A surprising number of NFL players will be glued to every match in Russia, rooting on athletes who have become fast friends. Then when the NFL kicks off this fall, soccer stars the world over will return the favor
IT WAS almost 3 a.m. in England, and Harry Kane couldn't rise from his couch—couldn't even lift his head from his hands. This was three years ago, long before he was poised to carry the weight of English expectations as the team's youngest World Cup captain. On Feb. 1, 2015, Kane was struck immobile in his living room by the same thought every other Patriots fan had: The Seahawks are going to hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch, and there's nothing New England can do. Super Bowl XLIX is over.
Two years earlier Kane had been struggling to find playing time in England's second tier and doubted his own future as a soccer player. Searching YouTube for inspiration he found The Brady 6, a documentary about Tom Brady's rise from sixth-round draft pick to all-time great quarterback. "I fell in love with the story," Kane says, "What he had to do to prove everyone wrong—it was a similar situation to myself."
He was soon posting photos of himself wearing Patriots gear on social media and spending hours playing Madden with his soon-to-be brother-in-law, Tom Goodland, a huge NFL fan who helped teach Kane the rules of the game. The English football star has since become such an American football junkie that he and his fiancée, Kate, have a dog named Brady. (If her Instagram post "Hate Sundays #redzone" is any indication, Kate is not quite as big a fan.)
Kane is far from the only soccer star who has fallen for the NFL, and thanks in part to social media and the popularity of online gaming, the bromance is mutual. While former Bears coach Mike Ditka famously said, "If God had wanted man to play soccer, he wouldn't have given us arms," NFL locker rooms are now full of players using those arms to play one of the world's top-selling video games, FIFA, which Electronic Arts created in 1993 after the success of Madden.
In Green Bay the offensive linemen commandeer a rec room for their two-on-two FIFA battles. Though Aaron Rodgers doesn't play often, he holds his own, tackle David Bakhtiari says, because "honestly, Aaron is good at everything he does." Ravens linemen Jermaine Eluemunor and Ronnie Stanley, along with wideout Chris Moore, team up online, each controlling a custom-made player on a shared Pro Club account. Eluemunor, a tackle from England who fell for the NFL when he watched the first London Series game, in 2007, always plays as a midfielder to better control the action. In Washington, cornerback Josh Norman has been known to charge challengers $200. "You can't come from the bottom and expect to play the top guy," he said last November. Receivers Jarvis Landry (Browns) and Odell Beckham Jr. (Giants) have been fans of Real Madrid since before they were teammates at LSU in 2011. Both had the same favorite player, Cristiano Ronaldo, and battled for the right to compete as Real. They, like many other NFL players, say that vying in FIFA has increased their interest in—and respect for—the other kind of football.
FOR 20 YEARS U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard has watched the two footballs move closer as he played for teams in the States and the U.K. "It's incredible to see the mutual respect that has grown," says Howard, who has a James Harrison Steelers jersey hanging in his Memphis home. Over the last 11 years the NFL has hosted 21 games in London soccer stadiums, with three more set for October. These matchups have drawn fans such as Bosnian goalkeeper Asmir Begovi´c, Austrian defender David Alaba and English keeper Jack Butland, who wore a Rodgers jersey to a Vikings-Browns game last season. In 2016, French midfielder Paul Pogba—a good friend of Norman's—got to see his first NFL game when the Redskins played the Bengals at Wembley Stadium.
This summer, after the World Cup, soccer clubs from five European countries will play 16 matches across the U.S. as part of the International Champions Cup. Last year Real Madrid and FC Barcelona drew 66,000 in Miami. Watching Barça's 3--2 win at Hard Rock Stadium, Landry became an even bigger fan. "The skill set is on a different level," he says. "You can't imagine what these guys make look easy."
After tight end Coby Fleener griped to The New York Times that quarterback Andrew Luck "talks about soccer more than some of his teammates would like," Luck and Fleener went to see Liverpool play at West Ham. The 2--1 LFC victory muted Fleener's complaints about locker-room fútbol talk. "Watching something in person, you realize how incredible it is," says Luck, who spent much of his childhood in England and Germany. "When you see a guy kick the ball 60 yards and place it perfectly on the left knee of a sprinting left back, it's much easier to appreciate."
Kane has made several tours of the U.S. with Tottenham Hotspur. In 2014 he and several teammates worked out with the Seahawks at their training facility, an experience Kane has called "a dream come true." Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright, who didn't have much success booting a soccer ball in spite of the tutoring provided by Tottenham, was equally thrilled to interact with the soccer stars. "To meet guys I play with on the video game, it was real fun," he said. (Kane has remained a Pats fan, despite his time in Seattle. To his delight, the Seahawks failed to give Lynch the ball at the end of Super Bowl XLIX, and lost 28--24.)
Players also develop relationships on their own time. Kane exchanges texts with Pats wideout Julian Edelman; Belgian goalie Thibault Courtois struck up a friendship with defensive end Chris Long after hearing the two-time Super Bowl winner was a Chelsea fan; and Stanley connected with German defender Jerome Boateng through their shared agency, Roc Nation. Bakhtiari, meanwhile, has worked hard to meet his favorite player, Zlatan Ibrahimovi´c. He flew to England in January but the Swedish striker, then with Man United, was an injury scratch. Still, Bakhtiari was awed by how Anfield Stadium rocked as thousands of fans chanted in unison. After Ibra joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in March, Bakhtiari attended a match and asked for a postgame introduction. Bakhtiari expected a brief meet-and-greet; instead, the two chatted for nearly an hour. Ibrahimovi´c has not been to an NFL game, but Bakhtiari is confident he has earned the Swede's allegiance. "I'm going to go ahead and say it: We got him," Bakhtiari says. "Zlatan is a Packers fan."
With the U.S. not in the field at the World Cup, soccer fans across the NFL will have divided allegiances. Landry will be rooting for Portugal because of Ronaldo. Luck has decided to back Mexico, even though he's always rooted against El Tri when they face the USMNT. Norman and Stanley will be among the Americans attending matches in Russia, but they'll be rooting for their friends—Norman backing Pogba and France, Stanley supporting Boateng's German side.
SOCCER WAS my first love," says Rams nosetackle Ndamukong Suh, "and I think it will always be that way." Suh's father played semipro in Germany while studying to become a mechanical engineer; his older sister spent a year on Cameroon's national team as a midfielder. While other NFL players fell for soccer only recently, Suh has been hooked since 1994, when he watched Cameroon play a World Cup game in the U.S. Cameroon didn't qualify this year, so Suh has adopted Nigeria, because it's an African nation and because it has accepted refugees from its southern neighbor.
A contingent of U.S. players who compete in Germany has helped popularize the other football with their Bundesliga teammates. Weston McKennie (Schalke) and Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund) set aside their club rivalry to have a Super Bowl party last January, along with Schalke junior player Nick Taitague. Schalke junior keeper Timon Weiner hosted a party for the German group, complete with mounds of chicken wings and cookies from Subway. "A couple of years ago, teammates never would have been talking about [the Super Bowl]," Taitague says. "It's cool to see."
The group stayed up past 5 a.m. to watch the Eagles' 41--33 win over the Patriots. The next day the players debated Malcolm Butler's benching and reviewed highlights to understand how Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles pulled off that fourth-and-goal trick play. As Kane rooted for Brady from England, so did 19-year-old Florian Krüger in Germany. "He is like an idol for me," the Schalke forward says. Krüger (a Rams fan) and Weiner (a Giants fan) spent the next several months obsessing over mock drafts, keeping Taitague up to date with the latest rumors.
The Super Bowl will never match the World Cup for global attention, no matter how many games the NFL plays on other continents. But after the Cup is awarded on July 15, the bonds between professional football and soccer players will continue to grow. And FIFA 19 should be out in September.
"A couple of years ago, teammates never would have been talking about [the Super Bowl]," Taitague says. "It's cool to see."