American Football: Brave new world beckons for NFL

American football is poised for the next frontier after the success of the first game to be staged in Mexico. Nick Halling reports

The National Football League had never staged a regular-season game outside the United States before, but on the evidence of Sunday, this first outing will not be the last. A crowd of 103,467 thronged the Azteca stadium,breaking the previous NFL record of 102,366, set in November 1957.

The atmosphere was certainly different from that found north of the border.

Out went the Stars and Stripes as the faithful belted out the pre-game Mexican national anthem, while Aztec dancers rather than rock singers provided the half-time entertainment.

As the designated "home" team, the Cardinals might have expected to benefit from local support, but the 49ers are popular in Mexico, as Arizona discovered when they came out of the tunnel to a torrent of booing. The hostility proved to be good-natured and transitory, however. The feeble49ers did little to endear themselves to their new supporters who, by the finish, had warmed to the Cardinals instead. The bond between the two was confirmed in the waning moments when Arizona's Bertrand Berry raced the length of the sideline brandishing a huge Mexican flag. He received the biggest cheer of the night.

Arizona's kicker, Neil Rackers, was certainly lifted by the unusual atmosphere: he successfully converted six long field goals, one short of the all-time single-game record. "It was wonderful," he said afterwards. "They are great fans, really into the game, and more knowledgeable than I thought they would be. It was probably the best crowd I have been around."

The success of the event vindicates the expansionist policy of the NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue. His horizons extend far beyond the boundaries of the continental United States. Tagliabue has almost single-handedly kept the NFL Europe League afloat, and he wants the gridiron game to develop players from other countries. Alone among North American sports, NFL players are almost exclusively American passport holders.

Tagliabue's international vision is clearly bearing fruit. For the last few years, pre-season games have been held around the world - London staged eight between 1987 and 1994 - but now he believes international fans are ready for the real thing.

Further matches are planned, with the new Wembley stadium being considered as a possible venue for 2006, although the London bid faces stiff competition from Toronto, Tokyo, Germany and China.

Ideally, Tagliabue would like to see two matches per season played on foreign soil, although his biggest challenge will be to convince self-interested team owners of the benefits of taking the game abroad. "The key is to let them know well in advance that they are going to be giving up a home game," he said. "The other key is to make [giving up a game] a universal obligation to be a member of the NFL." The statesmanlike Tagliabue, a persuasive former lawyer, usually gets the owners to see things his way.

Touchdown in Mexico today, tomorrow the world?

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