Kragujevac Wild Boars Article June 2011

EFAF Cup finalists: Kragujevac Wild Boars

In less than one month, the London Blitz will become the first British team to contest an EFAF cup final since the PA Knights loss to Tyrolean Raiders in 2004. The Blitz have risen to the top of the British game in recent years and have shown this year that they are not content with parking their tanks in their own back yard. Their feat will be all the more celebrated as they will be hosting the event at Finsbury Park stadium, with the full support of the modest, yet passionate British American Football community. Their opponents will be the Kragujevac Wild Boars from Serbia, who have experienced a similar ascent to domestic and European success since the introduction of kitted football to Serbia in 2006.

Any discussion about the powerhouses of European American Football has until now, revolved largely around teams in Germany and Austria, and rightfully so. Obviously there are some exceptions, such as France’s fantastic showing in the European Championships last year, but Austria and Germany have excellent records in their national and domestic teams, having dominated the top competitions for years. As Football grows across Europe, with strong leagues developing in countries such as Poland, Russia and Serbia, previously unknown teams are creeping up the various unofficial rankings published by commentators across the continent.

In the small city of Kragujevac in Serbia, such a team has emerged in an extraordinarily short space of time. The fourth largest city in Serbia has produced one of the top teams in Europe under the guidance of player / coach Stan Bedwell from the town of Mineral Springs, Arkansas. Prior to his arrival in 2008, the Wild Boars had seen little success, losing all seven games of the 2007 season. However, in coach Bedwell’s first year the turnaround was phenomenal, resulting in an 8-1 championship season. “Of course I did my part on the field” says Bedwell “but the most important thing I brought was better organization to practices and quality coaching experience”. The success continued in subsequent seasons and the Wild Boars are currently enjoying a 30 game domestic winning streak dating back to that 2008 season.

Coach Bedwell

Coach Bedwell’s presence at the Wild Boars forms part of the popular European practice of fielding professional ‘import’ players, primarily from the United States. British rules on amateurism currently forbid teams from paying players in exchange for their services, making American players and coaches far less common in the UK. Bedwell attributes much of the success that the Wild Boars have experienced to the inclusion of ‘import’ player / coaches, “I think the benefits of imports has been huge.  Not in the sense of what the imports have done on the field, but in the coaching off the field. It has been very important that all imports we sign realize that they are a coach first and a player second.”

Naturally, the coach has nothing but praise for his team. He consistently sees up to sixty players at practice, which is held four times per week, in addition to a team film session. “Our players are definitely more dedicated, athletic, in-shape, and larger than any of the players in the previous countries I have played in” says Bedwell, “their work-ethic and dedication is second-to-none and that shows come game day”.

It is not just the players who demonstrate an enthusiasm for football. Serbian league games attract average attendances of around 1,000 and it enjoys a status as the third biggest sport in the country. The Wild Boars can draw as many as 3,000 fans at big home games. The national media provide coverage of the sport and teams are well supported through state funding and private sponsorship. This incredible popularity has helped to generate a strong fan culture at games, “Our fans really get into it…team apparel, banners, flags, chants…it’s a great atmosphere on gameday” says Bedwell “We even had around 75 fans travel all the way to France (1,800 km) to cheer us on in the semi-final.  I think they were every bit as loud as the 1,100 fans cheering for the other team”.

Wild Boars fans can number up to 3,000 on game day

No wonder that Bedwell is now in his third year with the Wild Boars. “Contrary to popular belief” he says, “Serbia is not a “rough” or “difficult” place to be.  The people here are genuinely more friendly, helpful, and accepting than any other country I’ve been to. Obviously that is a draw to keep coming back, but in the end I keep coming back because of the team”. In European football it is common for ‘import’ players to change teams from year to year, mainly due to the inability of teams to offer contracts which extend beyond one season. For the Wild Boars, it seems that stability has been a cornerstone of their success.

The team have already experienced success on the road in Europe this year and this trend will need to continue if they hope to lift the trophy in London on the 2nd July. “We felt we put in a great bid to host the game and were very disappointed to not get it.” says Bedwell, “We have received a ton of support here and all of Serbia was pushing for us to host the game.  We had secured a 23,000 seat bowl stadium for the final and were expecting a minimum of 5,000 fans”.  Naturally the journey across Europe poses a challenge to the team but the coach remains confident. “We have already travelled 6,500 km combined in our first two EFAF Cup games and that’s always tough to get off the bus after a 30-hr drive and play a game the next day.  Due to being in Eastern Europe, we feel like we are not given the respect that the western and central European teams receive from EFAF.  Because of this, we take an “it is what it is” approach and go out to prove ourselves each time we step on the field”.

Bedwell is fully aware of the challenges that await his team when they finally arrive at Finsbury Park on game day. “I have spoke with Robin and Pat several times in the past” he says, “I have witnessed them overtake Coventry in the past couple of years to become the top team in the UK”. He is confident in the homework he has done in the film room too. “I know they are a physical team on defense and they look to be pretty talented on offense.  Boyle is a solid leader at QB, they have a good stable of running backs, some excellent receivers, and the offensive line is not so big but they are very aggressive and make the offense work”.

Coach knows that he faces challenges across the whole field. “I know that their coaching staff is very dedicated and does a great job of scouting their opponents and having their players prepared.  On the field, they do not do anything special but they are efficient in what they do.  They take care of the football on offense, they make minimum mistakes on defense, and they have a knack for making big plays on special teams.  Combine those three and you’ve got a pretty damn good football team”.

For fans of the Wild Boars, it will be a big ask for them to make the trip to the UK for the game. Simply to obtain a visa for entry to the UK, Serbian nationals have to pay 90 Euros – a hurdle which is costing the team itself 5,000 Euros. The Wild Boars may have to face the Blitz without their impressive army of supporters. In Serbia where an average person’s monthly salary is around 250-300 euros’ explains Bedwell, “it’s hard for them to afford to pay one third of it for a visa to go watch the game.  We’d love to have our fans there, but it’s very understandable if they are not able to make it”.  The team are hoping for a live internet broadcast of the game to be available so that they are still able to reward their loyal supporters that are unable to travel with them.

It remains to be seen which of the teams will cap their meteoric rise to success with an EFAF Cup final victory at Finsbury Park in July. Regardless of the result it is clear that European football is welcoming a new generation of teams from emerging American Football nations, striving for their place at the top table of the European game.

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