Long before the NFL played regular season games outside the United States, it took a dip in international waters in the so-called “American Cup.”
From 1986 to 2005, the league played 40 pre-season games under the American Bowl banner, with games played in Montreal and Mexico City, as well as in Tokyo and London. These games didn’t matter in the standings, but they mattered a lot to a league that was trying to expand its global footprint.
After all these experiments, in 2005, the NFL decided that it would stop splashing in shallow water and plunge headlong into international games. As it happened, the Arizona Cardinals hosted the San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City, the first NFL regular season game not played in the United States.
The Cardinals defeated the Niners 31–14 on October 2, 2005 at the Estadio Azteca. With 103,467 fans, it set an attendance record for a regular season game that lasted nearly four seasons. The game itself is not particularly remembered for what happened on the field, but is still of great importance to the league.
For proof, watch Monday night (8:15 pm EST, Sportzshala) where the Cardinals and 49ers face off at the same venue where they opened the regular season’s international doors over 17 years ago. During this time, the league played 43 regular season games outside of the United States.
Of course, the NFL’s first international attempt at the regular season wasn’t without hurdles. Whether it was getting the players’ passports for the first time, lengthy meetings with the DEA, or loud concerts outside the team’s hotels the night before the game, there were many obstacles, both predictable and unpredictable.
Here is the story of how the NFL’s first international regular season game came about, as told by those who organized it, played it, and coached it:
WILL WILSON, FORMER NFL MEXICO DIRECTOR: I was originally in Frankfurt with [NFL Europe franchise] Galaxy and I ended up in Edinburgh, I worked there for seven years, and for the last three years I managed the team. Working for NFL International gave me the opportunity to do business in Mexico. My boss at the time put this on my plate, probably because I used to live there, so they assumed I could go down there and figure it out. My wife is Australian, we met in Edinburgh, and for us it was – why not? We didn’t have kids at the time, we were recently married, we both didn’t live in the same country we came from, so we moved to Mexico in 2000 and that’s when I started the business.
GERALDIN GONZALES, FORMER PR AND COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER NFL MEXICO: There was a team called Scottish Claymores and Will Wilson worked there. He had a connection to Mexico because he spent his studies here as a teenager. His father at the time was the head of a very large international company, so Will already knew a little about our habits, and we liked it.
WILSON: The American Bowl games in Mexico were successful, [but] we started to see them struggle in other markets. They started to taper a little, and there was a feeling that the model was tired or needed something new. And that the fans wanted more – they were looking for something more than a pre-season game in international markets. I think it’s been 15 or 20 years since the American Bowl before we get to the regular season. [in Mexico City]. It was always one of those far-fetched ideas that were there, I don’t remember the exact moment when it actually happened [became] there is something to dig into. But my staff and I were working with strategists in New York and started looking at what it would look like, how it might work and what the business case would be, what we need to think about if we’re going to do it. happen. It was definitely in the 2003 range when he started picking up the pace and digging around to see how we could pull it off.
GONZALES: Every time a regular season game is played away from the home of the team that was supposed to host it, you lose that game, you lose concessions, you lose parking money, everything to do with selling food, everything that has to do with selling merchandise. It is said that you are “losing” because you are not at home. And that’s why it was necessary to figure out how to transfer all this to another market, because although Mexico is a market with a lot of consumption, it is a different market.
WILSONA: The first big problem was just getting everyone to agree to it. I remember talking to the strategists in New York and my boss in New York, we did all this work on how we would implement it and what it would take. And I remember saying, “If we don’t, we’ll regret it forever.” Something like that. We’re at this point, let’s pull the trigger and let’s go. This was the number one hurdle. Do all the work so that people feel comfortable pulling the trigger. This was in many ways where my efforts were. After that it was “what commands and how do we find it out?” The team would have to lose a home game, which was unheard of at the time.
GONZALESA: Then it was put forward and discussed at some of the owners’ meetings that take place every year. At the time, the 49ers and Cardinals were in a bad mood. The Cardinals are one of the oldest teams in the league, and because of their geographic proximity, because of everything that has happened, because of the presence of Mexican players in the development league, as well as those who were in NFL Europe – including Rolando Cantu, who was already on the Arizona practice team, saw an opportunity there.
ROLANDO CANTU, CARDINALS OFFENSIVE LINER (2004-06), native of MONTERREY, MEXICO: I was in the training squad in 2004, I was cut and re-signed. Then the schedule for 2005 was published and I remember very well that I had a great training camp that year and was told that I was doing well. I did great. When the final rosters of 53 were announced, they fired me but said they would put me back on the practice team. I had the opportunity to participate in the game in Mexico and debut there. I don’t [play]but I had a chance to be there.
WILSON: I give credit to the cardinals for taking on the challenge and handling it. The league folks in New York really had to put in the effort to figure out which team to talk to and who to talk to, as well as ownership groups. Logistics also played a role, like time zones, travel – how far they would have to travel – which is why I think Mexico was such an attractive country that it shouldn’t have been a big trip. Relatively easy in terms of time zone. A lot of it went into calculus, and while [Cardinals] felt they would be willing to forego a home game if it made economic sense for them to come down and play. Geographically, they are quite close.
MIKE NOLAN, 49ERS COACH (2005-08): I remember we had a meeting, [team owner] John York and I are in a meeting. He said, “Do you want to play in Mexico City or do you want to play in a Hall of Fame game?” And I said… I really don’t want an extra preseason game in my first year. I’d rather just play the season in Mexico City. And I also thought from the fans’ point of view that the 49ers have a lot of fans there. At the time, I didn’t know who we were going to play, but we ended up playing Arizona. That’s how I remember it started.
BERTRAND BERRY, CARDINAL PROTECTION (2004-09): The first thing I remember is that many of our guys did not have passports. So, first of all, it was something that I found very interesting. With all the players we had on the team, there was a long line to get their passports and I just remember thinking, “Dude, we’ve been nowhere.” All our lives we have done nothing but play football.”
GONZALES: October 2, the date when the game was supposed to take place, is a date that in Mexico we must accept with great respect due to historical events (Massacre of Tlatelolco), which we are well aware of here, but which we should have made clear to our colleagues in the United States. Yes, the pros and cons were weighed, but it was decided that we should go ahead because we had to come to terms with the fact that we offered a show and an occasion for fun. So, instead of focusing on the not-so-favorable issue due to the meaning of the date, we decided to offer an alternative and say, “Today, October 2, is also something to celebrate.”
BERRYA: I just had a good feeling about it all. I wasn’t one of those guys who was afraid of it. I was excited. I’ve always liked doing things that no one else has ever done. So for me it was, “Hey, come on. Let’s go shine in Mexico. Let’s bring some Cardinals fans with us from overseas.”
NEIL RUCKERS, CARDINAL KICKER (2003-09)A: I thought it was pretty cool. I was a little nervous about the environment and what to expect from the game. But then again, being a football player, I was very happy to be able to play on a professional football field.
BERRYA: There were definitely some concerns, is it the right thing to do, and why are we doing it now, and why isn’t it a pre-season game? I mean, there were a lot of talks.
NOLANA: When I first got the niner job, in my first pre-season game, a player died in our dressing room. That first year was not only a transitional year for a bad football team, we had the first pick in the draft. …. So, after a while you get really dizzy when you drive to Mexico City. I think okay, we’re doing a lot of things for the first time this season, so what’s next? I remember thinking to myself, “Oh my God, I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew.”
The week of preparation for the Cardinals/49ers game at Estadio Azteca was extraordinary for both organizations, which faced new security protocols, unusual location-related circumstances…