SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Situated on a college campus with a capacity of 10,525, Buck Shaw Stadium is hardly the most glamorous venue in MLS. Despite the unspectacular setup, though, the bleachers at Buck Shaw come alive every home game in a sea of black and blue, powered on by the ever-creative visual displays put on by the San Jose Earthquakes' largest supporters’ group, the 1906 Ultras.
No less than Earthquakes star forward Chris Wondolowski – who enjoys an excellent relationship with the group – described the Ultras as one of the most “European”-style supporters groups in MLS, and it is in no small part thanks to the diligent work the Ultras put into their tifo and other visual displays in support of the team.
Though standing and singing is an element of fan support the world over, the inspiration for the extensive level of visual support that the Ultras and other supporters’ groups employ comes largely from continental Europe, which is no surprise, given the group’s origins.
The impetus for the Ultras’ style, and by extension the tifo, comes largely from founder and leader Dan Margarit’s time spent growing up in Romania as a member of the Armata Ultra, a supporter’s group for the country’s most successful club, Steaua Bucharest.
“I grew up in an ultra group, so I love the Ultras style,” Margarit enthused to MLSsoccer.com. “When I founded the Ultras in 2003, I obviously wanted to be an Ultra group 100 percent.”
Though he admits the continental European influence on the Ultras’ style of support, Margarit is also quick to point out that his group has not copied that style, but rather looked at it and moved in its own direction.
“We definitely looked over in Europe, admired their work, and it did inspire us”, Margarit explained. “However, we are not copying things from there like other MLS groups. We have our own style, and we try to be unique in everything we are doing: tifo, chants, attitude, etc.”
Margarit, as the leader of the group, takes the lead in designing all the tifo, but given their elaborate nature, they never become a finished product without significant help from the rest of the Ultras.
The process is a lengthy one – some of the group’s biggest tifo have taken weeks to plan and create. And it’s not necessarily a simple process, either.
“I make a sketch, then show it to our computer guys, and they make it look good,” he explains. “I talk a lot with the people who usually participate in tifo, I ask for their opinion. If I have doubts, sometimes we vote on things, where we're undecided about something, etc.”
Some of the group’s most elaborate tifo can take weeks to design and create. They vary between poking fun at other teams and expressing pride in their team and their city.
For example, Margarit explained the group actually put together two tifo displays – one of its most elaborate and time-consuming displays – ahead of the Earthquakes’ game against the Galaxy, their fiercest rivals.
“That particular tifo had actually two displays,” he clarified. “Once in the first half-pro Quakes, and one in the second half – the bulldog and the ‘kitties’ as an anti-ACB [Angel City Brigade, an LA supporters’ group] tifo.”
Margarit says the group met on 10 separate occasions to create that tifo, surpassing the time spent on the tifo made for the first visit of the Portland Timbers, which he says took “Four days, six hours a day with about 10 people a day.”
Much of that time and effort put into the tifo comes from the fact that the Ultras pride themselves on never buying anything premade – everything from the cutting to the sewing to the painting is done by Ultras members, from scratch.
Consequently, it is difficult for the Ultras to prepare an elaborate tifo for every single Earthquakes game, but anyone who has been to Buck Shaw Stadium or seen shots on TV of the Ultras will recognize the flags and banners that are always on the railing in front of section 109, maintaining that element of visual support.
“Everything that gets put on on the railing needs to be approved by us,” Margarit explained. “Our main banner is always there obviously, but all the other banners/flags are rotated around. There's no rule. We tend to use as many flags as possible, because we are big on visuals. It's really important for us.”
Margarit also emphasizes the importance of limiting the groups’ dress to the Quakes’ blue and black to further the visual impression.
“We also ask people in 109 to wear black,” he says. “We don't want to see other teams' jerseys or random colors in there, like you see at other stadiums. Only Quakes and Ultras gear.”
Though tifo and the other displays from the Ultras can provide an exceptional visual element to a supporters’ group’s mission, not every tifo is well-received by those outside the group.
One tifo in particular, displayed during the Quakes' early-season clash with Seattle in 2011, riffed on Charlie Sheen's lewd reputation. The tifo drew complaints from a number of fans, mostly visiting Seattle Sounders supporters and was panned online as “tasteless” by Jezebel.
The complaints landed the Ultras in hot water with the Earthquakes' front office. There was talk of a ban for the group, and the Ultras staged a protest at the Earthquakes’ following home game.
“We sat down silently the whole game," Margarit said. "The stadium was a morgue without us, and the [front office] saw that.”
In the wake of the entire episode, Margarit says, the two sides, the supporters group and the front office, were able to work things out, and today a positive relationship exists between the team’s and group’s leadership.
“Following that, I met with [Earthquakes president] David Kaval and solved the issue,” Margarit added. “Since that day we agreed that whenever something big happens, the best way to deal with it is meet one-on-one with Dave. I have a very good relationship with him, he is a good president and he needed some time to get to know us and understand us.”
Even through the rough patches, the Ultras – self-described as one of MLS’ smaller supporters’ groups – continues to make its presence known through its creative visual displays.
So, when the Earthquakes host the Galaxy at June 30 on Stanford Stadium be on the lookout for what the Ultras have in store. In Margarit’s words, it will be “massive.”