Mr. Worldwide: thoughts on a Mexican football experience

As many of my readers know, I’m a university student. This means that last week was my spring reading break and I headed down to Mexico City for some much needed rest and relaxation.

On Saturday, while most of my peers were scrambling to consume as many Coronas as possible poolside, I headed to the urban outskirts of Mexico City to take in an LFA game between the local Mexicas and the Toluca Osos.

A lot has been made of the small Mexican league since it became the first international partnership under CFL 2.0, and interest increased when a small number of Canadians were drafted to play in Mexico this season. While I’ve been following the league closely from afar, I wanted to see for myself how the system was working.

Thanks to American Football International, I was able to place myself in the heart of the LFA action and take in all the sights, sounds and smells from the sidelines. If you haven’t smelled a 320-pound guard after a three-hour game in 30-degree heat, I do not recommend it.

Given that after every B.C. Lions game I put my thoughts down on the page, I felt it only appropriate to do the same for my first LFA contest.

Here are my thoughts and musings about the LFA, the Mexicas and Osos, and the future of Canadians playing in Mexico.

A growing product

The first question you might ask concerning the LFA is whether anyone is actually watching. Indeed, the crowd at Perros Negros Stadium in Naucalpan would probably make an Argos staffer blush with pride. The attendance, roughly split between home and visiting fans, would be more akin to an average U Sports game than a CFL contest, but the facilities for the Mexicas are not designed to handle much more. Some teams draw much larger crowds and the Tazon Mexico, the league championship, is pushing towards the 20,000 mark annually. Both still pale in comparison to the attendance at Mexican college football games, which have a dedicated following.

Despite their relatively small numbers, the fans who attend are a passionate bunch. You would struggle to find a person at the stadium not decked out in some form of team affiliated gear, either official or purchased at a reduced price from one of the many vendors set up outside the gate. They bring their own large umbrellas to protect them from the midday sun, load up on tacos from the restaurant in the end zone area and sip large mixed drinks in salt-rimmed half-lite cups, chanting jovially in support of their team. The animosity between the two fan bases is wonderfully palpable as they react angrily to perceived slights from opposite sides of the field, but post-game both sides mill about together as they wait to congratulate their favourite athletes with friendly chatter.

It is clear from observing that the LFA is using its game day product to show its legitimacy as a professional league. While they can’t generate suitably sized facilities overnight or make thousands of people appear out of thin air, they can ensure the rest of the product looks professional and, for the most part, they do. The games are carefully televised via a handful of local and national partners with cameras placed at favorable angles. The teams look crisp, with beautifully designed uniforms befitting of a professional team. The crowd is provided with instant replay, stadium announcing, mic’ed-up referees, the same music playlist you’ll find in any CFL stadium and fan-favourites like the Dance and Kiss Cams. Even their merchandise deal is legitimate, selling hats through New Era just like the CFL.

This is a league that is desperately trying to provide a professional production and they are doing an increasingly good job of it. In most businesses, you fake it until you make it. The LFA knows that they still operate at a semi-pro level, but they go out of their way to maximize the in-game experience. I was impressed by how polished it truly was, given that the league is just five years old and still evolving.

Billy the Great

My biggest takeaway: Mexican players in the CFL are a big deal for these clubs.

The Mexicas’ star player is Guillermo “Billy” Villalobos and there are a noticeable number of #84 jerseys in the crowd. Alongside them, you’ll find a number of fans sporting Redblacks t-shirts or hats to celebrate his inclusion on the roster.

People talk about Billy with obvious pride and one of the Mexicas’ owners told me that he’s been a key reason why fans have started tuning in to the CFL game. The Canadian league was completely unknown to Mexicas followers just three years ago but now has a engaged following, he told me. They’ll be bringing Villalobos back to welcome the crowd in two weeks and he’s expected to get a hero’s welcome.

I didn’t stand outside the stadium and pass out a survey to see how many fans truly are paying attention to the CFL, so I can’t confirm the inroads made. But what I can say is that the LFA game was the only place in Mexico where I saw Redblacks’ jerseys outnumber those of the Dallas Cowboys. That is a small victory.

Elbow room

Recently there has been some discussion about CFL 2.0 markets adopting Canadian rules, sparked by a Hamilton radio interview where Randy Ambrosie said the Australian federation — though not yet an official partner — had discussed making the shift.

Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon in Mexico.

I was impressed by the level of football infrastructure in the area surrounding where the Mexicas play. I counted over half a dozen football-specific venues for various club teams within a three block radius, more fields in one place than you would ever find in Vancouver. The problem is each of those fields are boxed in by concrete walls, most within five yards of the sidelines. There is barely enough space for American-sized fields; converting to Canadian-sizing would mean knocking down walls, ripping up concrete and even leaking onto other properties. While it may be possible at larger college venues, it is simply not a realistic possibility for the entire LFA at this point in time.

When I asked Mexicas’ owner Juan Jose Aguirre about the challenges that the alliance between the two leagues faces, the difference in rules was at the top of his list. He told me that reaching a reasonable middle ground with the rules is the key to creating a successful developmental system. He enjoys Canadian rules, loves the fast pace, but knows not everything is feasible with the current infrastructure.

Don’t expect to see 110-yard fields or even 12-men a side the next time you are down in Mexico, but aspects of the northern game may begin to creep in — perhaps the implementation of the waggle. We could soon be witnessing the birth of a true cross-breed of the two traditional gridiron games: Mexican football.

Smiling Canucks

This trip was primarily a fact-finding mission to see how the LFA’s Canadian players were enjoying this largely unprecedented experience. The response I got from players was overwhelmingly positive.

There were five Canadians in the game I watched, each of whom played an integral role for their respective teams, and I was able to speak to three of them after the game. All three said they would recommend that players consider extending their careers in Mexico.

They spoke universally about the high calibre of competition and how much they were enjoying the season. While you would expect these answers from professional athletes, I got the sense they were actually underselling how much they were enjoying themselves.

Ian Marouf, a former sixth-round pick of the Blue Bombers, had his arm in a sling but couldn’t stop smiling after the game. He had his Mexican break-out against the Mexicas, recording a whopping 4.5 sacks (he had none through the previous two games). He seemed almost bubbly, hugging the franchise owner and clapping his teammates on the back. Marouf was clearly over the moon about making the trip down and had an obviously strong bond with his fellow players.

Archelaus Jack, a receiver best-known for almost having Saint Mary’s lose an entire season from their record books, has embraced the experience in another way. For Jack, the fans make football and it became rapidly apparent that he had made himself a local favourite. He performed like a matador, riling up the crowd after every catch and battling through a nagging ankle injury to catch two touchdowns. He was nearly mobbed by kids after the game, signing autographs on their flag football jerseys. Both he and fellow Canadian Alex Morrison were team captains sent out for the coin toss.

It remains to be seen whether or not a stint in the LFA will make a CFL team consider signing them, but I came away feeling confident that the Canadian contingent in Mexico was better off for their experiences. They have found a way to make new connections, see the world, live their dreams and keep playing the game they love. That is a resounding success in my book.

Down on the farm

Every major North American sport has a farm system except football, so is the LFA a realistic way for the CFL to change that? The players and ownership seem to think so, and I don’t disagree. The integration of the small number of Canadian players has happened seamlessly enough that I believe it could work on a larger scale, albeit with some tweaks by both sides.

For the LFA, the top priority has to be using their Canadians to shore up the offensive line and upgrade the quarterbacking. That second part is crucial because, while I think the talent in the league is reasonable, the quarterback play is atrocious. Most European countries have realized that without a robust system of early quarterback training, only a handful of viable passers will emerge nationally and the majority must come from overseas. The LFA still relies on largely Mexican quarterbacks, many of whom struggle. That could change with the use of more Canadians.

As of right now, the dollars, talent and exposure for quarterbacks is better in Europe. That’s the reason Hec Crighton winner Chris Merchant bolted for chilly Finland instead of sunny Mexico.

On the CFL’s side, if this is going to be viable they need to cough up some cash. 350 USD per game, plus room and board, won’t be enough to keep players interested in Mexico in the long run. Finances are always tight when it comes to the CFL but if they want this to work, footing the bill for practice roster-type contracts could be the way to go.

Keep an eye On…

Given that I’ve done a lot of global scouting lately, it seems weird to write this article without informing the masses about one prospect at least.

The Mexican national who stood out the most at the game was an easy pick. The first-round selection of the Mexicas in the LFA Draft, defensive back Jeronimo Arzate Hobart, consistently came out of nowhere to make big-time plays. He blocked a field goal and broke up two certain touchdowns with near interceptions.

The kid lacks ideal size but his instincts are legitimate. I’ll be interested to see if he is a standout when the CFL global combine circuit heads to Mexico.

Sport transcends all

Being able to walk through the LFA benches, I realized that football is truly football wherever it is being played.

I could feel the excitement, the outrage and the absolute exhaustion of the players. For anyone who has been around a football field, it was intensely familiar. In many ways, it felt like coming home.

I’ll leave you with a singular striking image. Mandella Loggale, a Canadian defensive back who injured his ankle in the game, was being carried off the field on the back of one of his Mexican teammates.

Two men who have known each other for little more than a month. Two men who come from different cultures, different races, different nations and speak different languages. Two men physically spent, supporting one another.

Sports can be pretty special sometimes.

 

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JC Abbott
Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.