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Look out world, here comes the NFL

The league's international plan; wrapping up Week 7

Posted: Monday October 22, 2007 6:16AM; Updated: Monday October 22, 2007 12:16PM
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Eli Manning and the Giants ride a five-game winning streak into their showdown with the Dolphins in London.
Eli Manning and the Giants ride a five-game winning streak into their showdown with the Dolphins in London.
Nick Laham/Getty Images
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NEW YORK -- Next weekend, the NFL's great leap into international football will begin. And if the NFL has its way, you'll barely notice. Neither will the players.

The Giants-Dolphins game in London on Sunday won't be the first regular-season NFL game outside the United States; that happened two years ago when San Francisco played Arizona in Mexico City. But the Mexico game was still in North America. The home team, Arizona, had a three-hour flight to Mexico City, but the host team in this game, Miami, will have an eight-hour flight to get to its "home'' game.

Plus, there's just something different about getting on a redeye to London (which each team will do on Thursday night) and playing an NFL game in Europe. "Everyone is looking forward to going over there and being the first teams to play in an international game,'' Eli Manning of the Giants said after New York whipped San Francisco on Sunday.

I asked the Giants' Justin Tuck if that was true -- if other players felt this was an adventure and would be fun, or did they view it as a guinea-piggish burden. "A little of both,'' he said. "It's a different place, obviously. And we're blessed to be one of the first teams chosen for the opportunity. But it's a business trip. We know why we're there, and that's to try to win a game.''

The Giants have amended their regular schedule this week, taking today off (instead of the normal Tuesday off), then practicing in New Jersey on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday and Saturday will be meeting days with light practices in London. The NFL won't do some of the things it's done with prior International Bowl preseason games, like taking players out to local clinics and photo ops. The league wants both teams to have fairly normal routines in the two days before the game.

There's a method to the NFL's madness: If the Giants and Dolphins come home and say, "That wasn't so bad,'' the league will have an easier sales job when it goes to the owners after the season to get four teams to play across the pond in 2008. And make no mistake, that's the aim of the NFL. Starting next year, commissioner Roger Goodell wants two international games a season, both possibly in Europe, to become a part of the permanent NFL landscape.

"We want the teams to go home satisfied,'' NFL senior VP of sales, marketing and international development Mark Waller said Sunday. "The biggest hurdle we have is to be sure the players and coaches feel the whole thing was well done. They're giving up a regular-season game [in America], and we don't want to let them down.''

A crowd of 90,000 is expected at Wembley Stadium, and except for smaller locker rooms (soccer players and equipment don't take up quite the same amount of room as football players and their stuff, obviously), the players shouldn't notice much difference.

If this game goes well (the NFL postponed its other international foray, the China Bowl game between New England and Seattle, until 2009 to concentrate on putting this contest on right), look for the Chiefs to host a game in Germany next year. Another London game, or one in Mexico, could be the second game outside the United States in 2008. "We'll have five or six German cities at the [Dolphins-Giants] game,'' Waller said. "And I wouldn't rule out the U.K. either, just because we want to build on the momentum we create with this game.''

Waller is doing the right thing by making sure head coaches Tom Coughlin, Cam Cameron and their people think this game is executed properly. The NFL's overseas preseason games and the recently put-to-pasture NFL Europa were good vehicles for spreading the game. But foreign fans aren't going to turn out in big numbers and pay big bucks to see preseason games, or to see Double-A-type NFL Europa games.

"People in Europe know what the best soccer is, the best rugby is, the best American football is,'' said Waller. "They can get it digitally. They can get it on TV right now. The beauty of this game is the intense, competitive nature of our game. There aren't very many of them every year. We have a real belief that we've got to show what our football really is, and to do that, we had to bring regular-season games.''

As far as the Super Bowl ever being played in London? "Ever'' is a long time. "Soon?'' Not happening. Too many owners would be angry over losing such a potential gold mine. But the regular-season concept is a good one. The NHL played real games overseas before the NFL did, with Los Angeles and Anaheim playing a two-game series in London to open the hockey season this fall. This is not just a good idea. It's an idea whose time should have come years ago.

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