For One Day, London Calls on NFL

Amid fireworks, the Miami Dolphins take the field at Wembley Stadium before the NFL's first regular season game outside of North America. Game programs for the historic event sold for $40.
Amid fireworks, the Miami Dolphins take the field at Wembley Stadium before the NFL's first regular season game outside of North America. Game programs for the historic event sold for $40. (By Richard Heathcote -- Getty Images)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 29, 2007

LONDON, Oct. 28 -- The NFL rolled into London on Sunday night like a rollicking American circus, filled with pyrotechnics and pom-pom-pumping cheerleaders and enormous men slamming each other in front of more than 80,000 delirious -- if slightly confused -- fans.

In the process, the New York Giants defeated the winless Miami Dolphins, 13-10, on a cold and rainy evening at Wembley Stadium in the first regular season NFL game ever played outside of North America. The weather clearly was a factor as the Giants (6-2) jumped to a 13-0 lead at the half and held on to win on the sloppy pitch. Although Eli Manning passed for only 59 yards, he scored the Giants' only touchdown while Brandon Jacobs carried the ball 23 times for 131 yards. New York's defense took it from there, giving up only 254 yards and keeping Miami from scoring a touchdown until only 1 minute 54 seconds remained.

Sunday's game was an event that officials from the world's richest sports league, which generates $7 billion in annual revenue, hoped would help expand the game's audience internationally and create opportunities for expanding what is perhaps the most uniquely American major sport.

Sports analysts here have been deeply skeptical about whether American football can catch on in any meaningful way or become anything more than a spectacular curiosity, in a nation passionately obsessed with soccer, cricket and rugby.

"There are people desperate to get tickets," said Keith Nancarrow, assistant sports editor of the Sun newspaper. He said there was a "hard core" of a million or more Britons who understand and support American football. "But the rest of the population can't get their heads around it at all -- a bunch of big blokes in lots of padding running into each other."

Nancarrow, echoing a common sentiment among many here, said: "Just as I don't think Americans have taken too much to cricket, we haven't really taken to football. I don't think it will ever be a mainstream sport."

But such skepticism was hard to find Sunday at Wembley, where British fans cheered madly and thousands of cameras flashed when a Dolphins mascot carrying a British flag led the Miami team onto the field amid showers of sparks from a fireworks display.

"I think a NFL franchise in Europe would be very well supported," said George Brand, 28, a cellphone salesman who flew from Scotland for the game and wore a New Orleans Saints jersey. "I think all it needs is a spark."

Brand, who is 5 feet 6 and 238 pounds, said he plays defensive tackle for the Dundee Hurricanes of the amateur British American Football League. He said he's been playing football for 15 years, since an American student transferred to his school in Scotland and started tossing a football with his friends.

"It all snowballed from there," said Brand, who paid $120 for his ticket. Sunday's game sold out in a matter of hours when tickets went on sale, and organizers said they could have filled the stadium several times over. Those who got tickets came to the stadium, normally home to England's national soccer team, wearing shirts and caps from practically every NFL franchise.

They stood politely for the U.S. national anthem and sang along to "God Save the Queen," which was performed by an opera singer who recently won a nationally televised talent show similar to "American Idol." They stood in long lines to buy $30 T-shirts, $7 hot dogs and game programs selling for $40.

In the stands, a man dressed as Captain America sat next to a man dressed as a hot dog. The crowd roared when a streaker, his private parts covered by what appeared to be a football, ran onto the field and did a few fleshy pushups before being hauled away.

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