It’s hot. it’s hotter than hot. It’s throat-choking, skin-blistering, why-the-hell-dolive-in-Dallas hot, and it’s only 10:30 am on a Sunday in June, in Frisco. Out in the world past Ikea that only a decade ago was farmland, the cornfields have given way to acres of empty concrete parking lots, and in the blaring sun they shimmer and bake. Around their edges, a half-built strip of empty stores, a stone "town center" development, a hovering gargantuan city hall, and a vacant, bowl-shaped stadium feel like an abandoned carnival or forgotten Hollywood back lot. This is home field advantage to your professional soccer team: FC Dallas, North Texas’ sixth-most popular sports team, if you count the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.
The game against the Chicago Fire doesn’t start for another three and a half hours, and all that is out here are a few maintenance workers pushing around crates of bottled water and two or three trucks painted with radio station logos. But in the far north corner of the farthest lot from the stadium, a lone white Isuzu SUV has its hatchback thrown open. On the sidewalk, two men sit in blue camping chairs.
One looks in his mid-40s. He wears a khaki cap and a red t-shirt that is pulled over his gut and scribbled with the phrase "Fight for this Shirt" in white letters across the front. It’s still morning, but he sips from a can of Dale’s Pale Ale.
The other one, maybe in his early 30s, wears a silver and white striped soccer uniform that looks more like a pair of pajamas, but the shin guards hidden underneath his silver knee socks give it away.
These two are members of the Inferno, FC Dallas’ Ultras supporters group. Yes, those Ultras-the hard-drinking, knife-wielding, club-pounding, police-brutalizing hooligans that terrorize the soccer stadiums in Europe and South America.
Only in Dallas, not so much.
Out here in the parking lots of Frisco, there are no marauding bands of vomiting red-fisted bullies, only the two sweating American soccer fans out to show their dedication to their team, even if no one seems to take much notice.
The truth is, the Inferno are a distant cousin to their counterparts overseas, a point driven home by the man in the silver pajamas who introduces himself as the "world famous FC Dallas Ball Kid." Ball Kid got his nickname when he was singled out on British TV during a soccer highlight show called David Beckham’s Soccer USA. The show’s tongue-in-cheek format pokes as much fun at the American game as it informs the British public about scores and standings. (One of host Tim Lovejoy’s favorite recurring jokes is to announce Dallas highlights, only to recount bits of the plot from the 1980s prime-time soap.) When Ball Kid-real name Andrew Kennedy-showed up collecting out-of-bounds balls in a clip from an FC Dallas game last year, Lovejoy thought the Allen resident’s long, stringy hair and ball cap made him look like an extra from Wayne’s World. It was a joke the host found funny enough to repeat for two episodes.
Kennedy now wears the name with pride. To Inferno members, the appearance on British TV validates their existence as soccer supporters. And while the nickname might also indicate where Americans rank in the minds of the world’s soccer fans, the members of the Inferno believe the reputation is undeserved. The Inferno might not be large, violent, or even taken very seriously, but they are still out to prove that they are real soccer supporters.
Supporters-not fans-is the key word. A supporter is something more than a fan. To be a supporter, it is not enough to cheer for the team, to follow the season and know the players, or even to go to every game. To be a supporter, one must take on an obsessive identification with the team one supports, to become part of a community that exists for and derives its identity from the team.
In the mid-1980s, American writer Bill Buford wrote a book about British soccer supporters called Among the Thugs. The book paints the picture of a frightening, anarchic generation-mostly young males in their 20s and 30s-whose love of soccer (football overseas) doubles as an outlet for social-economic dissatisfaction.
Out in Frisco, in the sun outside Pizza Hut Park, the scene before the game begins to feel a little like Buford’s book. The group swells to five, 10, 20 supporters. A number of them are large, beefy young men. They have nicknames like Cupcake, Speedbump, and Caveman, and they come dragging coolers of beer and carrying flags, banners, and drums. But the social-economic dissatisfaction is noticeably missing from this American offshoot.
For as many Inferno members who look like the young English males Buford describes, there are just as many who don’t fit the bill. Men and women gather in the parking lot, and the supporters range in age from their teens to their 60s. These Dallas supporters are accountants, aircraft engineers, and students.
But they are real supporters, says Parish Glover, a stock analyst and Inferno member for the past 13 years. "A lot of our members watched the English games and the Argentine games and they understand that kind of support, and they want to become a part of it," Glover says. "And because of the Inferno community, they very quickly feel a part of it. I watch when new guys join. You can tell by the end of the year that they are lifers."
Last year, Glover clocked more than 13,000 miles traveling to games. Combined, FC Dallas supporters traveled some 200,000 miles to see their team play.
Dustin Christmann founded the Inferno before the soccer team’s first season, in 1996. He describes the group’s mentality this way: "I’m a fan of this band or that band. I buy their records, but in general it is passive. A supporter is doing his part over the full 90 minutes to create a sense of home field advantage for his team." The closest thing in America to a soccer supporter, Glover says, is Texas A&M’s Twelfth Man, in College Station.
About an hour before the game, there’s an announcement: we are going to go into the stadium. By this time, the parking lots are half-filled. Nearby, in an inflated mini soccer field, kids are kicking around a ball. Radio Disney has a tent, and station employees are passing out promotional gifts to a crowd of young girls and their moms.
The Inferno now number some 30 people. The heat, nearing 100 degrees, starts to take its toll, and the supporters swig water along with their beer. When the last beers are polished off, the Inferno hoist their flags and banners and begin their march to the sound of pounding drums. The crowds of regular fans-mostly families and young kids-part way to let the Inferno through. They enter the gate, round the stadium, and head to section 116, directly behind a goal.
Cupcake-real name Harlan Haire, from McKinney-is draped in a red plastic banner emblazoned with a white star and a black snake. He is a large man with round, chubby cheeks and thick, flabby arms that he pumps in the air and claps above his head as they march. In section 116, Cupcake goes to the front row, where he stays for the next two and a half hours, yelling at the top of his lungs, leading the group in song, and taunting the refs and the opposing players.
Today the heat slows Cupcake. His face is red, and his loose-fitting gray tank top is drenched with sweat. A woman nearby passes out, but Cupcake doesn’t stop. He chants: "We laugh, we laugh, we laugh-at the people in the shade."
But Cupcake doesn’t hesitate to point out the absurdity of playing games at 2 o’clock on Sunday afternoons in Frisco. He points his finger at the front office. "They want the ratings from showing [Mexican star and Chicago Fire player CuauhtÃ©moc] Blanco on Sunday afternoon," he says. It’s one of a number of complaints Cupcake and the other Inferno members have about the way FC Dallas is managed. Although the Inferno is more than tolerated by the front office (before the game, a team official brought streamers to the Inferno in the parking lot, but carefully instructed them as to when they could and could not throw them on the field), there is a good deal of distrust and dissatisfaction between the two.
Since the team was founded, FC Dallas (originally the Dallas Burn) played at the Cotton Bowl, Southlake Carroll’s Dragon Field, and then the Cotton Bowl again, before finally finding a permanent home in Frisco. Cupcake is happy FC Dallas now has its own soccer-specific venue, but the moves to Southlake and then to Frisco killed off a large portion of their passionate fan base-most notably from the region’s Hispanic community-which was far more exuberant than the largely white suburban crowd. "I guess they would rather sell a season ticket to a soccer mom," he says.
Stepping away from section 116, the Inferno do appear to have a point. Besides two smaller Hispanic supporter sister groups banging away on percussion, Pizza Hut Park is filled with a relatively quiet collection of youth groups, families, and soccer teams. Blonde mothers and their daughters wearing youth soccer team t-shirts serve up lemonade and pretzels in the concession stands. At the half, two small fields are set up on the main pitch and kids knock around the ball in a short scrimmage. Standing beneath the second-tier luxury suites, the supporters are only background noise, a handful of rowdy spectators at an otherwise placid sporting event.
It is clear with what vision of the future the front office has cast its lot.
Then FC Dallas star Kenny Cooper fires a shot past the Fire goalie, and in section 116, none of the front office politics matters.
Cupcake hurls his sweaty arms into the air and chants: "I’m Dallas, I’m Dallas, I’m Dallas-I’m FC Dallas ’til I die."
Peter Simek is a Dallas freelancer.
Write to [email protected].