Columbus Crew: Tackling tifo

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From the March 14, 2013 edition

Those signs, banners, posters and stickers coming out of Nordecke? Yeah, that art has a name and a legion of dedicated fans who make it.

Tifo is an Italian word that describes a choreographed show of support for a sports team, particularly those of futbol. Tifo can take on all manner of emotion, but one of the first tifos that Columbus Crew fan Manny Zambrano ever made asked the most important question of his life.

“Jordyn H. Will you marry me?” the sprawling black and gold banner read.

She said yes, and now her and Zambrano’s house is typically filled with paint, banners and supplies during soccer season.

“I tear my house apart. She prefers the smaller tifo that I can make in my garage,” Zambrano said, laughing.

Zambrano is one of many Crew supporters who take over the Nordecke with tifo during the MLS team’s home games. Crew tifo has a grassroots, underground bent: Although the makers have to follow stadium guidelines on the matter of tifo size and have a barn under the stadium where they store supplies, the art is made strictly by the members of this small community with massive heart. For them, tifo is just as much part of the Crew lifestyle as the game.

“Good tifo has to be understood. You can do elaborate things, but simple is effective,” said Rick Thomas, a popular Crew tifo maker who often uses pop cultural or historical references in his work.

One of Thomas’ favorite tifo was last year’s homage to Lamar Hunt, an American sports patriarch who financed the construction of Crew Stadium (his initials LH are like a Crew meme for respect and honor). Thomas, who lives in Cleveland, orchestrated the making of an overhead banner and 20 two-stick signs that had on them the LH emblem and different words that described Hunt: “Worker,” “Maverick,” “Legend.”

There are individual tifo makers, but most pieces are joint efforts, loosely structured affairs where helpers are sourced from Crew fan groups (Hudson Street Hooligans, Einheit, Massive City FFC, La Turbina Amarilla). Making the banners requires time, space, money and equipment, like projectors to trace the art onto the fabric and sewing machines to put the panels together.

Despite the dedicated fan base, sometimes completing tifo in time is difficult, like a 100-by-40-foot banner intended for last season that has yet to be completed. This season, Zambrano promised, they’ll get the 40 to 50 people they need to help.

Smaller projects comprise Crew tifo, too. Justin Bell, the guy behind supporter group Massive City, designs T-shirts, Facebook cover photos and shareable WWII-propaganda-style posters supporting the Crew.

And while Bell has made traditional tifo (check out that St. Duncan banner he painted that mimics religious iconographic art), he’s encouraged unique takes on the form. For example, the Monopoly-esque “Get Out of Fail Free” playing cards he and others made and handed out to Toronto fans to counteract a tifo Toronto’s supporters were making to mock the Nordecke.

“Tifo kind of mirrors graffiti culture,” Bell said. “It’s a way for supporters of a soccer team to say what they want to say, whether it’s taunting another team or telling our own team they’re not doing their job.”

That rebel spirit is unique as far as sports fan art goes, Thomas and Bell said, and it’s also part of why many tifo makers remain pseudo-anonymous. Another reason: The Crew’s tifo makers are adamant that they don’t want the work to be about them, despite all the sacrifices they make to bring the art to the stadium.

“I never think about how long I’ve spent on it or the money I’ve spent on it. Painting in 80-plus degrees is taxing,” said Thomas, who has been making tifo for the Crew since 1997. “When [former Crew defender] Julius James’ lungs collapsed last year, I made a banner for him. That’s what the sport is about. You do these things for these players because we love the city, we love the team. Through thick and thin you do things like that. That’s what the game is about.”