Forging a common path for the Prague Lions in the European Football League
Graphics: Igor Lazarevic
On September 23, 2022, two days before the European Football League (ELF) Championship game, Paris and prague were announced as the final two teams were to join the pan-European league.
lead the Prague lions in the ELF will be longtime head coach, co-owner and former player Zach Harrod, who hopes to find a common path to Czechs on the European football stadium after years of rifts within the country’s football community.
Harrod first came to the Czech Republic in the summer of 2002 with Athletes in actiona Christian missionary evangelism program. He fell on the the Lions by chance after a missionary companion asked him to escort him to prague because she wanted to check on the cheerleaders on the team.
With his plot sparked, Harrod then returned to the WE and completed her degree at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Wisconsin (NCAA, DIII) – where he played it safe – before returning to prague in 2004 to play the following two seasons with the the Lions. It was in his very first year with the team that he won Czech bowlthe The Lions first in eight years.
As the son of a football manager himself, Harrod was determined to live a life in football, but to do so he knew he would need more coaching experience. It was in this spirit that he returned to Ohio, United Statesand got his first real coaching gig at HSBCU Central State University (NCAA, DII).
Coaching at Central State has been such a rewarding experience. Coming from rural Wisconsin, you don’t really have many points of contact with anything other than white people. I was in a position where I was the only white man on the court, period. I really learned a lot during that time and it gave me the tools to deal with the differences that I also encounter in Europe.
But still the attraction of Europethat so much Americans find themselves drawn to, was strong. Harrod returned again in 2007 and played the 2008 and 2009 seasons with the the Lions where he enjoyed the hay day of Czech football, 00s.
Despite prague long history of competitive football, it was never seen as a hub for the sport in Europe. The teams in the Czech Republic are international in intent and desire for growth, but have different ideas on how to achieve it, resulting in a dispersion of talent across multiple teams.
These differences were so intense that they even led to a split within the Prague lions in 2009, a split Harrod was in the middle of, which left the the Lions with only five senior players and the formation of another prague team, the Blackhawkswhich later merged with the Prague Panthers become the Black Panthers of Prague.
The political landscape of football in Czech Republic has remained tumultuous ever since prague split in 2009 with teams playing in different leagues across Europe as the Austrian Football League and the Central European football League (CEFL) as well as the national one in the hope of establishing Czech dominance.
Meanwhile, Harrod has made it his mission to grow the team from the ground up, investing heavily in the youth programme. Within four years of the prague divided, the the Lions senior team was back at the Czech bowl. Their junior team also continued their overwhelming success, winning nine of 18 National Championships.
This is the future of youth programs in Czech Republic that Harrod now feels are cemented together with the foundation of a ELF crew:
Children will no longer have to look for opportunities outside the Czech Republic. We’re losing way too many guys to other leagues and sports. I am delighted that we can now keep our young talents. We have local heroes here. I want to keep these guys. And now we can.
People know me here. I own part of the Prague Lions. I don’t have any other clothes so the other parents at my kids’ school know who I am. And all of a sudden other parents come up to me and say wow, you’re doing something great. And now it’s real. We can change the sport in five, 10, 20 years. We can have kids in the NFL’s International Pathway program and still play in the United States. Can’t wait for the next Czech Sandro Platzgummer [New York Giants] or Bernhard Raimann [Indianapolis Colts].
But it was in 2018 that Harrod began to feel burnt out. Fourteen years in prague as a player and coach, now with a wife and child, among all the politics was starting to weigh on him. It was at this time that a road-trip around Iceland became the knife edge of Harrod’s race in Europe:
When we were driving in Iceland, there were long roads. The serenity of the whole really allowed me to dwell on my stay in Prague outside of any politics. My wife and children sometimes fell asleep and I used that time to pray and reflect. In which direction should I go ? I decided that if I was going to stay in Prague, with the Lions, I needed more for us, for the team.
It was after this introspective trip that Harrod went to the then-president with a spreadsheet of all the money he had raised for the team over the years and the contributions he had made on field. He made a successful bid for the team and became co-owners with a small group of WE investors.
It is from now on that the the Lions became not only a local football team, but also a business; and in the back of Harrod’s mind, there was always ‘how can we become a professional and competitive team?’
And in 2020, just after the Covid-19 season, rumors started circulating about the formation of a pan-European league that shared the same vision as Harrod, the European Football League.
The the Lions continued to compete in 2021 and 2022 in the CEFL cup as well as their domestic league, but in the background Harrod was making moves:
We were still competing, like we always had on the pitch, but off the pitch I was working on the phones and LinkedIn, calling contacts. We needed investments if we wanted to be in the ELF.
My sister has been the press secretary for the US Ski Team for eight years. She ended up providing me with the contact that made it all possible.
Harrod’s meetings with Commissioner Patrick Esume began in late spring 2022. To his surprise, prague had been in elves seen from the beginning, it was only a question of who and when. Harrod wanted to make sure it was the the Lions and after countless meetings, hovering around numbers and projections, he received an email from Esume’s secretary at 7 a.m. on Tuesday before the ELF Championship Game in Klagenfurt; They were inside.
prague will undoubtedly be an ideal place to elves new franchise as one of the cultural capitals of Europe. Whether or not they can produce the product on the pitch to compete with a league that seems to be improving year on year at an alarming rate is another story. But for Harrod, there is little uncertainty:
When I look at our talent here, I think there are more than 10 Czechs playing in top European leagues. It’s hard to get everyone on the same page and being able to work through our differences will be a challenge. But if we can bring in the good Czechs, some good Americans and Europeans, we can make some noise. We have the talent here to do that. We’re gonna make some noise in this league.