Fiesta of skulls and sombreros for NFL's Mexico return

Mexico City (AFP) –


Mexicans welcomed the NFL's return to their country Monday in a fiesta atmosphere, wearing sombreros and skull masks but also wondering why the league waited so long to come back.

A sea of fans draped in the silver and black of the Oakland Raiders invaded the Azteca stadium, Mexico City's mecca of "futbol," for the team's "home game" away from home against the Houston Texans.

The NFL estimates that it has 25 million fans in Mexico, the most outside the United States, but it has only played one regular season game here before in 2005 while playing annually across the Atlantic, in London.

"It's wonderful that the NFL has come back because we missed it," said Ulixes Miranda, wearing a skull mask and hoodie along with the number 81 jersey of Raiders legend Tim Brown.

"It makes us very angry because we are better fans than those in London," said the 42-year-old state government worker who lives in a Mexico City suburb and played linebacker in his youth.

Arnoldo Garcia, a Texans fan who wore a sombrero fitted with an American football facemask, came to the game from the western city of Guadalajara.

"It took too long to come back," said Garcia, who goes to one NFL game a year in the United States with friends. "We would like for the NFL to pay more attention to us."

- Annual game? -

More than 75,000 people are expected at the sold-out game at a remodeled Azteca stadium, 11 years after more than 103,000 packed the sports venue famous for hosting two World Cup finals.

While it took the NFL a decade to return, it is giving Mexico a primetime slot with the first Monday night game ever played outside the United States.

Arturo Olive, the director of the NFL's Mexico office, said the league sees Mexico as a good place to expand its international presence, with two more games tentatively planned in 2017 and 2018.

A good show on Monday "will allow us to build a strategy of games in our country with an annual frequency and maybe follow the path of the London office," which began with one game per year and now has three, Olive said, adding that for now there are no plans to have a franchise team in Mexico.

- 'We're good fans' -

American football has been played in Mexico for about a century, with university teams drawing big crowds. Some 2.5 million children play a non-tackle form of the sport in an NFL-backed program in schools, up from 100,000 eight years ago.

Every Sunday, fans pack bars to watch their favorite teams, with the Raiders being the fifth most popular in Mexico after the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers -- all thanks to the coverage these franchises received on local television during their championship years.

Esteban Ortiz, 34, and his girlfriend Ariana Roja, 33, came from the central state of Queretaro, him wearing a large silver mask of a feathered snake, her wearing a skull and creepy red and yellow contact lenses in her eyes.

"This event can show that not everything is bad in Mexico, that we're good fans," said Ortiz, referring to the drug violence and corruption afflicting the country.

While the ultimate American game is coming to Mexico, few had politics in mind two weeks after Republican billionaire Donald Trump, who has angered Mexicans by calling migrants from their country rapists and drug runners, won the US presidential election.

"The good thing about sports is that it's a refuge for everybody," said Ricardo Merigo, a 40-year-old businessman from Mexico City wearing a Raiders jersey. "When you enjoy sports, there are no countries, no political parties. There's just the love for the sport and your team."