HARRISON, N.J. – Of the many aspects that make American soccer fandom so unique, supporters’ culture remains amongst the most intriguing.
As the world’s game continues to evolve in new and exciting ways domestically, so too does the support in the stands.
Want proof? Look no further than the sprawling tifo displays often adorned in the South Ward.
Derived from the Italian word “tifosi” (meaning “fans”), tifos can be found in soccer stadiums all over the globe, ranging from a simple banner to the grandiose spectacles seen hoisted in support of German giants Borussia Dortmund.
Representing a region as diverse as New York, the Empire Supporters Club exudes their own flair when it comes to tifo displays at Red Bull Arena. Led by Dino Neral, each passion project raises the stakes.
“It started as a hobby, now it’s a little more than a hobby, but I enjoy it,” he tells NewYorkRedBulls.com. “I had interest in it growing up in Europe. I was too young to help out then, but once I moved to the United States that interest just kept getting bigger. I started following the Red Bulls and helping out the guys in charge at the time. As time went on, they allowed me to put more and more work into it.”
Neral has been heavily involved with the ESC for five years and continues to put his stamp on matchdays, coordinating the construction of various tifo displays throughout the season. He’s hardly alone, however, as he would be the first to tell you.
“It’s awesome. It’s not only about hanging out on game days, there’s so much work that goes on behind the scenes,” he adds. “People just want to be a part of this team.
“It’s great that people want to help out, I’m really thankful.”
The final product is what thousands of fans take in at the stadium and countless more share on social media, but what goes unseen is the arduous process that goes into assembling these larger-than-life tifos.
When all is said and done, what ends up as a nearly 1000-squarefoot display before kickoff starts off as a simple idea.
“We come up with the idea that we want to do and from there I put the image together in Photoshop,” Neral explains. “Then I’ll project it onto a piece of cardboard and put a grid on top of it. Each box will be about two-by-two inches on the piece of cardboard, but it’s about four-by-four feet on the actual material for the tifo. From there, we go box-by-box and trace out whatever is in each specific box.
“This is going to be displayed for less than two minutes, but it takes about 15 hours of work for that one moment.”
Last season, the Red Bulls enjoyed a dream start to the budding rivalry, sweeping NYCFC on the field and enjoying much of the buzz off of it. Ahead of their 2-0 on August 9, the South Ward enjoyed a laugh at the expense of their cross town rivals with an impressive tifo that earned them “Tifo of the Year” honors.
“It’s a great feeling to be recognized,” Neral admits. “We don’t do it for the awards; we do it to support the team. That being said, a little recognition always helps. It motivates not only me, but also other people to come out and do more and more work every time. We want to be even better this year.”
In anticipation of the New York Derby on Sunday afternoon, ESC members have been hard at work as they look to up the ante in the battle for bragging rights. Derby matches tend to bring out the best in both sets of supporters, and Sunday should prove to be no different.
“There’s a big rivalry between the teams and especially between the fans. The bottom line is that we want to get better and better: more creative, better quality, the bigger the better. That’s what it’s all about.”