours of Europe in the 1970s, and nearly had the NFL convinced that the league should go international. Economic circumstances forced the NFL to back away from those plans, but Kap was undeterred.

Chapter Seven tells the story of how he took teams from Texas A&I and Henderson State on a tour of Europe in 1976, and the Newton (IA) Nite Hawks and Chicago Lions, two semiprofessional teams, in 1977, on tours of Europe. Although both tours were marked by poor management, and teetered on the edge of disaster at the end, they did succeed in introducing some Europeans to the sport. Jim Foster, the inventor of Arena Football, and also the General Manager of the Nite Hawks, picked up Kap’s standard after the IFL finally folded and took the Quad City Blackhawks and the Indianapolis Capitols, two other semiprofessional teams, on a new tour of Europe in 1979. He tried Europe once again in 1989, when he took the Chicago Bruisers and the Detroit Drive to London and Paris to demonstrate his new arena game. These games introduced some Europeans to the game, but did not, however, convince anyone to start playing.

Part of the reason for that was the uniformly negative press that the game received in Europe. Samples of this make up the bulk of Chapter Seven. Foglio condenses the basic stereotypes employed to make light of the American game. These included, “football players look like spacemen, are constantly breaking their bones, are constantly breaking their opponent’s bones to win the war, and they’re crazy” (p. 197). He correctly makes the point that the press continues to denigrate American football, even after it has spread to most of the nations of Europe. Internet sites such as American Football International, Facebook, and the homepages for the various national federations or individual teams now make spreading the news of American football around the world easier though.

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The Moscow Bears, courtesy of Write On Man

“Football Finally Taking Root” is the title of his eighth chapter. The first country that took up football was Norway. Foglio debunks the myth that Marines from the American embassy in Oslo helped form the first team, demonstrating that the Wikipedia story (now edited) was incorrect. The first game there was between two high school teams led by one Norwegian student who had studied abroad in the U.S., and an American exchange student in Norway. Other nations have equally improbable creation stories, and it is here that we learn football took off in Austria through the combination of Penthouse publishing a story on a German American football team, and the assistance of some Mormon missionaries who helped coach one of the first teams. This chapter moves the story forward to the end of the 1970s, and so misses out on the establishment of football in France, Spain, the Soviet Union (yes, the Moscow Bears played out of the Soviet Union just before it collapsed), and later Russia, along with most of the other nations in the Soviet bloc.

Foglio, with Ford’s help, have written a fascinating study of football in Europe. While its lack of notes or citations lessens its usefulness for an academic audience, the stories it contains are well worth the purchase price. The Bibliography does contain information that would normally appear as notes in a scholarly work, so there is some fodder for further research there.

There are some small errors–Oran, Algeria, is listed as being in Morocco, for example–but they do not seriously detract from the overall value of the work. There are also some omissions, a 1961 tour of France by the SHAPE Indians and the Laon Rangers, two Air Force teams, for instance. Once again, however, what is there makes up for what is not. This book would make good reading for anyone interested in learning more about the history of football in Europe, and for those who would like to read about the incredible lengths that some people went to in order to play what is now our favorite sport.

Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Le Football: The History of American Football in France was recently published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.

 

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