I decided that this was the best time to present some of my original writing. This was me for me – something that is a passion for me that I can’t escape.
Joining the Men in Red
“People think that football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
- Bill Shankly, Manager, Liverpool FC (1959-1974)
It was the flare lighting up at my feet that finally pushed me over the edge. From my vantage point, I never really saw who had sparked it off, just two figures quickly shuffling away from the floor of the stadium two rows below me as the flames of the white-hot magnesium fuel seared my retinas. It was the second half of the match between the visiting Columbus Crew and La Maquina Roja, the Men in Red, Chicago Fire SC. As first that flare and a second one started to burn two sections to the right, the Section 8 crew, the most loyal Fire supporters, were in frenzy as they prayed in song to the boys on the field to keep their lead alive. As the smoke crept over the northern Harlem End stands, we began singing The Song.
Every great soccer team has one song or chant that is absolutely theirs, one that defines their team and which no one else uses. There’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” for Liverpool (although Celtic FC borrow it sometimes), “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” for West Ham United, and “La Roma Non Si Discute, Si Ama” [Roma is not to be questioned, it is to be loved] by AS Roma. Despite standing up for an entire hour straight, despite singing so loudly over that time I was seriously wondering whether I’d be able to talk the next day, I joined in the singing, at the top of my lungs, of Our Song:
Late last night, while we were all in bed,
Ms. O’Leary hung a lantern in the shed,
And when it tipped over, she winked her eye and said,
“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”
FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!
At that moment, everything could and might be going to hell all at once. But I was absolutely at peace with the world and my place in it. I belonged and was part of something greater than myself.
Looking back, soccer has been a growing passion with me, a sport I always loved but only slowly getting its hooks into me over the years. As a kid, I played Y soccer as a kid myself, and for an abortive adult league in my town for a season back in the late 90’s. My one regret now is that I never attempted to join my high school soccer side. I had heard about the Chicago Sting of the old North American Soccer League, but I couldn’t have picked out any of their players if they’d shown up in uniform. Then there was the 1994 World Cup in America, and the founding of MLS, but it was still far away from me. I heard about the Fire’s founding, its success with the MLS Cup its first year and the U.S. Open Cup in later years, but it was difficult to see them on television, even on cable. However, that improved, as did America’s interest in the game. I also started becoming connected to the club online.
By the summer of 2012, I was deep into the culture of fandom with the Fire, following their every move online, keeping updated on where they were in the standings, and slowly acquiring whatever Fire gear I could. I had finally seen them play an exhibition against the great Manchester United in Soldier Field, but I had yet to see the Fire in their real home, in a league match. I decided to change that with a game that June, with my son Jake and friend Tim in tow.
After three hours of speeding through miles of Illinois farmland and a few more miles of urban Chicagoland sprawl, Jake, Tim, and I knew we were getting close when we entered suburban Bridgeview and started to see the Fire badge on more than a few local bars. Finally, we saw the stadium, Toyota Park, rise out of the ground as we made our final approach.
I loved the excitement in my son’s eyes as we took a walk around Toyota Park. The stadium’s design was a blend of American and European stadium design, a horseshoe of seating around three of the four sides of the field, with overhangs covering the seating along the sides. We’d be in the uncovered Harlem end at the north end of the field, right next to the goal.
As Jake and Tim and I wandered around the red brick exterior to find where the main gates were like the Iowa rubes we were, we saw a flash of gold and black in one small section of the parking lot. As we walked up to it, we realized that it was the small area of the lot dedicated to the visiting tailgaters cheering on the Columbus (OH) Crew. Black and gold flags flew over trucks, cars, and buses as they chowed down on tailgate burgers and dogs and broke out into the occasional song. As a U of Iowa fan (and later alumni) for 30-plus years, the idea of those colors being the opposition colors left me with a vaguely befuddled feeling. I was glad I was wearing red and had suggested my son and friend do so as well.
After a quick trip to the Fire gear shop and picking up our tickets, we made our way through the turnstiles into the stone entryway of the stadium. The views of the field were excellent – most of the nearest seats were no more than three feet away from the field. We saw the number displays honoring past Fire players and staff, and the banners honoring past MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup wins.
Across the field, I can see the Columbus fans filing into their small section and starting singing even before the game. The Section 8 boys and girls weren’t ready yet, but we could see the fans gathering their signs and banners that could cover an entire section of seats and getting them ready for the game. We had to move to another section because “the band was coming in,” and sure enough, we saw a group of fans setting up drums and horns in the middle of the section.
I knew stuff was getting real right before kickoff when I saw a guy climb on top of a red metal platform in front of the stands. These were the chant and singing leaders, hollering at the tops of their lungs as they led us through the Fire’s song catalogue. After we ripped through the National Anthem and kickoff happened, we started singing:
Vamos, la maquina roja/esta noche/tenemos en ganar……
[Let’s go, the Red Machine/this night/we win]
The Fire scored the first goal of the night in the fifth minute. As a roar went up from the Section 8 stands, we hoisted a massive banner with the logo CF97 (referring to the Fire and their founding date. The founding of the club actually happened on the 126th anniversary of the actual Great Chicago Fire) over our heads until it covered the entire section. We had a second chance to do it about 10 minutes later, so we took it.
Within 10 minutes, I could already feel my voice getting strained. Tim eventually had to take a few breaks from singing – he had to work the next day and didn’t want to be unable to communicate with co-workers. Jake kept yelling his head off, though, but he needed at least a couple of sodas to keep going. It must have been exhausting for the chant leaders, too – there were about five different people who took turns up on top of the platform during the match.
It started getting desperate around the second half. We had one of our players sent off and were a man down; then they scored on us to make it 2-1. As we continued to chant and sing, we kept watching that clock tick down closer and closer to the 90th minute, willing the game to end with the 2-1 score.
It was right in that mode that the flares dropped and The Song rang out from the stands for a solid four minutes. As we cheered them on, we were no longer just a crowd, but a whole community with our own little culture of the Fire.
Finally, after five minutes of extra time after the official 90, the whistle blew and the Fire was the winner. As we sang in celebration, the Fire players and coaching staff walked toward our section and gave us a round of applause from the field.
That day, I was able to celebrate a sport, a team, and a city that I loved, with a group of people that made it OK to do so. It’s not going to be every day that I am going to be able to make it out to see the Fire, but every time I do, either there or at home, I feel part of a greater soccer community. For me, the Fire has become more than a club; it’s become part of home.