In Mexico, can American football tackle 'futbol'?


Mexico City (AFP)

A tattooed fitness instructor runs a 40-yard dash on a Mexico City football field. A brawny graphic designer bench-presses a heavy barbell. A medical student soars to show his vertical leap.

More than 70 others -- lawyers, engineers, salesmen -- showed up on a recent, cool Saturday morning for a tryout, except it wasn't for a "futbol" team.

They were gunning for a spot in Mexico's fledgling professional American football league.

Panting after doing 20 reps with 100-kilo (220-pound) weights, 32-year-old graphic designer Julio Cesar Lujan says he hopes one of the league's six teams will draft him in December.

"I actually don't like soccer at all. I really like contact sports," said Lujan, his biceps bulging from his sleeveless shirt.

As the NFL returns to Mexico on Monday night for a regular season match-up, the rise of the Liga de Futbol Americano Profesional (LFA) is another sign of the growing passion for the sport in a country where soccer reigns.

The National Football League estimates it has 25 million fans in Mexico, the most outside the United States.

More than 103,000 people packed the Azteca stadium to watch the Arizona Cardinals beat the San Francisco 49ers in 2005, the only other regular season game played in Mexico City.

Tickets for Monday's clash between the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans sold out within an hour, with 76,000 expected at the modified stadium.

"The league has seen that this is favorable territory to increase and expand its international reach," Arturo Olive, the director of the NFL's Mexico office, told AFP.

Two more NFL games are planned for 2017 and 2018 in Mexico City as part of the NFL's international circuit alongside London.

Olive said a successful event on Monday may lead to more games in Mexico, though the country is still "very far" from getting a franchise.

Crowds fill bars to watch NFL games. Mexican university clashes are now televised. Men and women compete in flag football tournaments.

Some 2.5 million boys and girls play non-tackle "touch" football in schools under an NFL program that had 100,000 participants eight years ago.

While the odds for Mexicans to be drafted in the NFL are slim, they can now aspire to join the LFA, which kicks off its second season in February.

- 'Still in diapers' -

The LFA was founded by Fox Sports channel's NFL commentator Juan Carlos Vazquez, who recalls feeling "very sad" as a child when another Mexican league folded in the 1990s.

"Since then, I had the idea that when I grew up, I would have a professional league," Vazquez said.

The inaugural season earlier this year featured four teams from the Mexico City area, with an average attendance of 2,000 people per game.

The LFA is expanding a year earlier than anticipated, with the northern cities of Saltillo and Monterrey joining the upcoming season.

The 1990s league failed because it lacked television coverage, sponsorships and administrative experience, Vazquez said.

He said the LFA has doubled its sponsors to 14 and gained more television coverage, including summaries of games broadcast weekly by the country's biggest network, Televisa.

But Jose Antonio Sandoval Vargas, the LFA's sporting director, acknowledged that the league has a ways to go.

"The sport is a profession in the United States. We are still in diapers when it comes to professional American football," he said as coaches watched potential recruits at the tryout.

The players were paid about $75 per game last season, which had a total of 13 matchups.

The recent tryout featured men in their 20s and 30s, many former university players with a new chance to play.

Leonel Mendoza Gomez, 25, who played cornerback for the LFA's Mexico City Eagles last season, said his college coach advised him to focus on studying.

"Fortunately the professional league has given many of us who are studying and working the opportunity to test ourselves in professional football, but my goal in life is to become a doctor," he said after hitting the top of a marker on a pole testing his vertical leap.

When Eumir Camacho Herrera tried out a decade ago for the now defunct NFL Europa league, he was told he was four centimeters (1.5 inches) too short to play linebacker.

"The moment that there was talk of a (Mexican) professional league, it was a bit exciting for me," Camacho, 35, said after running the 40-yard dash in 4.90 seconds.

He played for the LFA's Raptors last season, getting four hours of sleep between evening practice and his day jobs.

"It was tough but worth it," he said.

Olive said the NFL is "very closely following" the LFA's development and the two may one day cooperate.

- 'Here we go, Steelers!' -

While the LFA is in its infancy, Mexicans have been watching Mexican university games and the NFL for decades.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys command together a quarter of Mexico's NFL fan base, gaining legions of followers when their Super Bowl-winning campaigns were televised in the 1970s.

At a bar in Mexico City last Sunday, fans chanted "Here we go, Steelers! Here we go!" in English as Pittsburgh took on the Cowboys.

Victor Enriquez, 66, ate chicken wings as he watched the game with his 24-year-old daughter, Giovanna, who wore the jersey of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

They have tickets for Monday night's game.

"It was about time" that the NFL returned to Mexico, Enriquez said.

But the engineer plans to travel to Pittsburgh for a game there after he retires next year.

"That's the dream," he said, smiling.