By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Inside the hurricane that is sections 135, 136 and 137 of RFK Stadium during D.C. United soccer games, the heavens rain beer. Plump, silver drops of Bud shimmering against the black sky.
Then comes the thunder. Thump-thump, thump-thump-THUMP! That's drum talk for D.C., U-ni-TED! erupting from a percussion section of snares, bongos and a big bass drum.
And now the very earth seems to quake. The metal bleachers rumble, shake, bounce, until the sections become a kind of 2,500-square-foot trampoline.
The team has just scored against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
In sections 135, 136 and 137 -- the field-level home of a fan group called la Barra Brava, Spanish for "brave fans" -- Chico and Duffman and Oscar "el Jefe" are howling themselves hoarse, jeering the sidelined David Beckham. Scruggs needs a beer. Bill Pow, beer man to the Barra, scoops dripping bottles out of his tub, no longer bothering with the soggy cash; he'll collect the tab later. Tom Faulkner pounds the bass drum in an ecstatic trance, grinning around the stub of his cigar.
And Srdan the Croatian flagmaker stands balanced precariously on the slippery armrests of a seat, his back to the field, savagely conducting the Barra to even greater peaks of emotion.
Up go the flags! Not wimpy little triangular sports-team pennants. No, they are car-dealership-size, on long poles, in United colors of black, red and white.
And finally, the stately, boozy chorus of nearly 400 voices, surprisingly melodic, given the setting:
Vamos, vamos, United
Esta noche, tenemos que ganar
Let's go, let's go, United
Tonight, we must win
Even between goals the scene is much the same. Just as the clock never stops in soccer, so the hurricane possesses no off switch. About the only way the Barra Brava can amp it up any further when a goal is scored is to let fly jets of beer, confetti and the occasional colored-smoke bomb.
"The worst is when you just buy a beer, and they score, and you got to throw it," says Bob "Scruggs" Bancroft, 28, an accountant. "It's like $7 in the air, come on! I'm not that rich!"
Drums, flags, jumping, singing -- singing!-- nonstop for 90 minutes. And never, ever, sitting. Is this any way to be a sports fan in America?
* * *
In the beginning, 11 years ago, a real estate agent from Bolivia named Oscar Zambrana bought 15 tickets for the first D.C. United home game. The only way he knew to root for the home team was the way they do it back home in Santa Cruz.
He went to a pawn shop in Wheaton where the owner, a Uruguayan, offered to exchange drums for a ticket. Deal.
Stadium authorities did not understand this exuberant form of fan love. The second game, drums were barred.
But Kevin Payne, president of D.C. United, did understand. "This is not other sports," says Payne. "Rather than have a band getting up occasionally to play a rehearsed song, our fans make their own music." Deny this urge, and the cost to a franchise in passion, atmosphere, noise and ticket sales is incalculable.
Payne talked to the stadium officials. The third game, the drums were back, and the Barra Brava was in the house to stay.
Now the Barra Brava has more than 800 members paying $25 dues. What began as a predominantly Latino club is multicultural, with songs in English and Spanish. Zambrana, 39, is still "el jefe," the boss, and fellow Bolivian Javier "Chico" Solares, 48, a BMW wholesale parts manager from Fairfax, is "el primer capitán," the first captain.
But "el segundo capitán" is Marshall Conner, 40, a strapping descendant of Scots, who was one of the first gringos to join the group several years ago.
"The Barra Brava works how America is supposed to work," says Conner, a recreation coordinator for Culpeper County, Va. "It's a great melting pot. We have 27 different nationalities there now. We have guys from Africa, we have guys from Europe, and South America, which is obviously our roots that we want to hold on to. What we want to be is the standard for American hard-core support."
Though Latinos are now in the minority, the Barra Brava is a case of assimilation running in the opposite direction.
In return for the love, ticket sales and irresistible TV camera bait, D.C. United goes out of its way to accommodate the Barra Brava.
The group has its own ticket window in the stadium.
The team consigns tickets at group rates, which the Barra Brava sells to members for slightly more, plowing the proceeds into expenses. At the Galaxy game, the Barra filled 1,000 seats, according to Zambrana. At a more typical recent Saturday night game -- one without the spectacle of Beckham -- Zambrana distributed about 600 tickets through the ticket window and from the trunk of his car.
Other fan groups cheer D.C. United, which is second in the Eastern Conference of Major League Soccer. A smaller Latino-inflected one is called la Norte. Filling three sections next to the Barra Brava is the equally passionate but less boisterous Screaming Eagles.
The Barra Brava makes the rules in its anarchic zone. Smoking is allowed, throwing beer is encouraged, wearing the jerseys of opponents is forbidden. Assigned seating is suspended, so more people can cram into the sections. Some of the songs are profane. The lyrics contain advice to the referees, certain fanciful musings about what one could do if one were a crow flying above the opposing team, and certain characterizations of the parenthood of Barra members who are not jumping. Most members are men, but a large fraction are women, and children watch, too, acquiring a vivid bilingual vocabulary.
Yet the wild-for-D.C. Barra Brava is mild by international standards. In parts of Latin America, the term "barra brava" connotes hooliganism. That's a line the Barra Brava has never crossed, according to members, team officials and police.
"We're trying to bring the ideas from South America and from Europe, but without the violence," says Zambrana.
"It's controlled chaos, but it's not bad," says D.C. police Sgt. Brian Corrigan, who is part of the detail that works the sidelines in front of the Barra Brava. "Tonight the smoke bombs were limited."
The team created a buffer zone behind the Barra Brava sections, not selling tickets there because fans who want to sit and watch the game can't see over the always-standing Barra Brava.
"We warn people of that if they are buying single-game tickets in the vicinity," says Payne.
* * *
The tailgate starts five hours before the game. Scruggs arrives first, icing the four kegs, erecting the canopies, firing up the grills.
The remote corner of Lot 8, down by the Anacostia River, fills with a milling, sprawling, communal fiesta that can look a little bit outlaw. That's one effect of all the black fashion statements, the team's home jersey colors customized with the Barra Brava's skull-and-crossbones logo and the motto "muerte o gloria" -- death or glory.
But everyone is welcome (except the guy in the Beckham jersey, who is pelted with a construction cone). The Barra Brava encampment is more like a temporary village that reappears every week or so, with rituals and regular characters fulfilling particular roles.
The ethos is "do what you can, when you can," says Mike "Duffman" Easby, 30, an Ashburn accountant sometimes costumed as "The Simpsons" superhero. Today he's wearing a shirt that says, "If Found, Please Return to Section 135."
Duffman shoots pictures for the Barra Brava Web site and also commissioned the Barra Brava traffic sign posted at most tailgates, a yellow-and-black silhouette of a person holding a bottle, and the message, "Barra Brava Crossing." The sign was created by the Barra Brava's resident artist, Mike Terry, 39, an architect whose day job is designing downtown condo projects.
Today Duffman and a friend brought a generator and an industrial blender to dispense spiked smoothies.
"What flavor is it?" asks a woman.
"It's a fruit blend," says Duffman.
"I didn't get any of the fruit," says the woman, "but I definitely got the Bacardi."
On his iPhone, Duffman keeps pictures of his mother, Pauline, at a couple of games. She died of breast cancer three years ago. In his absence at the next tailgate, Barra Brava members lined up behind a long banner that said, "We Love You Duffman," and the group raised $4,000 for breast cancer research.
Stationed at the communal grills is Faulkner, the bass drummer, a.k.a. GrillMaster. Gray-bearded, with an American flag bandanna covering his head, he gives his age as over 50, and he, too, is an accountant. He lights his cigar and starts slicing 72 pounds of beef round tip.
D.C. United star Jaime Moreno's wife stops by with T-shirts for the Barra Brava to sell for a charity Moreno supports. William Chang, one of the investors in D.C. United, visits, is presented with a Barra Brava shirt and promptly puts it on.
Players appreciate their wildest fans. Marco Etcheverry brought the group's first big banners back from Bolivia. Christian Gomez, sidelined for an away game at the Meadowlands, climbed into the stands and banged a drum with the Barra Brava the whole game. "We couldn't take it away from him," says Solares.
Farther down the dusty lot, Srdan Bastaic and Charlotte Harding heft armloads of flags. Bastaic, 32, a computer programmer from Rockville, orders the material from Italy and his native Croatia. Harding, who works for the U.S. Marshals, sews on the D.C. United and Barra Brava insignias.
She was a football and NASCAR fan until Bastaic brought her to her first D.C. United game a couple of years ago. Worried she might find the whole scene too rowdy, he put her in a back row. By the second half, she'd gone hard-core, dancing and singing right up in front.
On this evening, she's at it again. Seen from the sedate sections, the Barra Brava bleachers resemble a black, boiling sea. The Screaming Eagles section next to the Barra Brava is about as loud and bouncy. The energy visibly spreads and dissipates from that stormy nucleus.
Someone holds up two of artist Terry's big white cardboard cutouts. One is a beer, the other is a man: Beer Man. It's a signal to Pow, who's been selling beer in RFK since 1980, to come on down.
He's a connoisseur of fandemonium, and he's made a ruling: "Along comes D.C. United, and the Barra Brava blows Redskins fans out of the water."
But being a superfan has its penalties. Bastaic, Solares and others are taping the game. Right now, they are too busy jumping, dancing, drumming, flag-waving to pay close attention to the beloved home team. Later, they will watch at home, where the sky doesn't rain beer.
* * *
One of the heart's mysteries is how and why fans develop their styles of showing their love. The answer is a blend of national roots, cultural identity, notions of acceptable public behavior, tolerance for chaos.
Closer to the stadium, the Screaming Eagles are having their tailgate. The atmosphere is different. There are eight kegs, and unlike the Barra Brava's Carlsburg, they are all premium microbrews. There's satellite television and a central sound system playing hundreds of songs from an iPod playlist.
A sign warns that ID will be checked. To eat the buffet, you need a $6 ticket, and then you get a green wristband. For the game, everyone has an assigned seat. The Screaming Eagles are formally incorporated as a nonprofit, with a board of directors and meeting minutes.
"Some people say we're hyper-organized; I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing," says Kim Klyberg, communications and special projects coordinator for the Screaming Eagles.
It's a formula at least as successful as the Barra Brava's: The Eagles report slightly more paying members.
But in the imitation-as-flattery department, the Screaming Eagles just bought a big bass drum of their own.
Ask the gringo Barra Brava members for their conversion experiences, and they describe an evolution to the extreme front of full-body soccer adulation.
Conner started sitting on the more sedate, opposite side of the stadium, edging closer, until one game he was jumping and dancing in the aisle between the Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles.
"These guys always gave me grudging respect, 'Look at this crazy American guy,' " Conner says. "One game Oscar came up to me. . . . He throws me a jersey and says, 'You're Barra Brava.' I said, 'Yeah!' That's what I was waiting for. I found my soul mates.
"They were loud, they were passionate about it, they liked to party. I liked the confetti, I liked the drums. It was kind of the same appeal as when you're a teenager and you like the punk band or the rock band. You're like, these guys are a little bit dangerous, and that's what's cool about them, and I want to be a part of that. Then I found out they weren't really dangerous. They were really nice guys."
Andy Mack has a theory. He's 44, an international business consultant who grew up in Cincinnati and carries his Barra Brava flag with him around the world. He has pictures: the flag in an Angolan mangrove swamp, on safari in Uganda, in the marketplace of Marrakech, in downtown Guatemala City.
He used to watch games in the 200-level sections. He drummed all by himself; this felt right, if a little silly. He has concluded that the nature of soccer invites the drumming, dancing, singing. In other sports, the action starts and stops, punctuated by downs, pitches, innings, changes from offense to defense.
"That bleeds off all the excitement," Mack says. "Part of the thing that makes soccer so unique is the rhythm of it. It is its own dance."
The Barra Brava is a partner in that dance.
GrillMaster Faulkner started with the Eagles and still is a member. But he stopped cheering with that group when he kept getting yelled at to sit down. "I've always been spiritually a part of the Barra," Faulkner says.
"I'm a boisterous guy and like to make noise, and I have a short temper and everything, so I was in my perfect element."
He muses, "Do you choose what you love or who you love? No. It chooses you."