American sport in the Indian realm was for many years a non-existent entity. Of all the games that were popular back in the States, only the NBA managed to trickle down to the masses, managing to garner a very miniscule share of eyeballs in the Indian market.
Fast-forward to present day, and it is still the NBA that is the most popular American sporting product in India, having gradually gained more acceptance and appreciation. Neither baseball nor American football has managed to find takers in the country. But the Elite Football League of India (EFLI) is attempting to change all of that.
A major reason why the other sports have not taken off is exposure and marketing, or the lack thereof. Basketball was always omnipresent as a sport in India at school and college level and hence moving to the NBA was a bridge that could be easily crossed, but that wasn’t the case with either baseball or American football, with the sports having no teams constantly playing it.
That’s what EFLI is looking to change!
The EFLI is the first of its kind professional American football league in the sub-continent, with teams from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan playing. What’s more, the league has received the full backing of both the government of India (GOI) and the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
And expectations are high going into the second season after the quiet success of the first edition of this most recent landing upon the Indian sporting landscape. To help bring you up to speed with the event, here’s a brief introduction about the league and what transpired in the first edition.
Eight teams in total featured in the first edition – Bangalore Warhawks, Mumbai Gladiators, Kandy Skykings, Pune Marathas, Kolkata Vipers, Delhi Defenders, Pakistan Wolfpack and Colombo Lions.
The eight teams were divided into two divisions – East and West. The East had the Colombo Lions, Delhi Defenders, Kandy Skykings and Kolkata Vipers while the West had the Pune Marathas, Mumbai Gladiators, Bangalore Warhawks and Pakistan Wolfpak.
Season 1 was held between September 22, 2012 and February 18, 2013 and the league had the Ten Network broadcasting slightly delayed, edited versions of the matches through its two channels – Ten Sports and Ten Action.
The near five month-long edition brought into the picture players, coaches, referees and other officials not just from the USA, but from the sub-continental countries involved too. Their dedication to the cause and the time and energy put forward by them went a long way in ensuring a professionally well-executed first season of the EFLI.
The Delhi Defenders and the Pune Marathas finished as the top teams in their respective divisions and faced each other in the inaugural championship game, which was called the ‘Elite Bowl’ a la the Super Bowl in the USA, on November 10. The Marathas won that one 6-0 to become the first ever champions of the EFLI.
The brain behind the EFLI is American Sunday Zeller, who is the founder of the concept and the Chief Operations Officer. He came up with this league, not only as a means to building amateur (American) football in the sub-continent, but also to use it as a movement to help the needy and marginalized.
“The birth of the EFLI came about as a result of the conception of the founders to make a difference in the lives of the millions of forgotten and overlooked children in the world. Ultimately, the league was formed to provide unprecedented, continual aid and funding toward education, medical, familial and emotional needs of these children in India and abroad. It is a fundamentally unique corporation, fueled solely on human beings loving human beings. India’s adoption of the EFLI will draw worldwide attention to the unifying power of love. The monumental impact is yet to be witnessed. The potential for change is unlimited. The invitation to play is magnetic,” Zeller had said before the start of the event.
Dilroy Fernando, the Director of EFLI, oversaw the first season. Fernando, a well-known rugby player from Sri Lanka, was roped in based on his passion and interest in promoting rugby and American football in these parts.
“It is also a thrilling and novel game for the sport–loving folks of this region (South Asian) to focus on,” said Fernando.
The main actors themselves in the middle of it all, the players and coaches, were a satisfied lot after the first of its kind tournament that marked the foray of American football into India.
The players came in with remarkably differing backgrounds, only to be unified by the sport of (American) football.
After being introduced to the game of American football by a friend, Amit Lohchab, a. k. a. ‘Happy’, a star rugby player by profession, turned out for the Delhi Defenders. He found the transition easy as there weren’t too many changes between the two games.
“Monetary wise, this offers players a better chance of (players) being rewarded according to their potential and many feel a sense of self-worth. Sports per se, builds character and helps in getting youth away from many bad influences,” said ‘Happy’.
Preetesh Balyaya of the Mumbai Gladiators was already a champion in not one, not two, but three different sporting pursuits – judo, weight lifting and sumo wrestling. He has fallen in love with the game and also the band of brothers that he plays with as well as against, and he believes that the league has helped build in him a greater sense of appreciation and love for not just his fellow country mates, but also those from other nations.
Paveen Reddy of the Kolkata Vipers also elaborated on the opportunities provided by the sport as a means of employment for not just players, but also officials. He also took great pride in the fact that he was amongst a group of players who first introduced American football in South Asia.
Roshan Lobo of the Bangalore War Hawks, who was awarded the Most Valuable Player award in the first season, was completely bowled over by the event and was grateful to all those who had made it possible.
Along with the championship trophy to the Marathas, a whole host of individual awards were also given away to the players who took part. You might want to familiarize yourself with some of these names as they will be back for the second season for another bruising campaign of American football.
Most Outstanding Quarter Back: Dinesh Kumar – Pune Marathas
Most Outstanding Running Back: Roshan Lobo – Bangalore War Hawks
Most Outstanding Wide Runner: Navaneeth Chamber – Bangalore War Hawks
Most Outstanding Offensive Linesman (The Grossman Award on behalf of Sandy Grossman): Preetesh Balyaya – Mumbai Gladiators
Most Outstanding Defensive Linesman: Karthick – Pune Marathas
Most Outstanding Line Backer: Suhail Imthiaz – Colombo Lions
Most Outstanding Defensive Back: Jitendra Mishra – Pune Marathas
K/P: ‘Nana’ Nanayakkara – Colombo Lions
Most Inspirational Player (Sunday Zeller Award) – Waqar Javid – Peshawar Wolf Pack
Most Valuable Player (country wise): Sri Lanka – Lena Rimzah (the late Major Milroy Fernando Trophy); India – Roshan Lobo; Pakistan – Jahangir Nawaz
Offensive Player of the Year: Dinesh Kumar – Pune Maarathas
Defensive Player of the Year: Jitendra Mishra – Pune Marathas
EFLI Most Valuable Player 2012: Roshan Lobo – Bangalore War Hawks
Here’s a video of players running out for the first ever EFLI match under floodlights.