Hitting the fairway: Footgolf aims to take over the United States

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What do you have when you take the complexities of golf and match them up with the physical demands of kicking a soccer ball?

It’s called Footgolf.

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The sport dates back to the late 1920s — when it was still a concept and was known as codeball — but is now finally gaining traction on a global scale as one of the hottest up-and-coming sports, and rivaling both soccer and golf.

AFGL
AFGL

The beauty of Footgolf is that it only takes a soccer ball and a player in order to participate. The objective is straightforward. In as few kicks as possible the player must attempt to get the soccer ball into a cup with a 21-inch diameter.

Just as it is when playing golf, the lengths on most traditional Footgolf courses range from par 3 (the shortest length) to par 5 (the longest).

In the U.S., soccer has made great strides over the years at both the club and international levels, while golf has seen its share of peaks as well during the height of the Tiger Woods-Era, but American Footgolf League (AFGL) founder Roberto Balestrini believes that it is footgolf that has the potential to captivate the country moving forward.

Pro Soccer Talk recently caught up with Balestrini following the release of the Federation for International Footgolf (FIFG) international calendar which features a full-year schedule for the 2017 World Tour, similar to that of the PGA Tour.

“Soccer players retire early in life due to injuries or just because it is difficult for many of them to perform at the highest level when they’re in their late 20’s, early 30’s,” Balestrini told PST. “The AFGL has created a structure where former soccer players can get back into the spotlight playing FootGolf. In a few more years, we will see many of them taking up this sport on the professional level to continue to use their athletic skill in a new way.”

Expectations for Footgolf in the U.S. are very high despite the AFGL’s brief existence. The organization was founded in 2011 but has quickly grown to house over 500 courses throughout the U.S. in 49 states as well as Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

For the time being, North Dakota is the lone state that doesn’t feature a Footgolf course.

While the AFGL’s steady growth is encouraging for Balestrini and those of the Footgolf community, the league president has his sights set on bigger goals in the future.

“The golf industry has welcomed AFGL because we’re introducing a new demographic to the industry,” Balestrini said. “Participation in golf is declining in an average of 1.3 percent per year for the past decade while soccer is increasing by over eight percent. Now golf is doing better and perhaps FootGolf have something to do with it, even in a very small percentage. We’re working on our relationship with the soccer industry now because we had to start on the golf side to initiate relationships with the golf courses to create the necessary structure for the FootGolf to be played around the country.

“There’s a lot of potential for us to work with both sides in order to get where we want to be in the future. We just have to keep working hard and over the next five years I believe we’ll be in the position we want to be at.”

In an effort to help gain more interest from traditional soccer players and supporters, the AFGL recently announced a partnership with the American Outlaws (the U.S. Men’s National Team’s biggest supporter group). The deal includes an American Outlaws-only Footgolf tournament which will be held in March in San Jose, California.

In 2016, the AFGL reported nearly 1,300 members participated in the U.S. Footgolf National Championship., however, that number is expected to double or possibly triple for the coming 12 months.

Images of the American Foot Golf, final day, at the Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, Ca., on Sunday, November 6, 2016. Photo by Rodrigo Pena
Images of the American Foot Golf, final day, at the Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, Ca., on Sunday, November 6, 2016. (Photo by Rodrigo Pena)

The current format for the AFGL is very similar to that of golf, with tournaments typically played on weekends over the course of one to sometimes three rounds, depending on the difficulty of the competition.

The country is divided into four regions — the Northeast, Midwest, South and West — with regional tournaments sporadically played throughout the calendar year in the lead up to the National Championship at Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, California.

While the prize money doesn’t rival that of golf or other major sports in the U.S., several of the sport’s elite expect Footgolf to become just as profitable over the next few years.

Jordan Godfrey, one of the faces of the AFGL, believes its only a matter of time until the sport really hits its strides because of the different avenues that attract players.

“I don’t think we know how far down the line that is but with the right connections between the players and the leadership of the sport I know that we can get it there,” Godfrey told PST. “There’s huge potential that you can take from both sides, with the PGA and MLS and all of European soccer as well.

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AFGL

“You can use formats that soccer players understand as well as formats that fans of golf understand and combine the two in order to capture two large audiences. I think spectators could really enjoy watching the sport too and obviously we’d love to be living the life of the PGA Tour guys.”

Godfrey is one of many footgolfers to join the AFGL after having had a background in soccer earlier in life.

Julian Nash, a former MLS forward for the San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo, has also made the leap to Footgolf and seen early success during his time on the course. On the international scene, Roberto Fabian Ayala has also completed a similar route to Footgolf after having previous played for top European clubs like AC Milan and Valencia while also representing the Argentina national team.

In 2016, Sharif Khatib finished the year as the number one-ranked player on the AFGL Tour. It was his previously experience around the beautiful game that made him seek a competitive alternative once his playing days were over.

Like many others that have tried out Footgolf, Khatib became enamored with the sport immediately and has surrounded himself with it ever since.

“I grew up playing soccer my whole life and played Division I soccer in college at Loyola Marymount University,” Khatib told PST. “After I got out of college I wasn’t really playing competitive soccer anymore so I was looking for another sport to give me that adrenaline rush and something to compete in. My buddy told me about Footgolf and I was kind of intrigued by it when I first heard about it because of my soccer background and I figured it was a sport I could do well in.

“I went and played and ever since day one I’ve been in love with the sport. I felt like I had the skills to compete at the highest level so I’ve just been pursuing it over the years and been hoping to continue to get better each time I go out on the course.”

Sports are one of many channels that connect people throughout the world, and Footgolf is no different. With 35 official Footgolf federations spread across the globe, the opportunity for travel and to build relationships with players is what makes the sport’s future so attractive.

Angel Reyes — the 2016 U.S. National Championship winner — says that while his experiences domestically with Footgolf have been amazing that the sport’s opportunities to take him abroad have been not only eye-opening but a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“It’s definitely a great experience with playing club back in the day,” Reyes said. “Now I play with my Footgolf club [Canyon City] and we have five or six guys that usually travel together and carpool for tournaments. Sharing hotels as well.

“It’s not just the brotherhood of the club either because you get to meet other people from Europe, South America, Asia, Oceania, Africa and many other places. You keep in touch with all these people from everywhere around the world and experience these places that I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to go to. I’m very thankful for that”

Three things we learned from Arsenal v Chelsea in FA Cup final

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LONDON — Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup final on Saturday at Wembley as the Gunners won the FA Cup for the third time in four years and a record-breaking 13th time.

[ MORE: Gunners win FA Cup

Arsene Wenger has now won seven FA Cups, more than any other manager in history, as he denied Antonio Conte and Chelsea the chance to secure a famous Premier League and FA Cup double.

Here’s what we learned from an intense FA Cup final as Arsenal won their 13th FA Cup, becoming the most successful team in tournament history.


MERTESACKER A MAN MOUNTAIN

Per Mertesacker, Arsenal’s club captain, had not started a single game in the 2016-17 season.

His first start was in the FA Cup final at Wembley against Chelsea and the German defender (affectionately nicknamed the ‘Big F****** German’ or BFG by his adoring fan) stood tall, using one of his telescopic legs in the first half to deny Costa and throwing his body on the line to block shots and make vital interceptions.

Mertesacker was only throw into central defense because Laurent Koscielny was suspended and both Gabriel and Skhodran Mustafi were injured in the past week.

He was incredible in marshaling Arsenal’s backline and along with David Opsina kept Chelsea at bay before Ramsey grabbed the winner late on.


TAYLOR GETS HUGE DECISIONS CORRECT

“Did Arsenal get lucky?” is one of the main questions you will hear after this game.

They weren’t. Referee Anthony Taylor got the key decisions correct. The first goal was flagged for offside but he overruled his linesman to allow the goal to stand and although Aaron Ramsey was in an offside position, he wasn’t interfering with play, so that was the right call.

There may have been a handball by Sanchez in the build up but that was missed totally and the decision to overturn the offside flag was the correct one.

In the second half Victor Moses then clearly took a tumble to try and get a penalty kick as he received a second yellow card. No complaints and another brave, but good, call from Taylor.

Two key decisions went Arsenal’s way, but they were the right calls. Chelsea can not complain.


WASTEFUL CHELSEA BLOW DOUBLE

Diego Costa may well have played his last game for Chelsea as a move to the Chinese Super League beckons this summer. It sounds harsh, but Chelsea may not miss the Spanish international as much as everything thinks.

Although he scored to make it 1-1, Costa could have scored a hat trick. He took too long to get his shot off just after Arsenal went ahead as three Gunners defenders blocked his effort, and he then raced clear of Rob Holding but failed to get past David Ospina in another first half chance. He then drilled a shot straight at Ospina in the second half with Chelsea trailing 2-1.

It wasn’t just Costa who was guilty of missing chances though.

Pedro blazed over from a glorious position in the first half and in the second half he curled wide, while Victor Moses had an effort saved down low by Ospina.

Chelsea have come up short in attack in a few big games this season, including the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, 2-0 defeats at Tottenham and Manchester United and now the FA Cup final.

Antonio Conte will be searching very quickly for the phone numbers of Alvaro Morata, Romelu Lukaku et al.

Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea: Gunners win FA Cup in dramatic fashion

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LONDON — Arsenal won the 2016-17 FA Cup after beating London rivals Chelsea in a dramatic Wembley final on Saturday.

The Gunners took the lead controversially through Alexis Sanchez and had numerous chances to extend their lead in the first half.

Chelsea were reduced to 10 men late in the second half with Victor Moses shown a second yellow card, but Diego Costa equalized just when they appeared down and out. Moments later Aaron Ramsey popped up to head home the winner and despite late chances for both teams the Gunners held on for victory.

Arsenal have now won the FA Cup in three of the past four season, with the north London club now winning a record 13 FA Cups and manager Arsene Wenger has now secured his seventh FA Cup, the most by any manager in history.

[ MORE: FA Cup box score, stats ]

Arsenal got off to the perfect start, albeit in controversial fashion, as the ball broke to Sanchez it appeared to hit his hand but the Chilean raced through and barged past Aaron Ramsey to smash home a low shot. Ramsey was clearly in an offside position as the linesman flagged but referee Anthony Taylor overruled the decision and the goal stood. 1-0 to the Arsenal.

At the other end the ball broke kindly to Diego Costa but three Arsenal defenders charged in to block his shot.

Arsenal then missed a host of chances to doubled their lead as Mesut Ozil beat Thibaut Courtois but Gary Cahill hooked off the line, then Danny Welbeck hit the post with a header and the follow up from Ramsey bounced off his chest and hit the post.

Chelsea had a great chance as a long ball forward found Costa who beat Rob Holding and raced into the box but David Opsina saved bravely to keep Arsenal ahead.

The Gunners then went agonizingly close once again before half time as Welbeck’s shot from close range was blocked by Courtois and then as the ball rolled towards the goal Cahill was again on hand to clear. Pedro blazed a chance over the bar for Chelsea before half time but Arsenal led and were incredibly unlucky not to be further in front.

In the second half Chelsea, as expected, came flying out of the traps. N'Golo Kante had an effort saved, then Per Mertesacker made a fine tackle on Costa before Opsina saved superbly from Moses.

Pedro flashed a shot wide and Chelsea kept pouring forward as they became increasingly susceptible on the break as Sanchez found Hector Bellerin brilliantly but Courtois caught his poor cross.

Another huge moment of controversy arrived with just over 20 minutes to go as Moses went down in the box after being closed down by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and referee Taylor decided to book the Chelsea man for simulation. That was Moses’ second yellow of the game and Chelsea were down to 10-men.

Just when it looked like Chelsea had no hope, Willian clipped a hopeful ball into the box which Costa chested down and his shot into the ground took a slight deflection off Mertesacker and in. 1-1. Game on.

Less than three minutes later the Gunners were back in front as substitute Olivier Giroud, who had been on the pitch for a matter of moments, clipped in a delightful cross which Ramsey headed in to make it 2-1 and sent the Arsenal fans wild.

Bellerin raced clear late on but his low shot across goal squirmed inches wide, then Opsina made a wonderful save from Costa and Ozil hit the post, however none of that mattered as Arsenal held on to win their third FA Cup in four years and end Chelsea’s hopes of securing the double.

LIVE, AT THE HALF: Rampant Arsenal lead Chelsea in FA Cup final

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Arsenal lead Chelsea 1-0 at half time of the 2016-17 FA Cup final, but they should be so much further ahead.

[ LIVE: Follow the FA Cup final here ]

Alexis Sanchez put Arsenal ahead in controversial fashion as Aaron Ramsey was clearly in an offside position and flagged for offside, but referee Anthony Taylor overruled his linesman to allow the goal to stand.

Ramsey didn’t touch the ball but was remarkably close to it when Sanchez raced through to score.

Mesut Ozil, Danny Welbeck and Ramsey had further chances to score with Gary Cahill twice clearing off the line, while Chelsea had two chances through Diego Costa but he couldn’t convert.

Click on the link above to follow all the action from Wembley live.

What a first 45 minutes!

VIDEO: Moving tribute to Manchester bombing victims at FA Cup final

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At the FA Cup final on Saturday at Wembley there was a moving tribute to the people killed in the Manchester bombing attack earlier this week.

On Monday a suicide bomber killed 22 people and injured a further 67 after detonating a bomb outside Manchester Arena following an Ariana Grande concert.

Ahead of the FA Cup final, Arsenal and Chelsea came together to salute everyone impacted by the atrocity.

Watch the moving video below as 90,000 stood in silence to show their solidarity.