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"International Brigade" brings NFL some global play

By Simon Evans

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Super Bowl Sunday is arguably the most American day in the calendar but this year there is a distinctly international flavor to the National Football League's (NFL) title game.

At least five players in the February 5 game in Indianapolis were born outside the United States and their involvement is attracting fresh interest from outside of the North American heartland of the game.

The New York Giants can thank Lawrence Tynes, born in Greenock, Scotland, for their place in the championship game as the kicker is playing in his second Super Bowl after kicking the game-winner in the NFC Championship game.

Tynes will line up alongside fellow Briton Osi Umenyiora, born in Golders Green, London, as well as a number of players with Nigerian roots, including Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara.

New England Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko was born and raised in Timisoara, Romania, before his family earned a ticket to the United States in the Green Card lottery and he discovered his punting talent in high school in Ohio.

German Sebastian Vollmer, once of the Dussledorf Panthers, will feature at offensive tackle for the Patriots - injuries permitting - and is one of the few players to have played the game abroad before moving to the States.

Completing a trio of foreign-born Patriots is safety Patrick Chung, a promising young soccer player at primary school in Kingston, Jamaica, and well known in the Caribbean as the son of reggae singer Sophia George.

Their accents may be American but the NFL's 'imports' have not forgotten their roots and they feel they are representing their homelands in some way at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"Absolutely, I've been told that numerous times this week in emails," Tynes, who says he is a lifelong supporter of Glasgow Celtic football club, told Reuters. "I'm very well aware from all the newspapers and so on that the whole country is behind me and so that's exciting."

Chung, who had never seen an American football game until he moved with his family to California at the age of 12, says he has had plenty of messages from old friends in Jamaica.

"I know all my dudes in Jamaica are going crazy right now," said Chung. "I feel a really full support."


For the NFL, which has long craved a major international presence but lags well behind more global sports such as soccer, the emergence of players with strong foreign links offers some potential.

"There are a lot of things that are happening in a grass roots basis in international markets - we are getting kids playing at a young age which does then give them the opportunity to come and play in the league in the future," said Briton Chris Parsons, NFL, vice-president of international business.

Parsons says the league has seen a sharp upturn in foreign interest as a result of an annual NFL game played at London's Wembley Stadium.

"While we have a fantastic (British) fan base that grew up with the sport in the early 80's, we have also now recruited a whole younger set of fans who are the ones playing and watching the games and buying the products. The average age of fans has gone down," said Parsons.

"Germany is our biggest market in continental Europe and there is thriving participation in the game there. We do see high penetration of fans in places like Denmark, a country which had (kicker) Morten Andersen in the NFL for many years, and France and Spain are producing strong television ratings."


The NFL has even floated the idea of having a London team in the league, a controversial topic which splits the 'foreign legion' of players in the league.

"That would be awesome. If there was a permanent team in London I think the British people would embrace it eventually and it would be a great thing for the NFL," said Umenyiora.

But Tynes is more skeptical of the chances of American football taking root in the British Isles.

"I don't know. It can be talked about but you are never going to fill out the stadium like Manchester United or Arsenal. It would be tough - but if they want to talk about it, the NFL has done well at marketing and they know how to do that but, personally, I don't think a team would work in London," he said.

Mesko, who grew up as fan of Romanian soccer team Politehnica Timisoara, suggests growth may eventually mean another try at a Europe-wide league for the sport.

"We are trying to expand the sport internationally, there was an attempt with NFL Europe and maybe down the road there will be another one, because it is such an exciting game. Any play could be something huge and so often comes to the wire."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)