NFL Spirit Lives On in Spain : Pro football: Raider-Bronco exhibition, return of the Barcelona Dragons are among signs that interest is growing despite popularity of soccer.


The blow knocked Pau Coll down. He was dizzy. He was in pain.

He was in heaven.

Coll had played soccer all his life, understandable because he had grown up in Spain.

But then he got a chance to go to another part of the world, and his own world was never the same.

Coll went to the United States for one year of high school as an exchange student, winding up in Texas near Amarillo.

Much as soccer is the closest thing to religion in Europe, such is the case with football in Texas. Only in Texas, it’s not so easy to distinguish between the two.


When Coll asked if he could take a shot at playing this American futbol for his new school, his coach naturally made him a kicker.

No problem for Coll. But also, no satisfaction.

“I want to hit and get hit,” he said.

So, with sly smiles on their faces, the coaching staff put him on the defensive line to get a taste of it and, sure enough, on the first play, down Coll went.

“It felt great!” says Coll, now 24,as he stood on the sideline Friday at a Raider practice. Coll, who is acting as an interpreter for the team this week while it prepares for Sunday’s exhibition opener against the Denver Broncos in Barcelona’s Montjuic Stadium, still has excitement in his voice as he spoke of his initiation into the world of football, even though the experience occurred more than six years ago.

After finishing his year of high school, Coll came home, but he brought his new toy with him.

“What a funny-looking ball,” said one of his old friends in Barcelona. “How do you kick it?”

There was nothing funny about it to Coll.

“Let’s talk about real football,” he replied.

And soon, they were doing more than talking. Coll had his friends on the beach playing seven on seven.

“We didn’t use any pads or anything,” he says. “There were lots of bruises, plenty of teeth flying.”


Once his friends caught some of Coll’s enthusiasm, they inquired about purchasing football equipment from America.

They spent about $400 each on shoulder pads and about $250 on helmets.

Coll and his friends proved to be in the vanguard of a movement that was growing in Spain. With exposure to American football through television, interest in the sport was on the rise in 1988, just about the time Coll returned home.

Football had already made inroads in Italy, where a coach, Angelo Vettese, was working with young players.

Six years ago, Vettese came to Spain and formed the Badalona Drags football squad. Today, football is bigger than ever in Spain. There are 53 amateur teams playing in two leagues nine months of the year.

And the Barcelona Dragons are about to return. After a one-year hiatus, the World League is back, bringing with it Barcelona’s franchise, which operated in both 1991 and ’92.

The football/soccer comparisons that are going on in the United States this summer as a result of the World Cup similarly are being made here in Spain.


Nobody would dare hint that football will ever overtake soccer here, much as no one in America would predict that the World Cup would ever overshadow the Super Bowl.

But much as there is a feeling that the two sports can coexist in America, such is the sentiment here as well.

“There is a refusal by the older people to get interested in American football,” says Cristina Cubero, a reporter for El Mundo Deportivo, a Spanish sports newspaper. “They are addicted to soccer. But many of the young people like American football because it is so different. They are getting tired of soccer.”

Doesn’t football’s violence turn off Spanish fans?

“They find it fascinating,” Cubero says. “It’s not like the players are trying to kill each other. It is a contact sport. We have no other contact sport. We have very little hockey in this country. (Football) is the most contact we can get.”

According to Rafael Cervera, who will work in the front office for the reincarnated Dragons, only about 15% of the crowds who attended Dragon games in the past really understood football.

“About 35% liked the hard-hitting and the long bombs,” he says. “And the other 50% were just happy to feel like they were in America for three hours. And they liked to look at the cheerleaders.”


The first year, the Dragons averaged about 28,000 a game. The second season, that figure grew to 32,000. This time around, they are hoping to average about 35,000 in 54,000-seat Montjuic Stadium.

Coll, who played for the Dragons the first time, is taking part in tryouts to regain his spot on the roster.

But working for the Raiders this week has exposed him to the huge gap between the talent level of the Dragons and that of the NFL, a league he still dreams of playing in.

On the field, Raider quarterback Vince Evans fires a long pass to Rocket Ismail.

“That’s perfection,” Coll says on the sidelines.