American football, Russian style

Players of the Moscow patriots and Black Storm during the game in Moscow. Source: Alexander Vilf / RIA Novosti

Players of the Moscow patriots and Black Storm during the game in Moscow. Source: Alexander Vilf / RIA Novosti

Former U.S. players Kyle Israel, Bobby Rome and Talib Wise took the field on Saturday in the semifinals of the Russian American Football League.

Tim Tebow couldn’t make it, but Saturday’s big game was still a great show, boasting a fierce rivalry, showmanship and a dramatic Hail Mary pass for a touchdown. Oh, and some irate Russian Orthodox protesters.

Welcome to football, Moscow style.

Satuday’s semifinal game in the American Football Championship of Russia was supposed to be Tebow’s big debut, had the ex-Denver Broncos QB not turned down an offer of $1 million for two games with the Black Storm, starting against fierce rivals the Moscow Patriots.

Even without Tebow, it was an arena for free agents to reinvent themselves - the starting quarterbacks Saturday were Kyle Israel, once of the University of Central Florida, and Bobby Rome, formerly a fullback for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.

“I didn't know anyone on my team when I got here in Moscow and now they are my brothers and I love my team,” Rome told RBTH.

“Russian football has grown so much since I arrived in late April. Saturday was just an example of the high level Russian football can be played at. The atmosphere and the intensity was amazing and I was honored to be a part of the game.”

Football in Russia has all the basic features, but they don’t quite fit together in the typical way – the players are enthusiastic but prone to fouling, the cheerleaders’ lack of coordination betrays their real status as the players’ girlfriends, and the crowd (a Russian record of 2,000 or so at Saturday’s game) cheers, but spends most of the game confused by the rules.

In pouring rain, the two guys in front of me were decked out in basketball wear - an L.A. Lakers cap and Toronto Raptors shirt - while behind me, two fashionably-dressed girls picked up the word “fumble” early in the game and began shouting it after every play in fits of giggles.

The semifinal was controversial even before Russia’s two biggest teams, the Moscow Patriots and Black Storm, took to the field.

“Moscow is not a field for American violence” screamed the headline of a op-ed from some of the country’s nuttier nationalist groups.

“The main aim of this ‘sport’ is the desire to cripple as many opposing players as possible … We do not want our children to play a game that is based on fanatical hatred, rage and destruction.”

In short, Yankee go home.

The nationalists declined to leave their keyboards to protest the “American violence” in person and the game started in style, with flame jets shooting over the field as the players charged out, each waving smoke canisters in their team’s colors.

The Patriots dominated early on and turned the pressure into a touchdown near the end of the first quarter.

The Black Storm rallied almost immediately and Israel passed for a touchdown, finding wide receiver and fellow import player Talib Wise, once a member of the Chicago Bears, in the endzone.

The key moment came towards the end of the second quarter, with the Black Storm on a fourth down. Wise laid down a burst of pace to reach a high, hovering Hail Mary from Israel.

The Black Storm added another touchdown in the third quarter, and held on for a 20-13 victory despite being scored on again.

Victory pits the Black Storm against the St. Petersburg Griffins for the national championship, but that should be a formality - the Moscow teams are the big boys and Saturday was the real final, with celebrations and despair to match.

Russian football is chaotic and controversial, even without a certain proselytising quarterback - but it still seems closer to the NFL than Tim Tebow will get this season.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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