The trouble with tifo

Photo: via @kchristine

Italy’s second-greatest contribution to the world, after pasta, is tifo.

It’s one of my favorite things in sports — an often dramatic, occasionally jaw-dropping expression of pure fandom, expressed through varying levels of coordination (sometimes expert, sometimes far less).

Major League Soccer’s supporters groups have largely embraced tifo with open arms. Tifo has gotten bolder, bigger, brasher with each passing year. MLS has even credited a Portland tifo with “inspiring” the new league crest introduced this year.

Tifo has even permeated the larger American sports culture. You know tifo has arrived when even the Philadelphia Eagles — members of a league loath to admit the existence of another sport called football — break it out for divisional games in 2014. (Even if they don’t quite do it right.)

But it seems that some tifo has Major League Soccer’s clubs a little scared.

In the last two weeks, the Sons of Ben have been involved in two separate incidents where they were prohibited from displaying certain tifo by a club — once while visiting the New York Red Bulls, and once in their own stadium.

These incidents reveal clubs that are far too concerned with micromanaging every detail of their image — and, worrisomely, not concerned enough with the enthusiastic fan culture that is integral to MLS.

Leave ’em down and play on, referee!

Criticizing referees is an activity that has existed for as long as there have been referees to criticize. It’s a thankless job, by definition.

carol ref

The ref tifo. Image courtesy of Ryan Bross.

In the River End, a banner has hung in the style of grade-school laboratory safety posters: “Carol never wore her safety goggles. Now she has a job as a ref.”

Are MLS referees literally so bad that it as if they cannot see the field? No. (Well, actually…)

Is calling the referees blind a fairly harmless joke? Yes.

Yet before the last home match against D.C. United, Union staff made the Sons of Ben take down the banner.

SoB director of tifo Ryan Bross told PSP he was asked to remove the tifo just before the march in with the “Union Fans Deserve Better” tifo after Union stadium personnel had gotten off the phone with MLS officials.

Incidentally, the banner had been up in the River End, without so much as a word from the Union or the league, in previous weeks both this season and last season.

“The refs actually seem to enjoy the tifo,” Bross said. “Before the first game we used it they were taking pictures and laughing about it.”

Call me a cynic, but I doubt it’s a coincidence that a decision was made that the banner had to come down on the day of (1) a nationally televised game and (2) an unprecedented protest against the front office by the Sons of Ben.

Policing tifo as a petty, tit-for-tat way to strike out against your supporters group seems like spectacularly poor form from both the Union and the league.

But it says something about the way this franchise is run that I wasn’t remotely surprised when I heard this story.

Empty seats

It is a recurring joke that there are often a lot of empty seats at Red Bull Arena. The design of the place is a contributing factor — at 25,000, it has one of the largest capacities in MLS — but the often tepid history of fan support for the Red Bulls is an essential part of that legacy.

And here's the free advertisement for NYRB tickets (via @kchristine).

And here’s the free advertisement for NYRB tickets (via @kchristine).

Jokes between supporters groups, then, are usually targeted at said empty seats. In advance of Sunday’s game, the SoBs concocted a banner specifically for the match. Designed to look like a realtor’s sign, the text read “SPACE AVAILABLE: 1-996-MT-SEATS.”

Yet, when they reached the doors of the stadium, the banner was turned away by team staff, and not permitted into Red Bull Arena.

The Red Bull Arena guidelines for “Prohibited Items Strictly Permitted For Approved Supporter Groups” simply states that, for banners and other signage, “messages should not be commercial, political, offensive, or in poor taste.”

None of those apply to this Sons of Ben banner.

Is it sort of silly? Yes.

Is it damaging to the Red Bulls in any serious way? No.

What’s far more damaging is getting shut out by the 2-7-3 Philadelphia Union, fielding a second-choice back line and a fourth-choice goalkeeper, in your own building.

The empty seats are there. That’s a fact. Yet the announced crowd at the game exceeded 20,000, and the atmosphere at the game was outstanding. (I was there — the open-air press box is smack in the middle of the seating areas, giving me a perfect perch.)

How thin-skinned, unable to take the slightest joke, must the Red Bulls be?

Why do you even do this?

The reflexive nature of large institutions, in this world, is to be safe. They take their image, their #brand, so seriously that it leads them down ridiculous roads. Look no further than the regular insanity over in the NFL, where Roger Goodell’s commitment to “protecting the shield” has led to a baffling, unpredictable array of punishments and PR nightmares — all while doing barely anything to address serious underlying issues such as domestic violence.

Our world is already full of institutions taking themselves too seriously. MLS does not need to be one of them, at least when it comes to tifo.

A vibrant fan culture is one of the best things going in MLS right now. It’s an essential part of the atmosphere, the rich oxygen in which passion, rivalry, and glory can flourish.

The irony of it all is that entire enterprise of banning and censoring, of micromanaging and controlling, is wholly counterproductive to that culture. It’s an irony that seems completely lost on the teams and the league.

The message should be simple, to the Union, the Red Bulls, and teams across MLS.

Get over yourselves. Let the tifo fly.


  1. John Ling says:

    I hadn’t noticed it previously, but did see the “blind” banner at the DC game, and noticed it was gone before kickoff. Good to know what happened – though I suspected team officials removed it.

  2. Red Bulls marketing team is still kind of on edge after DC United fans snuck in a tifo with the number of the NYCFC ticket office last year.
    As for the ‘blind ref’ poster, that seems really capricious, especially if it was up for the previous national game. Maybe the ref complained?

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I remember somewhere in minor league baseball some years ago, the organist was fired for playing “Three Blind Mice” when the umps took the field.

  3. alicat215 says:

    Again…….imagine a club telling the Dortmund or Roma ultras to take down their tifos………..wouldn’t happen.

    • Exactly. Its a slap on the face to the supporters. Also kicked people out of River End for “Sack Sak” posters last year. Total bull shit.

      They’re here, they’re there, they’re every f-ing where. Empty Seats!

  4. How much taxpayer money went into subsidizing the stadium for the team, or the creation of the team in Chester for that matter?
    At what point do we the taxpayers get to have a say in these teams that we are subsidizing? Aren’t we like the silent contributors (meaning we have no seat at the table) who get no say in the deal?
    If all we are asking is to be able to have some signs, I mean, jeez.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    Everyone should make signs, tifos, everything… no matter how big or small. They can’t take them all. As long as it’s not offensive and doesn’t use inappropriate language, you have a right to express your feelings.
    I agree 100% that if MLS is too thin skinned to allow a freakin sign, this league will always be taken as a joke. Why does Garber (and his teams/owners) talk about making this league a top league in the world, and then routinely do things that encourage the opposite?

  6. i really dont understand why teams are so thin skinned about things like this. stopping people from displaying the signs only makes them look petty, it doesn’t stop the message from getting out there. it isn’t like people won’t be able to find out what the banned sign was going to say.

  7. Spike Rogan says:

    The problem is that the supporters groups fear the authority of the clubs. Last I looked, those people work for US the fans–not the other way around. You know what will hurt these businesses’ (which is what every MLS club is) image worst than Tifos? the fans not coming to games, not buying merchandise, and not paying for MLS Live.

    Because that’s what every reasonable consumer of any other business will do when the business is so crappy to the paying customers. If a pizza place dictates to the customers what they should do, wear, and say, guess what–that pizza place is a storefront for rent.

    I’m a SoB member, but I don’t work for the Union–they work for me. And I will gladly not spend a dime on them, because I know any League 1 club in England will gladly take my money and not order me around.

    Stop being so passive SoB members!!! Grow a pair, you are the customer, and the Union need you, more than you need them!!!

    • Unfortunately I get the distinct impression from MLS as a whole that they won’t recognize the importance of their customers until it’s too late. It’s really easy for me to not give a damn about a league that abuses me, cough, NHL, cough, or is outright disgusting in how it behaves, ahem NFL. I’ve been willing to watch MLS play it’s stupid games in order to grow but at some point they are going to have to adapt to at least some of the worldwide football culture.

      Trying to silence all opposition is foolish, petty and insanely stupid and yet it’s par for the course for the Union and others.

    • alicat215 says:

      convince your boys! We all agree with you……..

  8. SHOOT! I never got to see the anti-PRO banner 🙁 Working in pharma, where we are CONSTANTLY (and for good reason!) being reminded of wearing the proper PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) in the labs, that one in particular is pretty priceless to me! 🙂

  9. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Remember what NFL really stands for? No Fun League. As a sports business they are the gold standard to be imitated, franchises utterly incompetently run worth billions of dollars (see Jerry Jones, Dallas).
    Besides, PR people much prefer to prevent rather than repair. Truth? Not if it isn’t favorable. Call it the Joeseph Goebbels approach. We are fighting before Kharkov, now we are fighting in Kharkhov, now we are fighting in the area of Kharkhov and have won a great victory. Translated we were driven west out of Kharkhov and just barely avoided capture by an encirclement maneuver. The German people knew; that’s why the listened to the BBC.

  10. Steve H. says:

    Sounds like the tifo is a little thorn in their pride…

  11. Portland has done it best in MLS:

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