A photo of Azteca Stadium has hung in Tony Parrish’s locker for months. The San Francisco 49ers’ world-traveling safety has been looking forward to this weekend, when he’ll get the chance for a little adventure along with a little football.

The 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals will meet Sunday in Mexico City in the first regular-season game outside the United States. Like most of the players on both clubs, Parrish is worried about his team’s record, wary of the long road trip to a high-altitude city – but excited about making history.

“I always look forward to doing things that promote the game,” said Parrish, who traveled to Mexico in the offseason. “This will definitely be an event that we’ll look back on, and see it as a turning point in the international game.”

“There is an excitement to be the first to do anything,” Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry said. “Whenever you are the first, you want to put your best foot forward.”

While the occasion is historic for the league’s vast Mexican fan base and for the struggle to promote American football internationally, the matchup isn’t exactly a grabber. San Francisco, the NFL’s worst team last year, is 1-2. The Cardinals (0-3) will play without two-time MVP quarterback Kurt Warner, who has a strained groin.

But that doesn’t seem to be a problem to the estimated 100,000 fans who will fill the historic soccer stadium for an evening game. Nearly one in five Mexicans identified themselves as NFL fans in a recent survey, and the event has drawn extensive national attention.

“We have such great interest. We have a great fan base in Mexico,” said Roger Goodell, the NFL’s chief operating officer. “It’s been growing dramatically over the last several years, and we’re responding to that interest. It’s going to be a great opportunity to understand more about playing a game internationally.”

In truth, the game won’t feel much different from an East Coast road trip for both clubs. The players will keep a similar schedule off the field, apart from a handful of events Saturday. Both teams largely will keep to themselves, staying out of the clubs and dodgy neighborhoods – just as they would on any road trip.

“I told them I better not see a camera,” Arizona coach Dennis Green said. “I don’t even want to see a camera phone. This is a football game, and it’s a division game. It’s an important game for us. We’re 0-3 right now, and San Francisco is 1-2.”

The 49ers agreed to the game because of the chance to build an overseas fan base while gaining some positive exposure for a franchise that had the NFL’s worst record last season.

“I’ll say this: If I were the home team, I wouldn’t want them to take a home game away from me,” 49ers coach Mike Nolan said.

The Cardinals, in their final season at Sun Devil Stadium, had no such qualms. The crowd at Azteca Stadium probably will feature 30,000 more fans than the biggest crowd in Tempe last year.

The NFL also made financial guarantees to both teams to ensure a profitable weekend.

“I think we’d probably be the natural team,” Green said, citing Phoenix’s proximity to the border and large Spanish-speaking populations. “It would be us or the Dallas Cowboys, and I don’t think there’s any way Dallas would have given up a home game. They sell out their games and we do not sell out our games. It was easier for us to make that sacrifice, and we made it.”

The challenges of playing in Mexico City will be much less daunting than the necessity of picking up an important victory.

The field at Azteca Stadium is expected to be excellent, and neither team believes the 7,500-foot altitude will be much of a factor.

“It’s not like going to Denver and playing the Broncos, who live there and know what it’s like all the time,” Nolan said. “It’s the same thing with air quality. If that’s an issue, both teams will be dealing with it.”

Both teams plan extensive rotations to keep players fresh for the fourth quarter, but the 49ers have a decided lack of depth on defense after a difficult week. Linebacker Jamie Winborn was sent away from the team on Wednesday while Nolan works on a trade – and a few hours later, defensive back Mike Rumph was lost for the season with a torn muscle in his foot.

Cornerback Ahmed Plummer then had ankle surgery on Thursday, leaving the 49ers to face Arizona receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald without two starters in last week’s defensive secondary. San Francisco already has allowed an NFL-worst 101 points.

The Cardinals also have injury problems, with at least four starters sidelined. With all the hoopla of the trip to Mexico City, nobody has forgotten that both of San Francisco’s victories last season came in overtime against the Cardinals, who could have finished at .500 with two wins over the lowly Niners.

“I’m sure they’re going to go down there wanting to whoop us for what happened last year,” said 49ers tackle Anthony Clement, dropped by the Cardinals last April after seven seasons. “I’ve really got some personal things to take care of in that game, but I hope we take all the frustration that we had from last week, and take it out on the Cardinals.”

AP-ES-09-29-05 1918EDT


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