Mexico City’s NFL Fans Are Rabid. Is It Time They Got Their Own Team?
A report on Monday’s Chiefs-Chargers game from the stands of the Estadio Azteca
When you imagine life in Mexico City, a few staples probably come to mind: tacos, mezcal, traffic, street vendors, soccer. What you probably aren’t picturing are legions of locals clad in American football jerseys, but it’s something I began noticing almost immediately after moving to the Distrito Federal earlier this year.
I figured the majority of them were just tourists garishly repping their teams abroad. But when I walked by, I often heard these people speaking Spanish in thick Chilango accents. Come fall, the presence of the NFL became even more obvious: countless bars tuned their TV sets to the games every Sunday afternoon, with huge crowds camped out to chow down on tacos and chelas while watching their favorite teams.
When I tried to find similar bars broadcasting top-flight European soccer games, I was often left disappointed. Could it be true? Was Mexico — which I had always assumed was staunchly soccer-first — becoming a football country?
The short answer is that it’s not. Or at least it isn’t yet. Liga Mx, the country’s own top-flight soccer division, is still the most popular sports league by some distance. But American football is growing at a healthy clip, with the NFL claiming a market share that is more than 20 million strong — by no means a number to scoff at.
Curious to see what these fans looked like up close and personal, I decided the (now annual) game in CDMX was a must-attend. That game, between the Kansas City Chiefs and the LA Chargers, would be held at the legendary Estadio Azteca, which actually holds the NFL’s all-time attendance record (a preseason game between the Cowboys and Oilers in 1994 brought out 112,000 fans). So I picked up some tickets and then set about finding a group of local fans to take me in as their adopted American son for the day.
Enter Ernesto Castro, head of the Kansas City Chiefs Fan Club of Mexico, who I reached out to via Facebook. He told me they were having their annual club photo taken at the Monument to the Revolution the day of the game and invited me to come out.
I assumed there would be around 40-50 people in attendance — a modest gathering of friends, more or less. I also assumed that even though the Monument is a large and popular plaza, Ernesto’s group would be easy to find, given that they would be cloaked in fire-engine-red Chiefs regalia. I was 50% right with my preconceptions.
While the group stood out, I had grossly underestimated their ranks. There must have been at least 700 fans in total, all decked out in their Sunday best. Drones were flying overhead to record video of the event while street vendors peddled granizadas (snow cones), snacks, cigarettes and printed photos taken on the spot. Chiefs-branded luchador masks, Mexican flags on team jackets and signs proclaiming “Vamos Chiefs!” were on display throughout the sea of Mahomes and Kelce jerseys, and there were delegations present from as far away as Chihuahua, a border state some 900 miles to our north.
The Chiefs’ signature tomahawk and its accompanying chant were breaking out from all corners of the crowd, often acting as a kind of de facto greeting between fans. It all culminated in a raucous group rendition once everyone had gathered into place for the photo, with a hype man in waving a giant Chiefs flag as he ran back and forth in front of them.
Interested to learn more about the strange alchemy that had brought all these people together, I wandered around asking people how they had become fans of both the NFL and the Chiefs in particular. Eric and Luis told me they became Chiefs diehards in the early ‘90s, after Joe Montana departed San Francisco to take his talents to the AFC. Israel, meanwhile, inherited a love of football from his father, a Cowboys fan. Naturally he wanted to cheer on their spiritual opposite — the Chiefs.
Finally I found Ernesto, the man who had invited me. He was diminutive in stature but commanded a presence; countless people came up to shake his hand and pay their respects while we chatted. It probably didn’t hurt that his Chiefs kit was second to none: a white jacket dually emblazoned with the Chiefs arrowhead and a Mexican flag, and on his feet a pair of red Nike Flyknits, also embroidered with the logo. He’s a fan because of Montana as well, and says he loves football in general because of its tactics, likening the sports to chess but with world-class athletes.
I was curious as to whether he thought the current political tensions between the U.S. and Mexico had any effect on NFL fandom. He shot the idea down immediately, letting me know that Mexicans are able to separate politics from sport, a sentiment echoed by a couple other fans to whom I offered the same question.
Later in the day, I went to the hotel where the Chiefs were staying to catch the Friends and Family bus to Estadio Azteca; I know someone associated with the team, and was able to secure a spot onboard. Police and Federales were positioned outside of the lobby, where throngs of fans had formed hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite players.
It wasn’t until about halfway through the southbound journey toward Azteca that I realized there was literally no one on the road in front of us: a coterie of police cars was escorting our bus down a highway that was otherwise shut down. Nothing on the bus branded it as Chiefs- or NFL-related, but seemingly every car we passed rolled down the windows to snap pictures. Earlier, a local friend told me that for a lot of Mexicans, tickets to the game were their one big purchase for the year. It seemed the entire city was abuzz in anticipation of the night’s game.
We pulled around a bend and Azteca appeared high over the residential neighborhood that surrounds it. Though it’s best known for soccer, on this night its walls were festooned with 50-foot decals of NFL players.
While there were plenty of Chiefs and Chargers fans shuffling toward the stadium, there seemed to be just as many wearing the jerseys of other teams: the Patriots, the Raiders, the Steelers. This was the lone NFL game in Mexico for the entire year, and anyone who is a fan of the sport, regardless of their allegiance, wanted to be there. My companion and I played a game of “What’s the most obscure jersey you can find?” as we walked around the stadium looking for our seats; an EJ Manuel Bills jersey was the undisputed winner.
The gameday experience itself was a far more spartan affair than you’ll find stateside. Instead of one massive Jumbotron, there were two smaller screens (just trons?) at either end of the field showing replays and promotional filler, and a ring of barbed wire bracketed each tier of seating, presumably to deter fans from trying to upgrade their seats mid-game. The seats themselves were oddly proportioned and arranged in unusually long rows, meaning well-lubricated attendees were constantly side-saddling their way past me to get to the restrooms.
Food, a huge part of Mexican culture, was everywhere, with roving vendors selling everything from tacos to noodles-in-a-cup to cigarettes. A jumbo beer was about $5, a pleasant departure from the mortgage-level prices common at American sporting events.
What was most evident, though, was the air of genuine excitement throughout the stands. People paid rapt attention, cheering and despairing at the appropriate intervals as this distinctly American affair unfolded before them. While it was technically a Chargers home game and the team’s branding canvassed the stadium, the Chiefs seemed to have attracted an equally strong and boisterous contingent. (In talking to my Chiefs-affiliated friend after the game, he said there were noticeably more Chargers fans in the house than when they play in L.A.; the demise of Chargers’ fandom since their move from San Diego has, of course, been abundantly well-documented.)
The game itself came down to the wire, decided on a last-second Chiefs interception in the end zone. From where I sat, the altitude seemed to play a big role, with players visibly tiring in the game’s latter stages. The Azteca stands at 7,200 feet, almost half a mile higher than the closest U.S. stadium — Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High.
After the clock hit double zeroes, everyone merrily filed out into the night to nosh on street food and rave about seeing Patrick Mahomes in the flesh. There’s clearly a market here for the sport, and a small army of fans ready to throw their support behind a team they can call their own. While the NFL has bandied London’s name around as the potential stomping ground the next NFL franchise, it’s tough to imagine a foreign populace embracing football the way the Chilangos do, and have for decades. Whether that will ever translate to more than an annual exhibitional one-off remains to be seen.
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