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NFL UK chief: 'Spurs stadium debut worth the wait'

NFL UK chief: 'Spurs stadium debut worth the wait'
© Reuters
The Oakland Raiders 'host' the Chicago Bears in north London on Sunday in the first game of a long-term NFL partnership.

The NFL will open a new chapter in its London project this weekend with the first game to be staged at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

The Chicago Bears and the Oakland Raiders will meet in the glittering facility, centrepiece of the £1billion development project on the site of the old White Hart Lane, on Sunday.

It is the first of two games in eight days at the venue, with the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers up next week before Wembley hosts two more games this year.

— NFL UK (@NFLUK) September 30, 2019

The moment is a little under a year overdue, with the Raiders having been due to play the Seattle Seahawks at Tottenham's stadium last October before construction delays forced a change.

"The best things in life are worth waiting for," NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood told PA.

It is easy to see why the league is excited to get acquainted with a venue which has a commitment to host at least two games per year for the next 10 years.

Spurs were keen to use their new home to muscle in on the NFL's popular International Series and the facilities needed – including a retractable pitch and separate, NFL-sized locker rooms – were central to the design concept from the start.

NFL Tottenahm Hotspur Stadium Preparations
NFL facilities were incorporated into the design of Tottenham's stadium from the start (PA)

Cleveland wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr declared those locker rooms better than anything in the United States during a summer visit, while Oakland quarterback Derek Carr gushed that it was the best stadium he had ever seen.

But the real test will come at 6pm on Sunday, when 60,000 fans turn up for a sold-out game.

"I'm going to be fascinated to see whether what I believe will take place actually occurs," Kirkwood said. "I think when it's in Spurs mode it's a football experience and when it's in NFL mode it's an American football experience."

Fans familiar with the games the NFL has been laying on at Wembley for over a decade, plus those staged at Twickenham more recently, will note several changes.

There will be no tailgate due to a lack of space outside the stadium, but doors will open a full three hours before kick-off with more happening inside the venue, including a half-time show.

The game itself should provide plenty of intrigue too. The Bears have bounced back in style from a miserable opening night loss to Green Bay, winning three in a row, but they may need to turn to back-up quarterback Chase Daniel in London after Mitchell Trubisky dislocated his shoulder.

The Raiders began the season caught in the Antonio Brown soap opera, releasing their star off-season acquisition on the eve of their first game following a series of off-field dramas, but have since gone 2-2.

They looked strong in beating the Indianapolis Colts 31-24 on the road last week, but cross the Atlantic without starting linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who is suspended for the rest of the season for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Colts linebacker Jack Doyle, subject to an appeal to be heard next week.

Whether or not they can live up to the drama of Tottenham's 7-2 home defeat to Bayern Munich at the stadium on Tuesday remains to be seen, but the NFL itself will have its eyes on the stands as much as the field.

Should a franchise ever move to the capital permanently, it would be up to the owners whether they wanted to make their home at a venue like Wembley, or look to something more like Spurs.

"What we're doing is giving them first-hand experience of how the game looks, what the team experience is like, how the fans react whether it be in a big bowl with 85,000 fans or a more intimate one with 60,000 – if 60,000 can be intimate," Kirkwood said.

"If it ends up with a franchise here, we will have a body of work for an owner to make a decision where they would like to play."

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A general shot of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on March 30, 2019
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