As the strains of the national anthem fade away, but before the Minnesota United Football Club kicks off, Dan Skaarup will spend 90 terrified seconds praying, “Please don’t rip.”
Skaarup and dozens of other fan volunteers will be frantically unfurling 20,000 square feet of painted cloth that they’ll drape over five sections of the stands for the first game at Allianz Field in St. Paul on Saturday.
The gigantic textile mural nearly half an acre in size is a “tifo,” an Italian word for any mass, choreographed display of support by sports fans. It’s a tradition among hard-core soccer fans around the world to demonstrate loyalty and dedication to their team.
For months, volunteers from a coalition of several of the Minnesota United supporters groups have been laboring in a chilly warehouse in Maple Grove to create the largest tifo ever seen in Minnesota to celebrate the home opener at the new stadium.
You may think bringing a big flag or a painted bedsheet to a football game is a pretty good display of sports fan support. That doesn’t begin to describe what the Minnesota United fans have been making.
Using a projector and crayons, volunteers traced a design paying homage to the history of professional soccer in Minnesota on dozens of tarp-sized segments of muslin backdrop cloth.
Volunteer Drew Thesing estimates he ran a Singer sewing machine for about 30 hours, using 2,500 yards of thread, to stitch together the pieces of the cloth.
The 100-foot-long super-banners were then spread on the warehouse floor while volunteers in stocking feet used brushes, rollers and about 100 gallons of house paint to fill in the design like a giant paint-by-number canvas.
“It’s hard to explain the sheer size to people who have never seen a tifo,” said Angela Piotrowski, volunteer coordinator for the project. “They think it’s a small banner.”
Together, they’re putting in more than 1,000 hours of work, ranging from the arty (designing the image) to the muscular (pulling the ropes to haul hundreds of pounds of cloth into position on game day).
Taking a trial run
Last weekend, about 30 volunteers spent more than five hours rehearsing unfurling the tifo in Allianz Field, wrestling and tugging one of the 45-foot-wide sheets as if they were making a giant bed.
Come game day, five different mega-sheets, supported by the uplifted arms of hundreds of fans, will be used to briefly cover an area of the stadium called the Wonderwall. That’s the end of the stadium where supporter group members stand for the entire game, chanting, banging on drums and singing songs like “You Came a Long Way Just to Lose.”
At the rehearsal, tifo organizers worried aloud that volunteers wouldn’t be able to tell if the giant bundle of fabric is right-side up, that someone would get injured hauling on the ropes, that a disaster would get them highlighted on a sports lowlights TV reel.
“On game day, they’ll have seconds to figure this out,” said David Martin, a Dark Clouds member from Lakeville and head of the tifo committee. “Some of this will be untested. We’ll just have to see how it goes on game day.”
One of their main fears is tears in the cloth.
“This is a troubling rip,” said Bennett Hartz, a tifo committee member from Minneapolis, directing volunteers patching a 5-foot tear with duct tape and safety pins. “You don’t need me to tell you to tape and pin this to absolute death.”
After a lot of shouted directions, a few dozen volunteers yanked on ropes to haul up a piece of painted cloth, 65 feet tall and 80 feet wide, suspended vertically like a colossal sail from pulleys mounted in the rafters of the stadium overhang.
Tweaking their opponents
The Minnesota United fan groups aim to create four to six tifos a season, which are used at big games like home openers, matches against rivals and on Pride night.
Saturday’s tifo will be three to four times bigger than the mega-banners that have been unfurled at Minnesota United games at their temporary venue, TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus.
“It’s going to be the proverbial tifo mic drop,” said Amy Falatic, a volunteer from Maple Grove.
While tifos are used with the blessing of the team, they’re a fan-organized, grassroots effort, paid for by the supporter groups themselves. (Martin estimated Saturday’s tifo will cost $8,000 to $10,000.)
But the oversized painted dropcloths do more than show fan fervor. They foster a sense of community peculiar to soccer support groups.
“It sucks you in,” said Piotrowski. “Everyone in your group becomes your family.”
Falatic, a member of the Dark Glitterati fan group, said painting the tifo felt like building a float for a small-town parade.
“It makes me feel like I’m contributing to something larger than myself,” she said.
Tifos can also be used to tweak fans of the other team.
For example, at a game last summer in TCF Bank Stadium against the Seattle Sounders, a tifo devised by the Minnesota United fans depicted an image of Jimi Hendrix with a quote about his hometown: “The next time I go to Seattle will be in a pine box.” It was hoisted next to an image of Prince with a quote about Minneapolis. “I’m never leaving ... there’s a legacy here for me.”
And some fans believe that unleashing an enormous tifo can demoralize the opposing players.
“It’s so huge. How could you not look at it?” Hartz said.
But that’s only if the thing doesn’t tear in half at the home opener, which is being broadcast on ESPN2.
Ultra-fan Martin admitted that his nerves are in “tatters,” and likely will be until the tifo is successfully unveiled on Saturday.
“In the actual moment, it’s sheer terror,” Skaarup agreed.
Now you see it
All that work goes into something that will be seen for only about a minute.
The tifo is deployed just after the national anthem ends, floating over the heads of the fans. Then it’s never seen again.
“It’s a culturally frowned upon practice to re-use a tifo,” Martin said. “We deploy it for 60 to 100 seconds and then it’s done. It’s extremely ephemeral.”
During the brief time it’s on display, volunteers rarely have the opportunity to admire their creation. They’re too busy unfolding it, hoisting it into place, making sure the thing doesn’t rip under its own weight or flap out of control in a wind, then getting it down and quickly stowed away so the game can start.
“I run around with my head on fire for 60 seconds,” said Hartz. “I’ve never seen any of our tifos.”
He and the other volunteers get to enjoy their tifos only after the game, when they see the images posted online.
“It’s a spectacle for everyone else,” said Minneapolis tifo volunteer Brandon Whittey. “You see it later on social media.”
That’s when the volunteers can relax, have a drink and admire the corner of the cloth that they helped paint. And when someone asks Hartz what a tifo is, he holds up a photo on his phone and says, “It’s this.”