So, What Exactly Is a ‘Tifo’?

How a giant banner became a cultural phenomenon in the world of soccer

Manuel Blondeau - Corbis

When going to a soccer match, especially in Europe, one of the most exciting aspects of the event is the atmosphere whipped up by the team’s supporter groups,aka Ultras. They are the lifeblood of the stadium, and their main purpose is to not only exhibit the passion they have for their club but also help the team gain an advantage in any way possible.

The most notable way Ultras communicate is through their chants and clapping gestures. England is most popular for its tongue-in-cheek banter throughout the stadium. Clever songs such as “Your teeth are offside, your teeth are offside, Luis Suarez, your teeth are offside” and “He’s fast, he’s red, he talks like Father Ted, Robbie Keane” are just a couple of examples of chants that have been sung in English stadiums.

For bigger, more meaningful matches, Ultras have begun creating giant banners called tifos. These tifos are basically enormous posters that tell a story leading up to the match. Some of the teams with the most notable tifos are FC Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, the Portland Timbers, Legia Warsaw and Inter Milan. Fans also get creative by incorporating flares and other flashy objects to really bring the intensity of the matches to another level with the goal of intimidating the opponent.

However, sometimes tifos and the culture they represent can signal the possibility of physical confrontations and violence. During a 2002 match in which Real Madrid was taking on its rival FC Barcelona, Real Madrid star Luís Figo was taking a corner kick when a pig’s head was thrown at him and the match was delayed a few minutes. That instance right there shows just how far some fans will go for the pride of their club, regardless of the consequences.

If there’s a way for the tifo to thrive in a positive context, it may happen in America. If a European soccer fan were to come to an NFL, NBA or MLB game, they would be genuinely confused by the atmosphere. Here in the United States, we tend to treat professional sports as entertainment instead of a display of regional pride, which is how the sport of soccer is viewed in Europe.

But tifos could have a place in other American sports outside of soccer. NFL teams tend to have the strongest support groups around the country, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t fly a banner. Tifo culture is thriving in Europe, and there are plenty of reasons to think it’ll become a bigger phenomenon in the United States sometime in the near future.

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