By Matt Lindner @mattlindner
12:08 PM CDT, October 30, 2012
The sharp footwork on the field at Toyota Park isn't the only teamwork you'll find taking place at Chicago Fire games.
And yet to the casual fan, the action taking place as Section 8 unfurls its latest colorful tifo display can be just as entertaining as a crisp pass or a diving save.
"Sometimes up until the last moment, you don't know if it's going to work, you don't know if the wind is gonna blow something over," said Dan Martin, director of communications for Section 8, the Independent Supporters' Association for the Fire.
Tifos are those giant, colorful displays often involving an interactive element that have become as much a part of the fan experience at professional soccer games as the chants or the goals themselves.
Every single one is designed by a fan that comes to Section 8's volunteer board with an idea and a plan.
"People come to us either in public or by e-mail and present sort of a plan of action," Martin said. "They say 'We want to do this, we want it to work like this,' and we work with them from there. The ones who make it happen are very dedicated."
Saturday's design was the brainchild of 33-year-old Eric Kekeis, a metallurgist from Highland, Ind. whose Twitter bio says he'd eat nothing but cherry-flavored Pez for the rest of his life if he could.
"It was a banner I already had done for quite some time," he said. "We were running low on time so we just decided to throw something together."
And make no mistake--there's a lot of coordination involved.
"When it's a group of a dozen trying to make a group of 1,000 people try to work together, there's always that room for error," Martin said.
That's what finds Kekeis and a handful of volunteers running around Section 8 like madmen two hours prior to the Fire's regular season home finale on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon, trying to turn his vision into reality.
The group spends the early afternoon bringing banners into the stadium, unfurling them down rows of seats, and making sure nearly every seat has an umbrella under it despite the fact that there's nary a drop of rain to be found in the forecast.
If that sounds effing mental to you, Kekeis said that's the goal.
"The banner we're using today, 'Let's Go F'in Mental,' was something I just came up with in my free time with a clown," he said. "He kind of looks psychotic. We're gonna have the umbrellas that come out and we're gonna have people hopefully turn those to make them look like red and white going kind of crazy."
The content of the displays isn't the only thing that's creative about them though.
"The hardest thing is finding a big space to work in for us because so much stuff in Chicago is rental properties," Martin said.
Because of that, Kekeis said the group has had to improvise when it comes to putting their creations together. He said they do have an agreement to use an indoor soccer facility on the South side but he said he's put together multiple tifos in his basement.
"Everything that you see in this section is literally just a bunch of fans getting together and doing things on their spare time," he said.
The group's most famous tifo, a "Super Mario Bros." display, came together in the Fire's offices.
"The Mario one was pretty seat of our pants," Martin said. "The club allowed us to use some of their office space so we could roll out some of the fabric."
Getting everyone who's going to be sitting in a section together in the same place is a logistical nightmare as well. Even though these tifos may look like they've been practiced before, fans are just learning what they're supposed to be doing on the day of the game.
"It's sort of the seat of your pants," Martin said. "There will be a little bit of coordination. People who are in there care enough to in the moment listen to what people tell you."
Kekeis said the group tries to stick to a uniquely Chicago theme for most of its tifos, incorporating the city's civic history with the present games.
The tifo for Wednesday night's playoff game against the Houston Dynamo (8 p.m., Toyota Park) is a take on the city's historic "I Will" maiden that emerged as a symbol of the city's recovery in its early days, a tribute the group is calling "We Will."
"The official [name] is "I Will" for the city and they use her image on the facade of the Michigan Avenue bridge," Kekeis said. "It's basically the forefront face of when the city, after the Great Chicago Fire, came together to rebuild the city. Our graphic designer came up with a face that she looks like from the front and then we came together and did a Chicago flag and instilled her image into it as an overhead."
Kekeis said a good tifo resonates with players and fans alike, getting them more pumped up to create an even rowdier atmosphere.
"Where do you get this kind of excitement," he said during a break from putting together Saturday's tifo. "You definitely cannot organize the kind of stuff that you would here at any of the other sporting events around the city."
Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.
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