From Goldstone97 to CF97: A Journey To Section 8

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Last week, as Peter Wilt discussed in his column here, I was elected as the new Chairman of Section 8 Chicago, the Independent Supporters’ Association (ISA) for the Chicago Fire Soccer Club.  The ISA is a non-profit organisation that aims to represent all Fire supporters, working with the club to represent the supporters’ viewpoint, organising tifo displays, trips to away games, social events, and selling a lot of merchandise and a lot of tickets.

How the hell did I end up being the volunteer sucker taking all that on?  I wasn’t even born in Chicago, or even the United States, and I wasn’t even a Fire fan, or even a fan of MLS, when the club was founded in 1997. I plan to post each week here on my experiences as Chair of the ISA, and so I thought I’d better start with a long but hopefully helpful explanation of how I ended up in this position in the first place. Take a deep breath, and read on.

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In 1997, the home ground of the club I had grown up supporting on the south coast of England, where I had stood on the terraces week in week out since the age of 11, was demolished. The Goldstone Ground, Brighton and Hove Albion’s stadium since 1902, was the victim of the club’s spiral into near extinction at the hands of owners mendacious and brazen enough to try and stiff the club and sell off the property for profitable development to line their own pockets.

Goldstone Ground

Protests marked the final two years of the Goldstone Ground; pitch invasions, poetry and people power ruled the day. Most of it was peaceful, some of it disturbed the police. The Fans United day at the Goldstone, which saw supporters from dozens of clubs travel down to Brighton in support of the fans faced with the Albion’s plight, was one of the greatest days in the history of supporter solidarity.

It was those dying days of the Goldstone, with the club only saved from extinction by the active, creative protest movement that saw Brighton fan and businessman Dick Knight buy out the hounded and chastened owners that same year, that made me realise there was more to being a football fan than standing on the terraces and singing.

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Two thousand miles away, while Brighton were veering on the precipe of extinction, a new club was being born: the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer. The MLS expansion team’s first employee, Peter Wilt, spent the early part of the year convincing the owner of the team, Phil Anschutz of AEG, that calling it the Nike Rhythm as the sporting goods company wanted it to be was a bad idea. Instead, Peter thought, the team needed to have an identity conneced to the history of Chicago, to become a lasting part of the community.

MLS Cup 98

Fortunately, the young General Manager was able to convince his billionaire employer this was the right move, and the Chicago Fire’s name and logo was announced at a ceremony on the 116th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, at Navy Pier in downtown Chicago on October 8th, 1997. In their first season, the Fire won the league and cup double, thanks largely to future Ring of Fire members Piotr Nowak, Bob Bradley, Frank Klopas, Lubos Kubik, Peter Wilt and Chris Armas.

Two thousand miles away, I had no idea this was happening. I knew Major League Soccer existed; I also knew Chicago existed, but I don’t remember hearing of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club. I knew of Michael Jordan, and of the Untouchables. And that was about it. In England, nobody cared much about what they called soccer in the United States.

Meanwhile, I’d left Brighton, and though I didn’t know it, I had essentially left my hometown for good. I went to university in Manchester, going to the odd Manchester City game at Maine Road. On visits home, I couldn’t see Brighton play in Brighton, because we didn’t play there any longer. Without a stadium, we groundshared a miserable few hours drive away around three motorways in Gillingham. It was shit. The first time I went there, we lost 1-0 in front of a shit crowd in a shit ground and I crashed my car on the way home. Again, shit.

After graduating from Manchester in 2000, within a little over a year, I found myself in Chicago, for a Masters degree in social science at the University of Chicago. I was supposed to fly there on September 11th 2001, but, well, you know why my flight was delayed. Little did I know I’d not just be there for the one year Masters program, but end-up staying on to undertake a PhD in history (nope, my dissertation still isn’t done).

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Moving to Chicago did not immediately increase my knowledge or awareness of Major League Soccer. I didn’t hear much at all about the league, the country’s sporting culture that fall going crazy over the World Series, and then the Patriots run to the Super Bowl, while the aftermath of September 11th was played out.

For my football fix, I tuned in to Brighton games via a subscription to the club’s internet radio service that autumn, but I don’t recall paying much attention to the Fire making it to the semi-final of MLS Cup that autumn as well.

The next year, the Fire’s own stadium problems became apparent to me, as I learned more about the team: their home, Soldier Field (best known for Bears games, of course), closed for renovation, so the Fire moved to far-out suburb Naperville, playing at Cardinal Stadium, essentially a small college gridiron stadium.

It was there I saw my first Fire game. It was all rather weird; despite all the work of the club, it was little like the experience of watching football I’d had anywhere in England: silly expectations, of course. Despite the best efforts of the hardcore supporters, the whole experience didn’t win me over immediately. Professional soccer seemed an awkward fit in that stadium. But I will say, the quality of play impressed me. Going back for further games, the likes of DaMarcus Beasley and Ante Razov surprised me and interested me: Beasley in particular, with his willingness to beat player after player with his pace, despite the awful hacking his opponents resorted to.

Still, though, I didn’t get to know any other Fire fans, dragging friends there myself, with drinking sessions on the long train ride out there half the attraction for us (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I didn’t feel part of the Fire community, though. I didn’t run into Peter Wilt, sadly, nor any of the friends I’d later make.

The Fire returned to renovated Soldier Field in 2004, and I went to games there infrequently. That I found an even odder experience: the giant stadium hosting small crowds. Now, I’d seen a couple of thousand show up for Brighton games at the Goldstone, and that was a pretty miserable experience on a wet Tuesday night in January, but somehow 15,000 in a 65,000 capacity stadium seemed worse. I still couldn’t call it a passion that matched what I had grown up with the Albion. I would regret this attitude later.

The Fire moved to their own stadium in 2006, Toyota Park, thanks to the work of Peter Wilt (AEG had already shown their appreciation by dismissing him, to the dismay of fans). It was there, from my first visit on, that I became a Fire supporter in the true sense of the word. The Fire had a home, and I felt at home again, a decade on from the crisis at the Goldstone. The 20,000 capacity stadium was intimate, the grass was made for football. And at the middle of the Harlem End, in an area known as Section 8, I was more impressed than in the past by the in-stadium displays, the dedication to singing non-stop, and began standing in the middle of it.

The supporter-produced Chicago Fire Megabandera at Toyota Park.

In 2007, I bought my first Fire season ticket.

Those early weeks of ’07 saw my initial encounter with the leadership of Section 8 Chicago, the Fire’s Independent Supporters’ Association. They were encountering problems that piqued my curiosity.

Despite moving into their “own” stadium, I soon learned the Fire didn’t actually own the stadium. It was owned and had been paid for, at a cost somewhere around $100m, by the Village of Bridgeview, a suburb just slightly outside Chicago. The stadium management was unhappy with the behaviour by a small minority of fans, particularly alcohol being sneaked inside, and had decided to institute pat-downs at the gate where the supporters who stood in what was known as “Section 8″ (then section 118 at Toyota Park) usually entered.

This selective targeting was extremely questionable from a legal standpoint. The supporters were incensed. I had a blog on the Offside at the time, and looked into the controversy, getting in touch with Ben Burton, the new head of Section 8 Chicago, and making a phone call to Peter Wilt, by now the ex-GM, who gave me some very interesting insight into both sides of the dispute.

Section 8 Chicago ISA logo

Section 8 Chicago got in touch with the mayor of Bridgeview, and realising the embarrassment and legal liability the Village faced, the mayor very sensibly killed the selective pat-downs. Instead, the supporters collectively worked to police behaviour themselves.

I was very impressed by the organisation of the supporters. Over the year, I got to know more and more of them personally. An away trip to Toronto with 300 other Fire fans the 600 odd miles away for the grand opener at BMO Field brought me further into the fold. These guys were not fucking around, it became apparent to me. The pride in the club and the city so many shared became obvious to me, and I wanted to be part of that.

Some beer, some whiskey, plenty of hours shooting the shit about the Fire and football far and wide, and suddenly I was part of a community, meeting people who would become close, close friends. I joined a supporters group, Whiskey Brothers Aught Five; motto, “drinking, cursing, Chicago Fire.”

WB05 is just one of many supporters’ groups that stand together in Section 8, and come under the umbrella of the Section 8 Chicago ISA (people always get confused by this and think “Section 8″ is one group, but the whole point is that it isn’t; it’s made up various groups and independents, with support available from the democratically elected ISA liaising with the front office). This, it seemed to me, was a wonderful way for supporters to have a collective structure and voice with the club whilst allowing groups and individuals to follow their own path for supporting the Fire. Some groups are serious, some are jovial, some are large, some barely constitute the Wikipedia definition of a group.

They may have fundamental disagreements among them, but since the Fire’s original supporters’ groups the Barn Burners and Fire Ultras 98 began to stand together in Section 8 at old Soldier Field over a decade ago, the culture of Fire support has largely been about finding ways to bridge differences and come together in support of the team. That’s why the mission statement of Section 8 Chicago makes sense to most:

Section 8 Chicago, the Independent Supporters’ Association  for the Chicago Fire Soccer Club, encompasses a number of affiliate supporters groups and independent fans. The vision of the ISA is “. . . to unite all Chicago Fire fans, to create a dominant in-stadium force unseen in any American team sport and to establish a home-field advantage whenever the Chicago Fire play.” The ISA exists to supplement the efforts of independent fans, coordinate between the supporters groups and act as liaison between fans and the Chicago Fire Soccer Club. As a non-profit organization, a board of directors is elected yearly at the Annual General Meeting in February by the assembled supporters.

As an independent supporters’ association, we will create an inspiring environment for the Chicago Fire organization and its fans. We will do this through fostering an increased level of passionate support, providing a conduit amongst the fans and with the organization, enabling participation in activities for Fire fans and organizing, coordinating and directing in-stadium support on an unprecedented scale, regardless of where the Fire play.

As I learned more about the mission and operations of the ISA, I started helping out Section 8 Chicago however I could, beginning with the website, since I had some skills there, and then doing some writing.

Then a very bad thing happened in the summer of 2008.  Some members of an Hispanic supporters’ group, Sector Latino, were abused by security guards at Toyota Park, physically and verbally, with unpleasant racial epithets tossed their way for good measure.

Unfortunately, when Sector Latino and Section 8 Chicago leadership approached the club about the unacceptable behaviour by security, it fell on deaf ears.

For some reason, the then Chairman of Section 8 Chicago, Ben Burton, asked me to help him negotiate a solution to the crisis with the Fire’s front office.  It took a lot of work — an ugly meeting, draconian moves by the stadium management, a protest, a reasonable conversation, and a path forward mutually found, to sum up a month of painful initiation for me into supporter-club relations — but I still believe the resolution of that was a turning point in front office-supporter relations. The following turnover in the club’s leadership brought in a new attitude towards supporters that saw slow but steady improvement in relations.

In January 2009, sucked into the vortex, I was elected to the board of the ISA as Vice-Chair. In the course of last year, though we faced new obstacles in some ways, by the end of the MLS eason we had found new ways to work with the club. We agreed a three-year contract on a ticket stipend for the ISA to continue encouraging growth of the supporters’ culture. The club found room to allow us to conduct massive tifo construction projects at the stadium (like the one below), worked on tirelessly by many folks with more creative skills and energy than myself.

Tifo Display pre-game vs RSL, Conference Championship Final. Table rolls taped together until 1am on Friday night before the game.

We did Q&As and social events with Technical Director Frank Klopas, who reached out warmly to the supporters’ community. We began work, albeit we did not finish, on a Club Charter, a mutually agreed document between supporters and the club defining the club’s values, and the responsibilities and rights of supporters.

Importantly, we also opened up new channels of communication for supporters with Fire owner Andrew Hauptman. I expressed some frustration on these pages last summer about the direction of the club’s leadership, but this soon improved as Ben Burton and I met with Andrew for a frank and productive discussion, followed-up by a public Q&A forum organised by the ISA. Meanwhile, we built a solid and fruitful relationship with our new liaison at the club, Emigdio Gamboa, who has put countless hours of work in to help us.

And meantime, our efforts at promoting the supporters’ culture bore fruit, thankless to the tireless hours of work put in by volunteers manning the growing tailgate, the beer buses to games, the social events, putting together the tifo displays and making sure we could safely visit every stadium in MLS. In 2007, Section 8 barely filled one section of Toyota Park, 118. By the playoffs, Section 8 overflowed from three entire sections, a growth from a few hundred to 2-3,000. On our own, we would sell over 1,000 tickets on our online store to the Conference Final.

Section 8 filling the Harlem End of Toyota Park

After a long year of work for the ISA, it took me a while to decide to run for Chair this year, with the heroic Ben Burton retiring from the position after three years. My wife has been a Fire fan for longer than me (having attended the first game in 1998), but all the volunteer work is extremely time consuming. At the same time, it was through the Fire and Section 8 community that I had met my wife in the first place. And it was through that culture that I had made so many good friends. The future of the club and of the supporters’ relations to it means a lot to me, partly because it means a lot to so many close to me.

Soccer is just a sport that doesn’t matter much at the end of the day, but the people you meet and share these experiences with do. So I decided I owed it to the culture and community I had come to and had been embraced by to give back what I could. Over the year I will share the ups and downs of this here: I’m sure it’ll be fun, frustrating and fueled by plenty of beer, and hopefully capped by the Fire’s first MLS championship since the club’s inaugural season.

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