As an NFL fan based in Europe, it is always very special to see the glamour of America’s most popular sport make the trip across the pond to bring the tough-tackling, tactical spectacle of gridiron football to our continent. Though the NFL International Series has been officially in place since 2007, the history of games played outside of the United States stretches back much further.
Ahead of Sunday’s Frankfurt-set encounter between the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins, we take a look at the history of football games away from its American homeland.
The Canada Years (1926-1969)
Football games abroad kick-off in 1926 when the New York Yankees – a short-lived franchise who shared a stadium with their baseball-playing namesakes, led by Red Grange (pictured below) – beat the Los Angeles Wildcats 28-0 in the American Football League. Despite being named after the City of Angels, the Wildcats were a travelling team without a set home ground. Therefore, their loss to the Yankees was staged across the border in Toronto, Canada, at the Maple Leaf Stadium.
It would be another twenty-eight years before a professional football game would be held outside of the States when Brooklyn Dodgers hopped over to Montreal to take on the city’s Alouettes in an interleague clash with the Canadian Football League.
Between then and 1969, ten games involving American football teams were held in Canada, either being interleague affairs that almost always ended in routine victories for the NFL sides or exhibitions between two NFL teams in preparation for upcoming seasons. The Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles were set to play in Mexico City in 1968, but the game was cancelled. It was safe to say that the efforts to expand the game beyond the US were minimal and exclusive to North America.
That was until the 1970s.
Continental Drift (1976-1984)
The first pro football game held outside of North America came in 1976 when the St Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers played in the Korakuen Stadium, Tokyo.
Japan’s X-League had begun five years prior though the country’s interest in football wasn’t widespread, so a lot of the 40,000-strong crowd weren’t entirely sure about what was going on but they were still passionate.
Unfortunately, that passion didn’t translate into regular Japanese matches (at the time at least), with the next game in the Land of the Rising Sun being in 1989. However, while it wasn’t immediate, the Cardinals-Chargers game spurred on further adventures for NFL franchises across the globe. Ten years on from its proposed first match, Mexico hosted the Eagles proper as they lost out to the New Orleans Saints.Embed from Getty Images
The 1980s heralded a new era for the NFL’s international reach. Wembley Stadium welcomed gridiron football to its famous pitch for the first time in 1983, with four further games being held in London before the conclusion of the decade.
Canada and Japan added to their portfolios, with a sole match in Sweden taking place in 1988. The international games became an annual occurrence in 1986 after the establishment of the American Bowl.
American Bowl (1986-2003)
The American Bowl was designed to promote the NFL, and football at large, around the world. The United Kingdom, Japan, Mexico and Canada continued to be destinations, though the 1990s widened the reach even further, venturing into Spain, Germany, Ireland and Australia.
And while it was often and the league was clearly keen to go across the globe, by the time that the final American Bowl game was played in 2003, it had only ever been exhibition, preseason events. To make the growth of the game stretch even more the NFL recognised international games would have to be more embedded into the season itself.
NFL International Series (2005-Present)
With Fútbol Americano, the first regular season NFL game was played outside of the United States. It was October 2nd, 2005 when the Arizona Cardinals beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-14 at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, the same stadium that had hosted many a matchup during the American Bowl years.
From 2007, the NFL International Series, as it is now known, was an annual event during the regular season. That year was when the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins came to town. Instead of staying next door in Mexico, the NFL’s second home very much became the UK, and specifically London.Embed from Getty Images
In 2013, the annual one-game feature was bumped up to two then three the following year. Mexico had a few more games over the years, with the league returning to Germany in 2022 for Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 21-16 win against the Seattle Seahawks in Munich.
There have been numerous discussions of an NFL game being staged in China – with two proposed matches being cancelled in 2007 and 2009 – though nothing has materialised yet. Other places suggested for future regular season events have been Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Spain and Brazil.
Sunday’s meeting between the Chiefs and Dolphins at Deutsche Bank Park will be one of two Germany games this year, coupled with the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots matchup in Week Ten. Adding to the three London games at Wembley and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium earlier this season total of five games abroad for 2023 – the joint most in a single season.
With Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa taking their teams to the Frankfurt pitch this week, it’s clear that, while football is still very much America’s game, its global impact is only going to grow.