MEXICO CITY — The Estadio Azteca heaves when it is full or close to it, a sea of color on some occasions.
But on Monday night, the Mexican venue was blanketed in black.
Raider Nation spread its wings in anticipation of Oakland’s much-anticipated showdown with the Houston Texans, as the NFL journeyed south during the regular season for the first time since 2005.
American football, Mexican-style, is a sensory explosion. Let’s start with the smells, because that means food, which is never a bad place to start.
“It is like a tailgate on steroids,” yelled Hector Ramirez, a Raiders fan from Sacramento who tooke the red-eye — in a middle seat — but arrived Monday morning with a beaming smile and an aching back.
“The food is unbelievable.”
NFL stadiums have gone distinctly gourmet in recent times, but the Azteca is no price-inflated farmers' market. Two-minute noodle cups with an obligatory slice of lime were the most popular item available, closely matched by street tacos, carne asada and every type of salted, sugared or deep fried concoction that could be packed into a clear plastic bag.
A pair of Texans fans stood quietly munching in a corner while being gently ribbed by the throng of Raiders supporters that outflanked them at every turn.
“What are you guys even doing here?” one shouted. “This is Raider-town.”
It was, at least on this night. The Dallas Cowboys are by far the best-supported team in these parts, but the Raiders are much loved as well, in no small part thanks to their bad boy image.
“Mexicans don’t like their sports stars to be too pretty,” Jaime Gerner, a former Mexican-American football player-turned-actor, told USA TODAY Sports.
“The same goes for their teams.”
Black and white face paint was everywhere, Raiders jerseys and T-shirts adorned almost every back, and pro-Oakland war cries could be heard from hundreds of feet away on the approach to the stadium, even three hours prior to kickoff.
“We love to be loud,” Stephen Grace, a Mexico City small business owner who previously lived in San Francisco, said. “That is how Mexican sports must be. We are not spectators. We do not spectate. We come to be a part of the game by making a lot of noise.”
The local contingent, however, was also joined by a solid core of traveling supporters from California. Ramirez was part of a group of six friends who pledged to journey to the game as soon as it was announced. They flew late Monday night dressed in the same jerseys they would still be wearing 24 hours later, connected via Guadalajara in order to secure a cheaper ticket, hit up a local bar all afternoon, before finally taking their place at the Azteca.
“I had to take the whole week off work to make sure I was able to travel for the Monday night game,” Paul Diaz, 30, said. “It is OK. I might need the rest of the week to recover.”
The visitors were welcomed warmly, and with their fierce war paint were in high demand for photos. Ramirez commented that he never knew there were so many football fans in Mexico.
“Not football fans,” came the answer from a local woman. “Raider fans.”