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Mexico QB Diana Flores leads the charge as women’s flag football makes gains internationally

Mexico QB Diana Flores Mexico QB Diana Flores - The Canadian Press

Diana Flores has starred in a Super Bowl halftime ad, signed a deal with Under Armour and even coached girls at a clinic in Morocco.

Mexico’s flag football quarterback did not see this coming.

"For a Mexican girl who fell in love with a very American sport at the age of 8, I never imagined that all of this could even be a possibility for me,” she said.

The possibilities — for Flores and other young women around the world — now include the Los Angeles Games in 2028 since flag football has been added to the Olympic program.

When it comes to gold medals, the women's side seems better positioned to crack American dominance as NFL fans pencil in Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill for a U.S. men's dream team in Los Angeles.

Mexico routed the United States 39-6 in the women's final of the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama. However, quarterback Vanita Krouch and the Americans avenged that loss with a 26-21 win in July over Mexico for gold in the Americas tournament of the International Federation of American Football.

The top teams are turning their focus to the world championships in Finland next August. The U.S. women are two-time defending champions — the men's team has won gold in four straight editions — but the competition looks wide open.

"Finland 2024 looks very, very competitive,” said the 26-year-old Flores, who eluded some NFL stars in her Super Bowl halftime ad. "Right now, we’re kind of the ones to beat, I could say, which puts a lot of responsibility on our shoulders, not only performing at the highest level but also to keep growing the game.

“Of course the United States, they are always a fierce competitor, so is Canada, Panama. Those are the leaders here in America.”

In Europe, Britain and its American quarterback Brittany Botterill, whose father is English, defeated defending champion Spain in the continental final in August. The prior two champions had been Denmark in 2017 and Austria in 2015.

Italy finished sixth at the World Games.

"We are getting so much better,” Nausicaa Dell'Orto said.

Dell’Orto, a co-founder of Italy's first women's tackle football team more than a decade ago, plays in a flag league that has 35 teams and is “growing exponentially.”

The Olympic designation should allow Italy and other federations to fund more training camps. Right now, the players pay for their own travel and carve out time from their jobs or studies to compete at international tournaments.

Italy recently hired Katie Sowers as its new coach. In 2020, Sowers became the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl when she was part of the coaching staff of the San Francisco 49ers.

“We need an American approach to the game. It has been a big sport in the U.S. for years and we’ve learned from the U.S., of course,” Dell’Orto said.

Dell’Orto, who plays receiver and defensive back, is also trying to land a scholarship for an Italian quarterback to study and play flag at a U.S. university.

Mona Stevens, who plays both tackle and flag football for Germany, was a physiotherapist for a men's team before taking up the sport. Her teammates include nurses and police officers. She wants to see kids starting at a younger age.

“We need more information about the school programs to bring more people into contact with it,” Stevens said at an NFL event in Frankfurt earlier this year. "There are so many more women coming into the sport and finding the passion of football."

Flag football getting on the Olympic program is a big victory for the NFL, which has been aggressively pushing into international markets in search of more fans and consumers. A star player from outside the U.S. like Flores is an extra bonus for the league — Flores, Dell’Orto and Stevens are all NFL and IFAF global ambassadors for flag football.

While Germany has become a vital market for the NFL, a teachers’ union in the German state of Hesse raised concerns about protecting children from commercialization of heavily branded flag programs.

Still, the game's overall popularity is growing. Stevens traded jerseys with Mahomes, her idol, when the Kansas City Chiefs came to Frankfurt and beat the Miami Dolphins 21-14.

The first Asia-Oceana championships were held in Malaysia in October. Japan beat Australia for gold on the women's side backed by tournament MVP Chihiro Iwata, who was dubbed the “ Diana Flores of Asia.” In the men's final, Thailand defeated New Zealand.

A total of 65 men's and women's teams from 37 countries competed in the tournaments this year, IFAF said, making it the biggest international cycle for flag football. The world championships in Finland will feature 10 teams each in men’s and women’s competition.

Mexico's women's team has won the world championship three times — the last coming in 2012. Panama won two years later, before back-to-back titles for the United States. The last women's champion from outside the Americas was France in 2006 in the third edition of the event.

Flores, who is studying for a master’s degree, recently finished the season with her university team — they were training for three hours each morning — and is now preparing for a January camp with the national team.

“We are going to see different kinds of matchups now in Finland 2024,” she said. "That’s just very exciting to see how the game is growing and how it is developing new athletes all around the globe. This is just the beginning for the sport.”