“Toujours fidèles depuis 2002, mais épuisés.” (tr: Always faithful since 2002, but exhausted)
These words were posted on Facebook by the Montreal Ultras. If you don’t speak French plug the text into Google translate and you’ll get the gist of the post pretty quickly: Disappointment.
In the post, the Ultras state that the group was given a warning by the club and league about setting off smoke during matches. Then “mysterious” yellow smoke appeared behind the goal, but the Ultras claim it wasn’t connected to their group. They cite the fact that they’ve been virtually smokeless in Saputo Stadium this season and that the sanctions given to them were for actions done by people outside the group. Beyond the mysterious origin of the smoke, the fans’ recent hysteria was directly correlated to the undeniable fervor that came with their club signed Ivorian-god Didier Drogba. That point is especially easy to understand as a soccer fan.
However, their club wasn’t listening to excuses. The Impact and the MLS banned their traveling supporters (section 132) from bringing what the league refers to as “privileges” (actually meaning flags, drums, banners, tifos, etc) to both Toronto on August 29th and Chicago on September 5th.
These weren’t the first times this has happened either. Impact supporters were banned from bringing some “privileged” equipment to Toronto in late 2014 as well.
And this isn’t an issue that the Montreal Ultras are running into alone. Looking over the last two years you can find incidents including supporter groups in LA, NYCFC, San Jose, Houston, Dallas and many more.
If you’re a super-sleuth reader and looked through all of those links, you’ll notice that the first one was published by the Independent Supporters Council. The ISC says they’re here “to promote supporters’ culture and advocate for fair treatment of supporters, both at home and on the road.”
This organization was formed to help supporter groups voice complaints and fight against what they perceive to be unfair rulings or restrictions imposed by the league and their respective teams– exactly the kind of situation the Montreal Ultras find themselves in now. However, you’ll notice the Ultras aren’t present on the ISC Member page.
Diagramming this as the root of the group’s problem is a lazy analysis. Choosing to not be involved with the ISC doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about the Ultras since there are various groups that are members that have had sanctions imposed on them. So while becoming a member of the ISC may help, it won’t immediately remedy this ailment between the club and its supporters.
So instead, let’s look at the core of this issue. What do league and club officials get riled up about anyways? The drums? The flags? The tifos? D. None of the above?
Actually, the answer is E. Pyrotechnics.
Bringing pyrotechnics (flares, fireworks, smoke bombs, etc.) to matches is an issue that has yet to be addressed league-wide. In fact, the MLS Fans Code of Conduct prohibits little, specifying only that fans shouldn’t throw things into the field of play and should keep their cheering civil. Besides those common sense rules, there’s no mention of anything fire-related.
Without the league coming out and declaring a unified ruling on bringing pyrotechnics to their events the burden of jurisdiction falls to the clubs themselves. As the Montreal Ultras’ Facebook post shows, les Quebecois love their smoke just a tad bit more than their club does.
But when it comes down to it, clubs may have their hands tied when it comes to rules involving pyrotechnics. As the MLS Fans Code of Conduct states, fans must conduct themselves “in a lawful manner”. So if the local law enforcement in Montreal is strict on the use of flares or smoke in stadia, the club’s hands are tied. I’m going to assume from here-on-out that any supporter groups located in cities or states that explicitly forbids the use of pyrotechnics in stadiums should not be using them.
In the case of the Montreal Ultras, the Impact themselves ban the use of flares or smoke in the stadium. The issue between the club and the supporters comes down to the air of mystery surrounding the yellow smoke, and although I tend to believe supporter groups in these situations, I can’t comment on this one way or the other.
But it’s an important problem to highlight. Control over how fans are allowed to celebrate in the MLS has been a concern for as long as most of these groups have been around, and things don’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
In the meantime, fans like the Montreal Ultras can look across the border and watch supporter groups in Seattle and Portland setting off smoke (legally or illegally) and not receiving sanctions from their clubs, so excuse them for feeling a little jipped.
Each club deals with it differently. Some clubs, like Toronto FC, are okay with fans using smoke to support their team and actually supply it. They have very specific and stringent rules on where it can be used and by whom, but it’s still allowed.
“There are containers attached to the railings, the member will just drop the smoke canister inside and set it off,” Red Patch Boy member, Toronto FC supporter and Reddit user killgod2121 wrote to me. He added: “They also know how to extinguish it.”
That’s a bright idea by the club. They’re letting the fans celebrate in the manner that they want but are able to limit the amount of smoke and promote safety. It seems as though the club has stepped in to help utilize smoke in a smart–and fan-friendly– way.
“Through TFC I believe they arranged training with the fire department, who does approve of the use of them.” Killgod2121 wrote. “We meet all by-laws of the city so everyone is happy (at least in a legal sense, some hate the smoke, fair enough, it stinks.)”
Through all this level-headed compromise and safely managed fun, Toronto FC has done something amazing: Made their fans appreciate them even more.
“Lastly, I am thankful that TFC’s ownership helped make this happen,” wrote Killgod2121, “this wasn’t allowed prior to last season and they listened to us and did their part to make it reality.”
Don Garber and MLS clubs, hear this next part:
It’s awesome when your club actually hears you and takes action.
But as many fans will tell you, not all supporter groups get as lucky as those in Toronto, especially some that will be joining us in the very near future.
AnonBarksdale, a Minnesota United supporter wrote, “It isn’t a coincidence, it’s direct pressure from MLS on Front Offices to restrict pyro by Supporter Groups. It’s a clear thing that happens to most clubs when they move to MLS. The same thing happened with us. We had done pyro for years with no problems and when the club started the process of discussion with MLS we were all the sudden banned from it.”
And this is where the problem really starts to form. There are dozens of clubs in the lower leagues who use pyrotechnics without incident until they want to move into the MLS. Clubs have a history of restricting supporter groups that runs deeper than pyrotechnics; they move supporter group’s seating sections around, create ridiculous banner requirements, and on top of all that, use supporter groups as marketing tools. Just look at the march to the match in Seattle, something started by fans and supporter groups, that the team is now trying to organize as their own (although to be fair, they do recognize that it was started by supporter groups).
This is a divide that the MLS must watch closely. It is clear that these supporter groups are passionate about the league and the teams they support, a passion the league could easily use to fuel growth nationwide. However, as their rulings become more and more inconsistent resentment is brewing among fans.
The fear is that supporter groups become completely detached from the MLS and operate independently. Currently, supporter groups are recognized by the leagues and appear attached to their clubs even though they’re technically independent. The clubs advertise the groups on their website and are careful about including them in most team events.
The league’s wavering strictness may not make sense; but when you look at the Ultras in other parts of the world, you begin to understand their fear. Just look at the story of the Napoli Ultras and infamous fan leader, Gennaro de Tommaso. This is a very real group of dangerous fans that can dictate the proceedings of the team. The MLS is surely aware of this and wants to keep one eye open in the direction of supporter groups.
I don’t mean to imply that MLS supporter groups are rowdy, dangerous or in any way hooligans, like other publications have tried to do. I just think it’s important for both sides to acknowledge the fears that they’re having. The MLS is afraid of supporter groups running rampant, ignoring laws and eventually superseding clubs’ fan-power, while the groups are nervous that their independent and unique organizations will be controlled and remolded into corporate cut-outs.
Personally, I think it’s about time for the MLS to step in and set a league-wide ruling on pyrotechnics. Even if the rule is just for supporter groups to strictly adhere to the local pyrotechnic law, a unified ruling would clear this whole mess up. The league can still allow supporter groups to function as they have, but the confusion is growing poisonous and resentful. Supporter groups will soon be justified in wanting to break away from their team and support in the ways they want.
One way or the other, Don, take a stand, or the supporter groups may do it for you.
DISCLAIMER: In writing this article I reached out to a lot of supporter groups and MLS clubs who all shied away from talking about this exact problem. My eventual thought was that it’s a touchy subject and no one wants to come out publically and talk about the other side. Fair enough.
The actual people in these groups that I talked to were nervous to have their names attached to their comments in fear of getting in trouble by higher-ups. Also fair.
However, I do think it’s an important issue for people to talk about. I acknowledge that it is a very delicate topic that is infinitely more complex than one article could ever cover, but the discussion has to start somewhere and I think it should come from the faithful fans who keep their teams alive. Please feel free and encouraged to continue this discussion in the comments below and everywhere else you go.