During the Fire home opener I had a fan experience that soured me a bit on some support in the Harlem End. It didn't sour me on the section as a whole, but it soured me on elements of the support. Over time, and through a personal experience that made me realize support comes in many different sizes, my own hypocrisy become clear to me. Though I may be calling myself out a little bit, I want to share my experience as a snap-shot of how people support the Fire in different ways.
Allow me to set the scene. It is the Chicago Fire home opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps. It's toward the end of the match. The Fire are losing. The fan base is losing momentum, energy, and the enthusiasm a productive off-season had brought. In the higher bleachers of section 8, fans seemed to have lost interest in standing, singing and participating.
One group in front of me begins to ignore the capo stand and latched on to a classic ballad about the history of the club and a time when the Fire were successful in previous years. "Nineteen ninety eight, when the Fire were fucking great," they sang about the crowds and excitement, "...Two thousand, see the Fire become, champions. Ninety eight..." They continue to sing their song, ignoring what the capo was trying to organize through the last 15 minutes of the match and even marched out of the stadium into the parking lot still singing the ballad. The song was haunting in its message, seeking a better time in Fire history than the pathetic home loss to open Toyota Park in 2015.
Like much of the section in the top 12 rows, I was unable to hear in front of me because the group drowned out the sound from capo stand and all of the organized support in the front of the section. The support in the top rows is always a bit tenuous but it fizzled to nothing as the match wound to a close. As the match dissolved into failure the group switched their tune, temporarily, to "We only sing when we win....".
I felt enraged at the time. I was doing my part. I was standing and singing. I just no longer could hear what the capo was singing. The group that prevented me from participating was calling me out for not participating.
Following this experience, I became committed to writing a story about how support that is not organized can distract from the goal, mainly making enough noise to give the Fire a home field advantage. I was frustrated because I felt my experience had been impacted, and challenged that I was expected to join in or be accused of only singing when we (the Fire) win. However, that's not what this editorial is about.
Remember, how I called myself a hypocrite? Fast forward two weeks to the second home match of the season against the Philadelphia Union. Despite the chilly and rainy weather I arrive with a group of four other friends. For the most part, our group had spent the long winter off season getting our fix by watching premier league matches together. We had worked hard grilling food in the parking lot and we were ready for a thrill. We followed the sections lead and sang our support: "lo lo,lo,lo....lo,lo, lo, lo."
The 37th minute hit. The Fire were awarded a free kick. The only goal scorer the Fire had seen all season, Harry Shipp, took the kick with Shaun Maloney on international duty. Shipp placed the ball perfectly in front of goal allowing defender Adailton to tap the ball into the back of the net. The crowd went mental! The capo stand began to lead the stadium in the now standard "Holy Shipp, Holy Shipp" chant.
Inspired, my small group began a counter cheer to the tune of "Yellow Submarine" which is commonly used through a variety of professional leagues for many different players: "We all Dream of a team of Harry Shipp, a team of Harry Shipp, a team of Harry Shipp." That same group that had irked me so much during the previous home match joined in and even kept the song going right through to the end of the song "...and number 11 is Harry Shipp." By the middle of the song, 30-40 people in the section were singing.
I had done the exact thing that I'd criticized just one match prior!
The experience made me realize the issue is not so black and white. Section 8 is very fortunate to have the freedom to have a capo stand to lead the section in songs. Many clubs around the world do not have the same opportunity to have someone stand on a platform and rile up the crowd. It is much more common away from Toyota Park that songs need to begin organically. In those situations, songs begin in much the same way as the group described in the home opener, or my group did in the second match. In many ways, organically starting songs is a much more traditional way to support a soccer club. So what is right and wrong in either scenario?
A word from the chair
In an interview with the Independent Supporters' Association's (ISA) Chairman Dan Martin, HTIOT asked Martin about counter-cheering in the section. Martin said, "... my perspective is that sometimes people get bored or have some kind of personal gripe with whatever those leading the chants are doing in the stand. ... Sometimes chants start organically in the section without the capo's involvement, so if a chant is good enough that others want to join in and help it grow, this is a good thing. If it's people doing something against what the capo is doing just to be antagonistic, or if no one is joining in, that's not as good. I think for the most part it's best to follow the capos because the section sounds better and is louder when people are unified."
In his answer, I believe Martin hit the nail right on the head regarding the various ways people support. It is certainly okay if a song or chant starts organically without the capo's involvement. After all, the section is made up of passionate fans. It should be expected the support will drift with the tide as various elements of the section become inspired. Clearly the group of fans on the opening match were filled with passion they felt like sharing and that certainly should be considered inspirational.
As to Martin's second point, I could not point my finger and say definitively that this group was be antagonistic. It was probably not antagonistic so much as it seemed the group wanted to conjure a better time and wished the rest of the fan base would understand the history and join in. Even though I would've called out their behavior the day after the Whitecaps match, I realized in many ways I was completely wrong and their method of support was just as valid as anyone else's in the section. A case could be made that accusing the rest of the section of not participating was unfair, but their goal was likely not to be antagonistic. I can certainly say the goal of my little group was not to be antagonistic and I was inspired that the first group joined in with us to make something happen organically.
Despite my matured perspective, I believe Martin is probably right on his final point. It is best when the section follows the capo's because the section sounds better and is going to be much louder when it is unified and singing as one. The defined mission 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." This goal is going to be much easier to achieve if everyone in the Harlem sings as one and works to get the rest of the stadium involved as much as possible.
By being a little bit hypocritical I realize that it is in reality a good thing that individual groups are inspired to motivate others to sing different songs and chants. The section operating organically is how new ideas come about and old ideas remain solvent. However, it is probably best that if a song begins organically but others do not become involved or lose interest that then the song is scrapped and the section returns to what the capo is doing. A unified section brings about the impact the fans need to help affect the results on the pitch.