It’s nearly impossible to watch a soccer match and not notice one of the giant banners known as tifo (an Italian word for the “phenomenon of supporting a team”) covering part of the crowd. While it’s generally accepted that tifos began appearing in the late 1960s, around the same time as ultra culture cemented itself in Italy, there’s little information available about who exactly started the trend of what is technically called “tifo choreography”. When soccer finally reignited in the United States, tifos came, too, and over the past few years have caught more and more eyes.
The Screaming Eagles, DC United’s supporters’ group, is one of the oldest in Major League Soccer – formed in 1995, before the first season kicked off – and one of the first to start displaying tifos at soccer matches. Kim Kolb, a DC United Season Ticket holder since 1997 and the Screaming Eagles Communications Director since 2011, says:
“Screaming Eagles has always been a blend of South American and European supporters styles, the mixture evolves over time, but there’s always a little bit of everything. In the early days many who served overseas in Europe (specifically Italy or Germany) would tell stories of what they’ve seen. The Screaming Eagles have found it to be a way to help inspire the team as well as create an atmosphere to bring in fans.”
Today, inspiration comes from local culture, team happenings, and holidays, like Mother’s Day, when the Screaming Eagles came up with a banner proclaiming “Choosy Moms Choose DCU”.
In other countries, tifos are often politically motivated or used as an opportunity to make a statement. In Germany last season, Bayern Munich fans’ hung anti-Premier League banners, while this season many supporters’ groups displayed solidarity with refugees – while at the same time refusing to let their campaign be co-opted by the media. In Turkey, Çarşı, a supporters’ group for Istanbul’s Beşiktaş, uses an anarchist “A” in its name and hotwired a bulldozer during the country’s 2013 protests. Livorno fans’ left-wing leanings, Barcelona supporters waving the Catalan independence flag … the list goes on.
But United States’ soccer culture is somewhat different from Europe. Tifos are only occasionally used to make a statement, instead mostly meant to inspire the home team or to intimidate the visiting team. Sometimes, they do reflect national events, like the recent tifo by the Portland Timbers Army that demonstrated support for the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting.
One potential reason for the difference in the tifo messages in the United States vs. abroad could be because the MLS front office has to approve the group’s design before construction can begin. The supporters’ groups I talked with had never had a problem getting a tifo approved by their own front office, though the Portland Timbers Army did get shut down recently by the New England Revolution, so censorship is a real possibility. Teams will also step in and suspend a group if necessary – the San Jose Earthquakes have suspended the 1906 Ultras in the past for “inappropriate displays”. Not to mention that it can be easier to single out individuals in smaller U.S. supporter groups, whereas in other countries the groups can have thousands of members at a match at one time.
Kolb also believes that it’s important to look at the culture of the time period when soccer became popular. “In Europe this dates back many decades, where the average person did not have many ways to voice opinions.” Compared that to when MLS started in the U.S., during the rise of the Internet, where information and opinions were easily shared. Kolb added that “many of the original supporters’ groups have roots in supporting the USMNT, and knew that supporting the teams was vital to the survival of the league and the sport in the U.S.”
Tifos in MLS range from the “Keep Fighting” banner that the Colorado Rapids supporters’ group C38 debuted this season to the “Welcome to the Blue Hell” banner with a giant Night’s King figure by Sporting Kansas City’s supporters group the KC Cauldron, that drew inspiration from the popular Game of Thrones TV series. The “Keep Fighting” tifo turned out to be one of the most popular ones that C38 had ever displayed.
Patrick Quinn, who plays a major role in the tifo creation for C38, said that sometimes “the simple message is the most effective.” This particular tifo was created to encourage the team during the Rocky Mountain Cup vs. Real Salt Lake on May 7, 2016. Colorado had lost the first cup game in April, so C38 wanted to help boost morale. And it seemed to do the trick – the Rapids won 1-0. After the match, Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni told the media that “the guys from C38 really put things in perspective with the tifo that said, ‘Keep Fighting.’”
Tifos in MLS weren’t always quite this large or elaborate, though. In Washington, D.C. for example, tifos have evolved over time. “At first it was a series of banners, like HARKES spelled out over a series of US flags, or something reactionary in regards to a league fine or suspension of a player,” Kolb explained. “Somewhere around 2002 or 2003 the tifo started getting more creative. Flags were introduced into the crowd and banners were hung from the upper deck railings at RFK [Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium]”.
The supporters’ groups I spoke with mentioned time and time again about how much they try to put differences aside to show their support for the team. In MLS, there is often one major supporters’ group for a team, so they try to be inclusive of all members, while in Europe, the groups tend to stand stronger in their beliefs, and if you don’t agree, it’s often easy enough to find another section dedicated to cheering and chanting.
Matt Falk, the Screaming Eagles “tifo guy” put it this way:
“We sing only for and about United. So when it comes to politics we leave it out. I’ve had a ton of great/hilarious/outstanding ideas from both sides of the aisle on political issues. This being election year, people are especially fired up. But I just don’t feel like that has a place in our pre-game display. We try to live by the phrase ‘All Welcome, All United’. And to do a display that was political but only supported the beliefs of some of our members would leave others feeling unwelcome.”
Especially in a city as political as Washington, D.C., coming together for a common cause can be an escape for some.
Quinn from C38 describes the tifo as a “physical expression of your passion for the club.” They avoid political messages because of the different beliefs among the members. He made it very clear that it’s not about the politics; it’s about coming together and supporting the team.
Regardless of what the plan is for the tifo is, it’s a big undertaking. The materials can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. The tifo itself can take several weeks to move from concept to unveiling. Groups need to arrive at the stadium hours ahead of time to get the people and banner in, and then must coordinate the logistics: will the banner be hung from the railing, or i is it something that people actually need to lift up? In some cases, it can be a series of cards that people need to be instructed to turn over at a certain time, or flags that need to be held, but either way, Falk says that “brute force” is often required to keep the flags or two-poles flying for most (if not all) of the match. The bigger tifos that cover the crowd and require more manpower are usually lifted after the anthem, lowered at kick-off, and are often hoisted up again when the home side scores..
Considering that 2016 is only Major League Soccer’s 20th season, and to many Americans the sport is still just another pastime, people don’t always understand the culture of tifos. “We’ve had people yelling at us,” Brian Spence, another member of the Screaming Eagles, told the Wall Street Journal. People sometimes complain, telling them to “ ‘put that banner down. I paid good money to see the game, not to see this stupid thing.’ “
There’s no doubt that as soccer becomes more mainstream in the United States, tifo in MLS will continue to evolve – from simple banners spelling Harkes to more elaborate displays based on Game of Thrones to something we can’t even imagine – along with the soccer culture. And (hopefully) fewer fans will, rather than be annoyed by these displays, find themselves fired up and wanting to join such passionate support.
Because after all, part of the excitement for many of us is seeing the tifo displayed at a match, because the tifo plan is always kept underwraps until the game-day unveiling. As the Timbers Army website puts it, “the first rule of tifo is don’t talk about tifo.”