In the middle of the soccer field in Santa Ana, a slow-paced town southwest of San José, Lisa Andresen is playing football. Not fútbol, but football – flag football, to be exact.
She and six other young women from Boca Ratón, Florida – nearly all in high school and dressed in uniforms that match down to the red shoelaces in their blue-and white cleats – line up under the late afternoon sun across from seven girls in red uniforms that read “Panama.” Panama is up 7-6 over Andresen’s Wildcats, an unexpected lead with just minutes left in the game.
At a good distance from her center, Andresen, 18, calls for the snap just as one of her teammates comes running up from the left side. She fakes the handoff, turns left and leans into a quick sprint, pitching the ball at the last minute to another player who streaks toward the goal line. She collides with a Panamanian who catches one of the two flags hanging from the girl’s waist, and the play is dead. The Panamanian helps up the fallen Wildcat and the two teams reassemble once again.
A few plays later, with 25 seconds left in the game, Andresen throws for a touchdown, and the Wildcats explode into cheers and hugs, tumbling onto the ground in pure exhilaration.
“That is what a championship game should be like,” says Wildcats coach Alan Neischloss from the sidelines, pride evident in his face.
For the Panamanians, the Wildcats and their coach and parents, that game might have been the only one being played on the planet. But it wasn’t. Just on the other side of the field, men’s teams composed of Costa Ricans and U.S. expatriates ran much more physical games of four-on-four flag football, while eight men from Honduras waited for the eight-on-eight championship game.
The reason for all this flag football activity in Costa Rica is Jim Zimolka. Founder of the International Flag Football Federation (IFFF) and FlagMag.com, a flag football Web site, Zimolka, 35, is on a mission to single-handedly spread the sport worldwide and, he hopes, to eventually make it an Olympic sport.
So far, he’s been to 20 countries, starting successful flag football leagues in places such as Valencia, Venezuela; Vinnitsa, Ukraine; Moscow, Russia; and Chiapas, Mexico.
“I’m riding a wave,” Zimolka says. “The National Football League (NFL) is the biggest business in the world, and they go to 40 different countries promoting football. People watch it and they want to play, and the closest thing they can play to American football is touch or flag.”
Zimolka got started on his mission after he was selected to go to the Jose Cuervo Margarita Bowl, a flag football event that coincided with Super Bowl XXXI in 1997, played in New Orleans. There, Zimolka played in an amateurs-versus-pros game, broadcast live on ESPN, with NFL players such as Jim Kelly, Tony Dorsett and Alex Van Pelt.
Inspired, Zimolka began traveling the world promoting the sport, and he founded the IFFF and the World Cup of Flag Football, which will now be held for the seventh year in Panama City, Florida, in the United States, in March.
Zimolka expects this year’s World Cup –which started in Cancún, Mexico, and has been held in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and the United States – to attract 1,500 players from 12 different countries.
He says that in the United States, 4 million people regularly play touch or flag football, and estimates that outside the United States, it’s approximately half a million.
“But it’s growing,” he says, thanks to events such as the Santa Ana tournament, called the First Annual Costa Rica Flag Football Challenge, which served as a qualifier for this year’s World Cup.
Zimolka has set up office in Santa Ana, determined to see the sport grow here, with the hopes of bringing next year’s World Cup to Costa Rica.
“I want the World Cup to be here for a couple reasons,” he says. “One is tourism. People are going to come here and have a great time. Two, it’s centrally located so it’s easy for South Americans and North Americans to get to. And it’s also easier for visas. The big problem in the States is big, big visa problems.”
Zimolka has started a league and has been running games every Thursday morning at La Sabana Park, on the western edge of San José.While as many as 45 people have shown up, he usually gets about 20-25 people.
The games are four-on-four, seven-on seven or eight-on-eight, split between men’s and women’s teams. Four-on-four games last 24 minutes, split in two halves. The seven and eight-person games are 44 minutes.
Play is built on the same logic of football – hike, then run or pass – with some differences.
The obvious is that a player is down when his or her flag is pulled, rather than when he or she is tackled. Also, there are no fumbles – the ball is dead once it hits the ground. In four-on-four games, there’s no kickoff either – each team starts on the five-yard line. First downs are preset and marked every 20 yards, and players have three or four downs, depending on whether it’s four- or seven- and eight-person teams, to get there.
“It’s a simple game, but you’ve got to have knowledge about it,” Zimolka says.
For the Costa Rican women’s team, which lost both its games, the Santa Ana tournament was a learning experience. The team had been practicing only two weeks, and it was the first exposure to the sport for many of the players.
“I didn’t have the smallest idea,” said Gabriella Thompson, 27, a national team basketball player from the Caribbean port city of Limón, as she sat and watched the Wildcats and the Panamanians duke it out for the championship. “I still don’t know all the rules.”
“We’re rookies,” said Lissette Carnegie-Moreno, 28, whose parents are Ticos but who grew up in New York until she was 17. “No,” she clarified, “we’re pioneers.”
Flag football games are played every Thursday at 10 a.m. in La Sabana Park. A Monday night (7-9 p.m.) league in Santa Ana is being started. For more information, call Jim Zimolka’s office at 282-4159, or visit www.flagmag.com.