If you’ve been suffering from American football withdrawals since moving to China, Saturday could offer some relief when the Chinese National Football League (CNFL) playoffs kick off in Foshan. The hometown Foshan Tigers will host the Hangzhou Smilodons at the Skyway Football Stadium in Nanhai at 12pm in a rematch of their preseason game, which resulted in a 44-14 Tigers Win.
The Tigers have played well this season under head coach Rob Jacobi, a Wisconsin native who spent 16 seasons coaching high school and collegiate football before signing a contract to coach youth football with Skyway, a locally based company with football programs throughout the country. The only two Tiger losses this season came as forfeits against two Hong Kong squads after team management deemed it unsafe to travel to the special administrative region.
Like most coaches in the 21-team league, he’s had to do it with a ragtag group of guys who have careers and families to consider.
“We’ve got a 44-year-old linebacker that works for a cosmetics company, we’ve got kids that do marketing, we’ve got Skyway coaches,” Jacobi says. “Family and work have to come first.”
Jacobi takes pride in his knowledge of the X’s and O’s, but it’s hard to get beyond basics when dealing with a constantly changing roster and practices with only a handful of players.
The Tigers defeated the Changsha Revolutionaries on November 3 to secure a spot in the CNFL playoffs. Image by Brian Badzmierowski for That’s
“Football’s not a sport like basketball where you haven’t played in 15 years, and you go out and play a game,” says Jacobi. “You just can’t throw somebody in there.”
But he’s had to do just that.
At the Tigers’ last regular season game against the Changsha Revolutionaries, three players were starting in the first football game of their lives, including a chef and an engineer. Despite their lack of experience, the team won in convincing fashion, cementing a playoff berth.
Guangdong’s other two CNFL teams, the Guangzhou Apaches and the Guangzhou Grey Wolves, failed to make the playoffs, with the Apaches suffering a loss to the Tigers earlier in the season.
Jason Mak, a 26-year-old defensive lineman who coaches youth football at Skyway, is one of the team’s more dedicated players.
Jason Mak celebrating after recording a sack against the Changsha Revolutionaries on November 3. Image via the Foshan Tigers
“It’s very hard to play football in China,” says Mak. “You have to spend a lot of money. You don’t have any sponsors. You buy your gear, your helmet, your shoulder pads from the United States. The delivery [cost] is so expensive.”
The players are also responsible for their own travel fares. With opposing teams as far away as Beijing, it can get pricey.
While these dynamics don’t necessarily result in the prettiest game of football, CNFL games are still entertaining. The game against the Revolutionaries featured the same nasty hits, highlight-reel plays and over-the-top emotions that fans have come to expect from the often-brutal sport.
Even the (at times) sloppy play doesn’t drag the game down, because it’s fun to watch blown-up plays, wild scrambles for the ball and chaotic sequences that turn into touchdowns. It’s also encouraging to see guys with grey hair stepping onto the field to match up against kids 20 years their junior.
Both Jacobi and Mak predict a win on Saturday, but Mak is expecting a tough battle, because the Smilodons will be hoping to avenge that 44-14 loss suffered in May.
With a win, the Tigers will head to Wuhan on November 30 to take on the Berserkers. The Super Bowl, which has been won by the Shanghai Warriors the past two years, will take place on January 11.
Admission to tomorrow’s game is free and there are sideline seats available as well as a mezzanine section overlooking the field.
To see a listing for Skyway Football Stadium, click here.
[Cover image via the Foshan Tigers]