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Can American Football get a toehold in China?

The NFL is at the forefront of sporting organizations making forays into the relatively untapped and infinitely lucrative Chinese sports market. More than 1.3 billion people populate China and 13 million alone live in the capital city of Beijing. That's more than twice as many people than call the entire state of Massachusetts home, in one sprawling city that dwarfs Manhattan.

Beijing played host to the sixth annual NFL Flag Football World Championship this summer, welcoming teams from ten nations and three continents, who had qualified from a series of regional and national tournaments for the right to represent their country. The event is not quite on the scale of the Little League World Series, but for the 12 to 14-year-olds from around the world discovering football for the first time, it was the highlight of their young sporting careers.

Defending NFL Flag Football World Champion the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center from North Miami Beach flew the flag for the USA and was considered the team to beat in the group stages. Having won the 2004 tournament in Vancouver, the Florida youngsters were full of confidence as they saw off teams from Germany, Korea, Canada and hosts China.

The surprise package turned out to be the Bangmod Wittaya Middle School from Bangkok, who had represented Thailand the previous year and finished seventh overall on that occasion. The 2005 event was a different matter as the Thais breezed past Italy 39-13, Spain 67-6, Japan 60-31 and last year's runner-up Mexico 43-26 to reach the semi finals.

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Team USA was also in fine form and in a closely fought semi final saw off Mexico, a safety proving the only difference between the two rivals. That set up a championship game with Thailand, 44-21 winners over Canada in the other game.

Thailand raced out to a 13-point halftime lead, but were tied at 19-19 before scoring a late touchdown and halting a USA drive at the two-yard line to triumph 25-19. Thailand's win was the first time the title had been won by an Asian team after Australia, Mexico and three teams from the USA had won the previous five competitions.

"We are delighted and honored to be world champions," said Thailand coach Chanphen Nitiyanan, who played for the team in Vancouver in 2004. "The school has practiced very hard since last year when they only finished seventh and all that effort has paid off. We are all very happy."

USA Head Coach David Fried admitted: "Thailand were the best team in the tournament and they had the two best players here, which I've been saying all week. It's tough to lose, especially because of all the hard work we've put in and it's hard on everyone. We know how it feels to win a world championship, but it's harder to lose one."

Alex Ciklik, who scored all three USA touchdowns in the final, added: "You don't expect a team from somewhere like Thailand to win at an American sport, but they deserved it. Some things went against us and we should have played better in the first half. We outscored them in the second half, but it was too late by then."

So there you have it – Thailand's Bangmod Wittaya Middle School and not the New England Patriots are football's true world champions!

China's new love affair with the game they call 'Olive Ball' began in August 2003 when the NFL flag football initiative took the foreign sport into schools and Super Bowl XXXIII was broadcast live from Houston on television for the first time. NFLChina.com was established in January 2004 and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue visited China in May of 2005.

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The recent success of the Patriots has naturally established them as one of the favorite teams as newcomers to football and New England was heavily represented at the Xian Nong Tan Stadium in Beijing.

Bethel Johnson was not there in person, but a life-sized cardboard cutout of the speedy receiver proved popular with Chinese youngsters eager to have their photo taken with the Super Bowl champions. Tournament sponsors Motorola, Reebok, EA and Gatorade had their products on show and a Patriots helmet caused much amusement as the local visitors managed to put it on, but struggled taking the helmet off again.

The Oakland Raiders are the most prominent team in China and even sent two members of their community relations department to Beijing where they made sure every youngsters taking part in the tournament went home with an array of Raiders merchandise.

Former Patriots receiver Cedric Jones is now the NFL Senior Director of Youth Football and cast a watchful eye over the proceedings, perhaps to unearth a Chinese player who might one day be football's equivalent of Yao Ming.

"One of the reasons flag football remains our core grassroots initiative is because it encourages boys and girls to learn football fundamentals," he said. "Here in China team sports are less common than individual sports, so this is teaching a whole new philosophy. We're very excited to hold the World Championship in Beijing, where the NFL's flag football program is in its infancy but is already very popular."

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The weeklong visit wasn't all about competition. Players and coaches were treated to sightseeing tours of the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Leading the way was Chad Lewis, the Philadelphia Eagles tight end who missed playing in his team's Super Bowl XXXIX loss to the Patriots due to injury. Lewis learned to speak Mandarin Chinese during a two-year mission to Taiwan while studying at BYU and was a popular figure with the youngsters eager to talk football.

So Thailand left China with the championship trophy in their hands until 2006 when an as yet unconfirmed venue will host the seventh NFL Flag Football World Championship. The next USA representative could come from New England. Visit the website www.NFLYouthFootball.com (and click on the FFWC logo while you're there) to find out how to join or start a team and enter regional and national championships for the right to take on the world.

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