For the 4th year running, the NFL circus landed in London last weekend and offered the football fans one of the best weekends of the year! As per usual, the weekend featured an International Series game, this time featuring two teams which have had somewhat of a slow start, the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers. The match was of course preceded by the now traditional NFL tailgate party held annually by Wembley Stadium. What was different this year however, was the activities offered on the Saturday.
On the 30th October, 100 lucky fans were given the chance to take part in a Questions and Answers session with the NFL commissioner; Roger Goodell. Held in the prestigious London Landmark hotel, the event was a resounding success. Many questions were asked from the future of the NFL in Europe (and the possibility of a franchise in London) to the new rules on dangerous hits and the burning issue that is the next collective bargaining agreement. All kinds of topics were covered and the commissioner didn't shy away from answering any of them. The forum lasted for just over an hour and was the first international fan forum held by the NFL. 3 similar forums with fans had been held so far but all of those were on American soil. At the end of the session, the fans were guided to coaches which took them to the first NFL fan rally held in Trafalgar Square.
Starting from 1 PM, the Rally (photo by Hains) featured numerous special appearances including the dance act “Flawless”, the group “Cuban Brothers”, the “49ers' Gold Rush Cheerleaders” and most importantly; Jerry Rice. The crowd really came to life when Rice was introduced and chants of “Jerry” resonated across the packed Square. It was fantastic to the be in the shadow of Nelson's Column in the company of so many NFL fans so many of which were sporting their team colors. Unsurprisingly, most of the attendees were males and rather interested by the display put on every hour by the San Francisco cheerleaders. For those who were not really interested by the performances though, there was an EA sports tent under which fans were invited to display their Madden skills and there were also merchandise tents where fans could grab all kinds of memorabilia of many teams. A few of the 49ers players were also on hand to entertain the crowd and one of them even replicated the All Blacks intimidating pre-game dance ritual. The performance was met with enthusiastic cheers and he promised to repeat it prior to the game the next day. Unfortunately, he forgot to do so but that can be forgiven in the excitement of playing in front of a sold out Wembley Stadium crowd.
On game day, the fans were invited to descend on Wembley from 11 AM for the habitual tailgate party. There were plenty of things to see and do on site, starting with the 49ers hall of fame displaying their Vince Lombardi Trophy and the numerous autographed items which were to be given away as prizes at a later date. For the first time at the party, there was also a mini football field and fans were challenged to try their hand at throwing the ball, kicking and receiving. This of course meant some great display of skills but also some very sorry displays. Nevertheless, a good time was had by all and the crowd was kept entertained.
Once again this year the merchandise tent raked in plenty of money, the queues to buy items were notably busy all day long. Also available on site were the usual copious amounts of food and drinks and the Brits showed they can tailgate like the best American fans!
The final event of the weekend was of course the dual between the 49ers and the Broncos. The 3 matches previously held at Wembley showed the fans a great time, a tight victory for the Giants over the Dolphins in 2007, a “home” victory for the Saints over the Chargers in 2008 and finally a trashing of the poor Buccaneers by the Patriots in 2009. None of those games were quite like the one showed on Sunday though. The first half was notably slow with a modest score of 3-0 San Francisco after the first half; to be honest I was wondering if I was watching the right kind of football or an actual soccer game with a scoreline like that.
Thankfully, the rhythm picked up in the second half and after the Broncos seemed to take control of the game leading 10-3, the 49ers came back to life lead by an impressive performance from Troy Smith. Throwing a fantastic touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree and running in the end zone for another touchdown, Smith had Wembley on its feet and the cheers were deafening.
The event really showed the British fans how entertaining football can be and that the game truly isn't over until the final whistle is blown. Having personally witnesses all four regular season games played in London I can attest that this was by far the best one. The tightness of the game and the uncertainty of the final result until quite late in the game kept fans on the edge of their seats. Here's to hoping that the NFL does come back to London next year and that somewhere down the line, a franchise is established on these shores.
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