LAGOS (Reuters) - At the Campos Mini stadium in Lagos, cheerleaders dance as spectators root for their local team. However, the players at this game are not the usual defenders guarding posts or strikers scoring goals but linebackers and quarterbacks huddled round the line of scrimmage and aiming for touchdowns.
In soccer-mad Nigeria, American Football, a sport usually played thousands of miles away in the United States but growing in popularity around the world, is slowly winning over new fans.
The West African country this year hosted what organizers said were its first two games as its two amateur American Football teams, the Lagos Marines and Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Titans, battled it out on the pitch.
Before the first game in March at the Titans’ home ground in northern Kaduna state, few Nigerians had heard of either team. A few weeks later in Lagos, dozens of fans waved banners and cheered in support.
“It’s not exactly the NFL (National Football League), or college football,” sports journalist Colin Udoh said. “But for a first effort this is not bad at all. I think it’s long overdue.”
With no official game structure in place, the two matches were one-offs, but the teams are hopeful Nigeria could one day have a league for the sport just like soccer.
ABU has been training its players for several years, holding inhouse matches. In Lagos, German coach Dominick Muller founded the Marines in late 2013, recruiting players more used to soccer, basketball and volleyball.
“Accepting the sport in Nigeria is very difficult but so far... everything is looking up,” said quarterback Adesina Pelumi, who cites New England Patriots’ Julian Edelman as his favorite player. “My personal aim is to get (into) the NFL.”
The Marines train four times a week. With no major sponsor, it was Muller who paid for about 65 kits for his players.
Raising awareness of the sport in a country where the NFL is rarely followed is a challenge, but Pelumi believes developing the sport could play a role tackling Nigeria’s mass youth unemployment, which experts worry could create social problems and raise the risk that young people turn to radical groups.
“The basic thing American football is doing for (us) Nigerians as youths is that it controls aggression,” he said.
“We have lots of people that are really angry and if they can channel that anger to playing a sport I don’t think we will have any issue with security in Nigeria.”
For now, no immediate games between the teams are planned but the players expect to face each other again.
“We’re coming back,” Titans player Paul Bakwak said. “This is the beginning of American Football in Nigeria.”
Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian, editing by Ed Osmond