It is about 8:30 p.m. local time—not long after the majority of the 76,000-plus on hand finished singing the Mexican national anthem—when I notice the barbed wire fence about 10 rows back.
The Meadowlands, this is not.
Estadio Azteca, the national stadium of Mexico, held its first NFL game in over a decade last Monday in Mexico City. The Oakland Raiders “hosted” the visiting Houston Texans for the first ever Monday Night Football game south of the border, and thanks to Bud Light and their Destino Azteca program, I—along with 10 lucky contest-winning fans of both teams and a few musicians—had the privilege of experiencing this surreal, once-in-a-lifetime contest.
Even before landing, the simple math of Ciudad de México hits you. There are 8.84 million residents in the city—more than all five boroughs in NYC. Which is impressive considering anyone who has ever lived in New York understands its overcrowding problem and has at least one personal story of triumph over an oppressively-packed subway. Mexico City is somehow more dense, so much so that the tight, favela-like homes stretch for miles and are visible long before your plane’s wheels ever touch tarmac. And although most of our stay was in one of the newer, more developed, and almost obnoxiously wealthy sections of town, the idea that the place is home to nearly 9 million people only made the prospect of a Monday Night Football game in a soccer stadium that much more interesting.
Back to the barbed wire. “Why is there a barbed wire fence behind me?” I logically asked. Not to anyone in particular, since nobody can hear me over the rest of the crowd anyhow. “It’s probably there to keep people from falling all the way down, since there are a ridiculous number of people here and the concrete steps are unusually thin and steep. But wait—why barbed wire?”
Maybe I'm thinking about this too much.
Why was a Jason Witten jersey in the same church as a splinter from Jesus’ cross? What kind of God would allow this?
The city, from what we were able to explore in a short couple of days, is as beautiful as it is old. And with churches dating back to the 1500s and a much longer native story, the land has no shortage of history. With the help of Houston photographer Marco Torres acting as our de facto bilingual tour guide, we experienced art of the biblical, graffiti, and NFL corporate-branded varieties; sculptures and statues explaining the city’s cultural identity; and, unfortunately, a ton of Dallas Cowboy jerseys. As a Philadelphia Eagles fan, seeing so many Cowboys jerseys in a foreign land was straight-up triggering. Why was a Jason Witten jersey in the same church as a splinter from Jesus’ cross? What kind of God would allow this?
Although there were a solid number of Texans fans and especially Raiders fans in town, somehow, someway, America’s Team still made its presence felt in Mexico. As if 2016 couldn’t get more trash. The Dallas Cowboys are contenders, stacked with unbelievable rookie talent, and have a ravenous fan base in Mexico poised to jump on the bandwagon the second Jerry Jones’ evil Starboys win a Super Bowl. Great.
Back at Estadio Azteca, the prison security situation is finally overshadowed by the events on the field as the score tightens near the end of the first half. Grown men in Raiders-branded lucha masks con gas mask attachments are happy. Grown men wearing problematic oversized sombreros, mustaches, and J.J. Watt jerseys are happy. We realize we only have a few hundred pesos left and buy some BLs and lime-topped cup noodles in Mexico-exclusive flavors from the soup guy. We wait in a long halftime line for the bathroom urinal trough where my boot—I have a fractured foot—slips on some yellow COLOR RUSH and nearly sends me face-first into the worst experience of my life.
I am happy to escape baptism at Estadio Azteca.
Before the game, besides the numerous groups of Cowboys, Steelers, Dolphins, and Patriots fans, one of the biggest takeaways was how much this event simply being in Mexico seemed to open up the sport to people who otherwise wouldn’t care. People who came only for the spectacle. People who may not have understood all of the rules. People in knockoff Vick jerseys who didn’t get why I was yelling “GO BIRDS!” at them. The most casual fans were gleeful to be around American football in the days proceeding Monday night, which has to be a win for the NFL.
Opening the sport to those still unfamiliar with it had to be one of the league's motivating factors for coming to Mexico. Every league looks to expand, sure, but America seems to be reaching a certain saturation point with the NFL. Mexico is still thirsty for it. With reports of lower ratings, lower youth participation, and possibly scaling-back Thursday Night Football in the States, it’s a sound strategy for the NFL to bridge the gap—not build a wall—between itself and such a potentially lucrative location.
And if 10 years from now there are a lot more Mexicans playing American football—that’s a good thing. Or not, depending on your views on repetitive head trauma as entertainment.
Either way, the Raiders won a close one, 27-20. ¡Viva football!