By Massimo Foglio
The first footprints of football in Europe date back to Thursday, November 25, 1897. American art students in Paris, attending either the National School of Fine Arts or the Académie Julian, decided to demonstrate a custom from their homeland by staging a football game, hosted by the Racing Club de France.
In the following years, several football games were played in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Luxembourg by American soldiers before, during, and after World War I.
In 1938, Curt Riess, a sports beater for French newspaper Paris Soir put together the very first European organization devoted to promoting the gridiron game. With its Paris headquarters at Rue Saint-Georges #20, the Union de Football Americain Amateur (UFAA) soon set about to create a French national team that could compete against American college players. Riess’s original vision for the UFAA was to recruit top rugby players from Paris and the surrounding area, teach them the fundamentals of football in a few months, and create a homegrown all-star team. He delegated the task of selecting the players to a national sports hero, Jean Galia. Galia was the founder of France’s first national rugby league in 1934 and captain of its first national team.
However, Galia’s new-found commitment to American football didn’t sit well with France’s rugby league community. When he tried to convince some of the league’s players to go American, it cost him his job as the head coach of the French National Team. Thus, when Riess invited Jim Crowley, one of Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen,” to assemble an American team to travel to France in December, it was clear that there was a problem. Even if Galia could find enough candidates willing to face ostracism from their fellow rugby XIII teammates, a football crash course over the span of just a few months wasn’t likely to put them on a par with Americans who had spent years playing football.
The time for the first European football team wasn’t right yet.
During World War II, American and Canadian soldiers played football games throughout Europe. After the war’s end, military football became an important part of life for US soldiers stationed in Germany, United Kingdom, France, Italy, and other countries where either NATO or the US Army deployed military bases.
Oddly enough, with all the military football played throughout Europe during the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s, American soldiers played little, if not no, role in building the first European football teams.
It all started in 1941, when Alf Stenere, former Norwegian exchange student to Bowdoin College, and Tony Bower of Kansas City, a 17-year-old high school student residing in Oslo, introduced the game to Norway. They instructed squads at Riis and Ullere high schools. According to an article that appeared in Newport, Rhode Island’s, Daily News, when the two squared off in late October 1914. Riis’ team won, 20-13.
The Riis-Ullere contest became an annual affair between the two schools, but we can hardly call the two school’s representatives “teams.” Other than preparing for the annual game a few weeks before the event, there were no other team activities for the rest of the year and minimal organization.
In the early 1970s, Bob Kap, a Yugoslavian immigrant, brought his soccer expertise (he was the head coach of the NASL’s Dallas Tornado) to football, becoming the kicking scout of the Dallas Cowboys. Kap was instrumental in the signing of former Austria National Team’s Toni Fritsch, who would play in Texas from 1971 until 1975, and then in San Diego, New Orleans, and Houston (both for NFL’s Oilers and USFL’s Gamblers) as one of the first “soccer-style” kickers of the NFL.
Kap was shrewd enough to realize that he had a limited window of opportunity as the importer of European players into the United States, since American boys were quickly learning the technique, so he switched focus and continents. Instead of recruiting European players to the United States, he became an exporter of American players to Europe. The cornerstone of his new sales pitch was to spread word among US investors that soccer was losing popularity in Europe. In an interview in 1972 with the Dallas Times Herald, Kap said that the game was in a steep decline, especially in Germany, France, and Austria. The perception, he explained, was that soccer was “too soft” and “too slow” compared to more aggressive sports like ice hockey. Basketball was faster and higher-scoring, but did not have enough hard-hitting action. The conditions were ideal, Kap argued, to import American football.
By 1972 Kap had convinced two major NFL figures, Kansas City’s Lamar Hunt, for whom he had taken a professional soccer team around the world, and Dallas’ Tex Schramm. It was Kap’s goal of placing his “foot in the door” to pitch his most ambitious idea ever: establishing and funding a professional football league in various European nations. Kap initially outlined his plan for a league with franchises across Western Europe to Hunt, and selected a unique name for his venture: the Intercontinental Football League (IFL).
Much of the development of the IFL is lost to history, but the owner of one of the franchises saved documents relating to his investment. The first act of the actual league took place in the shadow of Rome’s Colosseum. Promoter and television director Bruno Beneck, whose program Domenica Sportiva (literally Sunday Sports) was the most popular sporting show on Italian TV at the time. Beneck had brought “America’s pastime,” baseball, to Italy in 1946, and had been the Commissioner of La Federazione Italian Baseball e Softball since 1969. Already having met Hunt, Beneck was ready to import another US sport into Italy after learning that Kap had worked for the Texas multimillionaire. Beneck signed a contract to buy the first IFL franchise on February 19, 1973, and the original copy of the IFL bylaws (as well as his own) still exist.
Beneck, who had an available stadium, the Stadio Flaminio, paid the standard franchise fee of $37,000 and christened his team the Rome Gladiators. Soon thereafter, Kap sold an IFL franchise to Adalbert Wetzel, the owner of TSV 1860 München, one of the original soccer teams in West Germany’s Bundesliga and the league’s champion in 1966. The soccer team’s nickname was Die Löwen (The Lions) and Wetzel dubbed his club the Munich Lions.
We know of at least one other owner, Nihat Boytüzün, an engineer, oil baron, and founder of Türkiye Turizm, Turkey’s largest travel agency. Determined to get a team that could be considered part of another continent, Kap traveled to Istanbul and found the enthusiastic investor. Boytüzün christened his franchise the Istanbul Conquerors and, after learning of the creation of another league with worldwide aspirations, told the press “I am going to America to discuss with my U.S. lawyer a lawsuit” against the new World Football League (WFL). The WFL was a short-lived league that never reached beyond Honolulu, Hawaii. “They should not be allowed to use ‘World’ in their name as they operate only in the United States,” argued Boytüzün. He claimed that the confusion was “hurting our business in Europe” because the IFL owners’ intention was, eventually, to have its teams play against American teams for the world football title. The WFL, he said, had the obvious intention to present its league winner as the actual world champion in football. “How can we play for the world title if there is an organization calling itself ‘World Football League’ with the obvious intention to present its League winner as the world champion in football?” he said. “This is a clear case of misrepresentation.” Kap commented in the press that the franchise owners were free to file lawsuits on their own. Assuming Boytüzün did have a discussion with his US lawyer, he would soon learn that the NFL regularly referred to its Super Bowl winner as the “world champion.”
Yet, the Rome Gladiators, Munich Lions, and Istanbul Conquerors existed only on paper. No players, coaches, nor executives were hired because Kap was still trying to convince NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the NFL Owners to support his European League.
The NFL showed interest at first and created a working group to explore the possibility of creating a satellite league; however, the NFL-IFL marriage ended on March 21, 1975, when the owners met in Honolulu. According to the meeting minutes, “Commissioner Rozelle reported on exploratory talks he had had with persons in Washington regarding the exposure of NFL football in Europe. . . . He said the general feeling was that the state of the economy, both in the United States and Europe, made such a project impractical at this time.”
The Rome Gladiators, considered by many the first European team, never suited a player, never signed a contract, and never took to the field.
Beneck eventually brought back the name “Rome Gladiators” for use in the first Italian league in 1980, when the team at last became a reality. But by that time, a few teams already existed and the Gladiators could no longer claim the primacy.
Primacy was still claimed by an Italian team, though. A few months before the NFL Owners Meeting closed the door to Kap’s IFL in 1975, a few Italian boys from Piacenza, a small city in northern Italy, located about 40 miles southeast of Milan, recruited several players to form the very first European team.
Alberto Marcucci was a high school student who played rugby while going to school at Piacenza. During his summer vacation in 1973, he spent the holiday at the Mediterranean resort town of Tirrenia, located near Pisa and close to Camp Darby, a US military base. While there, Marcucci struck up a friendship with an American high school student who lived at the base, attended the Livorno American High School, and played football for the LAHS Lions. Their friendship led to an invitation for Marcucci to watch the Lions’ summer session, and then to train with team; the rugby player from up north quickly learned the basics of football and found that he liked it.
During his next vacation in the summer of 1974, Marcucci, now a high school graduate, returned to Tirrenia and trained again with the Lions. Upon his return to Piacenza, Marcucci and his friend from Casalpusterlengo, Carlo Pini, decided that they had enough information to put together their own American football team.
Marcucci and Pini incorporated their club on January 9, 1975. Originally, the organization had the rather cumbersome name Polisportiva Sambri dell’Oratorio di Santa Brigida di Piacenza (the Church of St. Brigid is a landmark in Piacenza, and a “polisportiva” is an athletic club). Something more compact needed to be created. Initially, the short version was “Sambri Piacenza,” but culture soon fostered a new name. As it happened, the summer of 1975 saw the return of comic actor Peter Sellers to the role of the bumbling detective, Inspector Clouseau, for the first time in more than a decade. “La Pantera Rosa colpisce ancora” (released in the US as The Return of the Pink Panther) marked the first new Pink Panther film in seven years, giving the team a new name. Marcucci and Pini soon recruited about 30 young men and began training as the“Pantere Rosa.” The squad had a catchier name, a rudimentary understanding of the rules, and some adaptations from the training that they were used to for rugby.
Under the guidance of Marcucci, the only person who had any clue how the game was played, the Pink Panthers trained for more than a year, and the makeup of the team changed constantly as new players joined and others dropped out. The Pink Panthers were doing regular workouts and preparing for non-existent opponents, because no other teams existed at the time in Italy. It took until the autumn of 1976 for the Panthers to play their first game, when they traveled to Tirrenia to play against the local Camp Darby Rangers.
The American Soldiers easily won, but the young and inexperienced Italians managed to score two touchdowns for a final score of 64-12.
In 1978, after playing a few games against US Military teams, Pink Panthers player Sergio Angona asked Giovanni Colombo, owner of the Hotel Manin in Milan and President of the Italian Hotel Association, to sponsor the team. Colombo visited a practice and liked what he saw, agreeing to fund the Pantere Rosa after all, under two conditions: move the team to Milan and change its name. Marcucci and Angona agreed and renamed their squad after the mighty rhinoceros: the Rhinos Milano (in advertising the team was the Milano Manin’s Rhinos, presented by the Hotel Manin).
After nearly forty years (and a couple of setbacks in which the team was rebuilt after ceasing operations from 1991 to 1994 and again from 1998 to 2000), the Milan Rhinos won the Italian Championship for the fifth time in their history in 2016 under the guidance of head coach Chris Ault.
Massimo Foglio is an IT employee with an Italian Insurance company. He began playing (American) football in Italy in 1980, and he’s been involved in Italian football leagues as a player, coach, and executive for the last 36 years. He’s a member of the Professional Football Researchers Association. With former PFRA President Mark L Ford, he wrote Touchdown in Europe: How American Football Came to the Old Continent, a book about how American Football developed in Europe.