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Flag football. Enthusiast sets up a Belarus team without Sports Ministry
In 2028, flag football may become an Olympic sport. And we already have a team.
In 2028, flag football may become an Olympic sport. And we already have a team.
This year, the American all-star game Pro Bowl started with flag football. It turned out to be no less entertaining than Shakira and J.Lo performing at the Super Bowl.
Why do we write about flag football as if you knew what it was? Because even if you haven't heard of it, it's high time you did now.
And even better is to watch a women's team game. Oh yes, not only flag football has excellent prospects, but it's also undoubtedly beautiful. We asked Nikita Shutau, the Hellcats manager and the Belarusian team coach.
Even grandma got drawn in
Flag football is pretty much the same as American football except less likely to cause injuries. To stop an opposing team member, one does not have to knock them off their feet - they only must remove a flag from the ball carrier.
Nikita Shutau says it's chess on the field. To win, you have to create complicated sequences. So, even Nikita's grandma got drawn in and now is a fan of Hellcats.
Before that, she used to cheer for Nikita. He went on the field to play hockey. But then his health started deteriorating – his eyesight got worse. He could neither be a goalie any longer nor live without sports. That's how he began playing American football.
He liked this new sport. His hockey experience helped him see the parts of the game that he could take up a notch. So, the time came to create his own team.
"I decided to set my hopes on the women's team. Flag football is ideal for them, after all. It's not injury-prone, and it doesn't require substantial financial investments. It is crucial because everything we do – paying for the practices, renting a gym, buying balls and uniforms – we do at our own expense. Pretty much no one is funding the team right now."
"You're walking down the street, you see a billboard, and you think – oh, we got to write them!"
When Nikita is walking around Minsk, he's always staring at billboards because that's how you find a financial backer who might recognize the potential - the same way Nikita once did - of this novel sport. Novel for Belarus, at this point.
Every month, Nikita gives back to flag football his time and the money he makes at his day job.
"We're trying to bring in the media and donors because there's no support from the government, none at all. The Ministry of Sports has yet to recognize American football and flag football. If they do, they'll have to pay us something. There's no money, though, and flag football is not an Olympic sport yet.
If we had funding, we could motivate the athletes better. In the meantime, the girls have to juggle both sports and their day jobs."
Is professional sport even viable without funding? How would you survive, then? A professional athlete shouldn't hear his stomach growling and think of how to feed the family when he's practicing. Athletes should earn a regular salary to focus on their goals.
Admittedly, you don't need the Ministry of Sports' recognition to find a financial backer who would provide the minimum wage. You just have to show the results and evolve constantly - that's what we're doing now.
Want to go to the world championship? Find the money for the ticket
Белорусская сборная в этом году поучаствовала в своём первом чемпионате мира, который проходил в Израиле. А пока спонсоры присматриваются к флаг-футболу, Никита и спортсменки оплачивают эти поездки самостоятельно. Если у кого-то из команды нет возможности вложить собственные деньги, снова помогает Никита — лишь бы только поездка состоялась.
"Tickets, housing, medical insurance, PCR tests – it's all on us. We're booking hostels. Now we're trying to find better options because our first trip with the cheapest hostel booked turned out to be my managerial failure. These kinds of things influence the athlete's mental state. So, I decided it's better to spend more money of my own and be sure that the team will live in decent conditions."
Even if somebody simply helped them with the indoor track rent, the athletes would be grateful. Nikita dreams of a particular separate stadium for flag football with its unique markings. Now they have to practice on the fields built for European football, and they're putting all of the necessary markings themselves using masking tape. In short, their dream is big.
"Unfortunately, these days, there's no infrastructure for flag football development. We have to do late-night practices when all children's schools and professional athletes have finished their training sessions.
We would also love to increase media visibility. The reviews are on a pretty sub-par level because there's this notion that men's sports are time well spent. And it's no wonder when all of the officials and department heads are men. I, as a man, am offended, though."
Chess with jammed fingers
Injuriesraumas happen in flag football – it is a sport, after all. Jammed fingers, twisted ankles – it happens. Nikita says that even basketball is more injury-prone than flag football. Physical ability is not the only thing that matters in this sport, though, far from it.
A dim-witted person won't even understand what to do on the field. So, this intellectual component of flag football attracts people who try to understand its rules. The area is rather big – 70 yards lengthwise and 25 yards widthwise, around 64 x 22 meters. There is a lot of space for deceptive maneuvers and clever combinations.
So, what is it all for? The good news is that by 2028, flag football may have become a recognized Olympic sport.
Does it mean that if one started practicing with you now, they would be able to go to the 2028 Olympics?То есть если прийти к вам на занятия сейчас, то в 2028 году можно будет на Олимпиаду поехать?
At least to the 2024 World Championship.
How do the Belarusian girls play? They fight as if their lives depend on it
The world leaders in flag football are Americans. They are the pioneers of this sport.
"One glance at the Americans is enough to understand they are professional athletes. These girls live by flag football; they've been training since childhood. They can afford rehabilitation, to get some rest, to work with a professional coach."
Nikita wants the Belarusians to be able to afford the same things. That's why now he's studying to be a male nurse and plans on entering the rehabilitation therapist studies at the University of Physical Culture.
"If a person can't afford the right kind of recovery after physical exercise, it's going to impact their performance negatively. Unfortunately, it is something that is very badly developed in our country, even in the case of the sports clubs with substantial funds."
Do the Belarusians already have their playing style? Yes, they do. Some people told Nikita sometimes that his team copied someone else's football. His response to it? It seems the critics know nothing about the game.
"In a sense, our style does look like our competitors'. But the pushback they give is unlike anyone else's.
They're motivated to such a degree as if their lives depend on the game. They're fighting to the bitter end. In a nutshell, our style is that we're ready to snatch a ball from our competitors' hands no matter what, to fight within an inch of our life. Our style is to give a hundred and ten percent to the game."
To a non-expert, the Belarusians' position on the World Championship leaderboard may not seem impressive. But Nikita can interpret the results.
"Italy was in our group at the World Championship. It qualified for the top-8 of the teams in the World Games. We lost to them by one point."
"Just one point" in flag football does not equal "just one touchdown" in regular football. One point is even less than one touchdown. Whereas the score on the board is usually in double figures.
"And this is our first championship! The Italians have been going to these tournaments for around ten years."
A little gender bias
Earlier, our team mainly consisted of girls who worked in IT. Then, many of them left the country, and now engineers, medical workers, managers, salespersons, designers, and pharmacists are playing for Hellcats. According to Nikita, sport helps many of them to take their minds off grunt work and "family troubles."
"It used to be me who was responsible for team morale, but now I can see the girls can brace up and get motivated by themselves. They're charged with love for flag football."
Let's add some stereotypes: is it hard to deal with the all-female team?
"No. I spent my whole life in female environments – my childhood with my mother and grandmas, my school, was also mostly female. I've been developing the skills of interacting with female communities my entire life."
It was hard in the beginning. I didn't have a girlfriend, and sometimes new girls came to the team just to get acquainted with me. Now I have a girlfriend and the only ones left on the team are interested in the spor.
So what, does your girlfriend refuse to play?
She's been on the team since day one. Yes, as it happens, we found each other during the practice.
How to watch flag football
СAs of now, mostly our friends, family, and random people who saw the advertising bill somewhere on social media attend our games. Nikita wants it to be like in the US – for people to give flag football their undivided attention on the days of the games.
"A whole culture exists in the US. You go to the stadium, shout for your team, then go to a bar to discuss the game. The next day, you talk about it with your colleagues. That's the way of life, and, amazingly, people can think about sports rather than of ways to survive."
How do you fall in love with flag football on the spot? Nikita claims you'll be drawn to it in no time.
"There's always something happening on the field, and the score gets higher. It is also easier to "crack" flag football than American football. Just come to the game, and you'll understand. Even my grandmas are fans now. They like how girls are playing, and they have their favorites. When I come to visit them, they're always asking me, hey, how's the ginger one doing?"
Do you want to go on the field?
Very much. But I have no one to play American football with anymore. Some guys are practicing but playing against each other is no longer possible. The key players left Belarus. However, one of the reasons they were able to forge their one path and integrate into the local societies was football.