Mexico makes itself clear: More NFL, please

MEXICO CITY -- Around here they call him Tony Pomo.

Yes, it rhymes with Romo.

"But there's more to it than that," Roberto García points out, using his right hand to mimic what one would do while taking a swig of alcohol.

See, García explains, pomo is slang for a bottle of hard liquor. And Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys star who is now a backup quarterback, has long reminded many a Mexican NFL fan -- García included -- of a man who has consumed a lot of, well, pomo. You know, because of all the injuries.

"He's always down," García said, laughing. "He's always out of commission."

The NFL returned to México over these last few days, scheduling Monday Night Football between the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders and organizing a three-day fan fest leading up to it. They love their football here, even if fútbol (soccer) remains the dominant sport. They watch, they cheer, they argue and they poke fun, usually by assigning silly nicknames to the NFL's greatest players.

Mike Singletary? El Oso (The Bear).

Todd Christensen? Hombre Lobo (Werewolf).

Dave Casper? El Fantasma (The Ghost).

Andrew Luck? El Hipster (The Hipster, for some reason).

Those are harmless. For some reason, though, the people in Mexico City really go after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his physical appearance. His nicknames range from El Cachetón (someone with chubby cheeks) to La Hamburguesa (The Hamburger) to, simply, El Gordo (The Fat Guy). They do it out of love.

"We really just love the NFL out here," José Antonio Bohon, a 50-year-old, die-hard Vikings fan, said in Spanish. "That it's here, back in México, is simply incredible."

México is said to have an NFL fan base of about 23 million, the largest outside of the United States and a number that is the combined populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and San Jose. A sold-out crowd of 76,743 attended the Raiders' 27-20 win at Azteca Stadium on Monday, and attendance would have been higher if not for recent renovations.

The two highest attendances for NFL games occurred for games played in Azteca in 1994 and '98, with crowds of 112,376 and 106,424, respectively -- and that was preseason.

Millions watched Monday's contest -- the first in Mexico City since 2005, when a Sunday night game between the Cardinals and 49ers drew 103,467 -- from the comfort of their own homes. And in the days leading up to it, the fan fest was held in the sprawling Chapultepec Park. Fans ran the 40-yard dash, returned punts, tried on NFL uniforms, snapped pictures of Super Bowl rings and posed with the Lombardi Trophy. Every station had long lines throughout.

"People think we're all just soccer fans," Eduardo Corrales, a 21-year-old Patriots fan, said in Spanish. "I think this is an opportunity for people in North America to realize that here there are a lot of fans, a lot of people, that would like to see more regular-season NFL games. This is a good opportunity for American football to keep coming, to keep growing. The Mexicans are welcoming them with great pleasure."

One need not look any further than the jerseys on their backs.

It's a spectacle in and of itself.

The big names were represented, of course. There were plenty of jerseys for Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and even El Cachetón himself. There were also historic jerseys (Joe Theismann, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly). And fringe stars (Tiki Barber, Zach Thomas, Patrick Willis, Tedy Bruschi). And star players on the "wrong" team (Albert Haynesworth with the Redskins, Drew Brees with the Chargers, Brian Dawkins with the Broncos, Randy Moss with the Raiders). And some really weird ones (Matt Cassel? Todd Heap? Dwayne Bowe? Aaron Dobson?).

"Support is growing for every team," Josué Alvarez, 22, said in Spanish. "It just keeps growing bigger and bigger, with more teams involved. You can find fans of any team out here."

Like Alvarez himself. He first became interested in the Packers because he really likes cheese -- "It's an obsession," he said -- and can now name every player on their roster.

Or Bohon, who was decked out in Vikings gear because as a kid he believed Fran Tarkenton was "ahead of his time."

Or Erick Colín Mena, a 36-year-old who was always fascinated by the city of Boston and wore a sweater that read: "I Might Live In Mexico But My Team Is In New England."

Or Mario Hernándes, 26, who wore a convoluted Raiders costume because his mom bought him a team backpack nine years ago and he instantly became hooked.

"There's something about the silver and black that Mexicans just love," said Roberto De La Vega, 42, another fully outfitted Raiders fan. "They're a team that is sort of magical."

They call the Raiders, proudly, Los Malos. (The Bad Guys.)

And their fans were everywhere this weekend.

When a group of teenagers posed for quinceañera photos in front of the famous statue for the Angel of Independence, about a hundred fans took over the shot and began a "Raiders!" chant. When they heard the team would touch down at 6 p.m. on Sunday, they migrated to the Hyatt Regency to salute their arrival. When Hall of Famer Tim Brown was scheduled to sign autographs, they lined up early. And when an NFL official told them the session was still seven hours away, and that they should find something to do in the meantime, they basically said, "We're good."

This wasn't just the first Monday Night Football game outside the U.S. These were two first-place clubs, making up the highest combined winning percentage for an international NFL game. This was a team nearby against a team with a giant local following, playing on a national holiday that observes a Mexican revolution. This was in the city with the largest population in the Western hemisphere.

It sold out in 15 minutes.

"México is very divided," Nahima Choura, a well-known Mexican sports broadcaster for Televisa Deportes, said in Spanish. "You have half the country that loves and adores soccer, and half the country that loves and adores American football. We've had very important events, like the World Baseball Classic, Formula One. But the one that has stirred the most emotion, the most curiosity, is this one, from the NFL."