Fire Squad: For Love of City and Club

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All photos courtesy of Fire Squad

The three of us were sitting outside at the beer garden, in the mild early summer heat, sipping on our drinks of choice. We’d come on a whim, thinking that this event could be fun, and we’d been looking for a place with a little more excitement than our current life activities had afforded us. People were milling about everywhere, decked out in some combination of red and black, soccer jerseys, bandanas tied around the neck, and scarves slung over shoulders that seemed a bit out of place on a 90 degree evening.

A man’s voice is heard through the muffled amplification of a megaphone, “WE MARCH IN 10 MINUTES!” Those folks who’d been milling about suddenly seemed to cluster near the exit. Giant flags in hand, drums beginning to fill the air with short bursts of beating, we knew we’d better down our drinks or throw them away because, apparently, it was time to march to the stadium. The four to five guys with drums began banging in unison, a smoke bomb was lit, and on we marched into Chukchansi Park to the tune of “Oh When the Saints”, but a bit modified.

Oh when the Squad goes marching in… we’re gonna set this place on fire, when the Squad goes marching in!

It was May 6, 2017, the opening night for Fresno’s Professional Development League team, the Fresno Fuego. My two close friends and I decided to check out the soccer scene in Fresno, and ended up attending almost every single match at home (and a few away) for the rest of the 2017 season. We were hooked.

However, it should be noted that prior to the summer of 2017, I was no soccer fanatic. In fact, I’d attended a Fresno Fuego game in 2014, and had an entirely different experience, one that did not leave me with a desire for future attendance. So what was the difference almost exactly three years later? The answer is found in the world of soccer supporter culture.

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Just about as long as the game has been played in an organized manner, soccer, or football as it’s known in its place of origin, England, has had avid supporters. Football clubs started just as it sounds – as clubs. Clubs had members who played and members who supported those who played. The club, in essence, was “formed for the purpose of its members,” as Paul Brown, author of Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football Fans states. These clubs tended to form rivalries with other clubs in the city, whether or not it was centered around the sport, and such competitive emotion was played out through the game. Players and supporters alike were typically factory workers searching for some fun in their free time through the recreational activity of football. Supporter attendance grew with the game, in England and beyond. The game was transported to Latin America and the United States through immigrant workers who brought the knowledge and desire to continue enjoying the sport wherever they went. Fans continued to congregate around the pitch.

Today we see massive, fiercely loyal and dedicated supporters clubs for (I’d be willing to assert, though not backed by hard evidence) every professional football team in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, if not wherever the game played in the world. These groups tend to name themselves in association with their team, such as Arsenal’s Gooners, Seattle Sounder’s Emerald City Supporters and North End Faithful, Manchester City’s Cityzens, U.S. National Team’s American Outlaws, and Pancho Villa’s Army who root for Mexico in the United States. Many of the most popular teams in the world have fan bases that cross continents and oceans, supporting their team from afar, and often (if in the United States) waking up at a ridiculously early hour to watch their team play every weekend of the season.

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This is what Jordan Wiebe found himself doing while living in Los Angeles with his best friend, Tim Haydock.

“There’s a lot of commitment involved, right? To plan your schedule around waking up early for games. But it was like this cool thing that we did together. It fostered, not just something for us to talk about – we shared something there and we were able to connect over it.”

Jordan is a Gooner – that is, he’s a so-loyal-it-hurts Arsenal supporter. Having always been a sports enthusiast, getting into soccer as a young man, who played tennis and basketball, wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but a brief period spent in England after college intensified his interest.

“I fell in love with the atmosphere, and the sense of community that was centered on this game of 22 men running around and kicking a ball. When you abstract, or step back… no one should love something that much! It’s just a bunch of guys kicking a ball, running around, but the game is a platform for a lot of people to express themselves in ways that really push, I think, both athletic performance, creativity, and mental focus and so it’s this… really beautiful intersection of all of those things in terms of human achievements.”

After returning to the States, the aforementioned stint in L.A. and a couple more moves around the country, Jordan returned home to Fresno, California around 2010. The experience of watching countless games with his best friend was not one that he wished to keep tucked away in the past. “Surely… if we’re doing it, I’m sure there’s other folks that really love soccer, or really love Arsenal, or love “X” team,” that would be just as interested in waking up at dawn every weekend to catch the match, he thought. From this mindset, he found a local bar, Peeve’s Public House, to open up early, by promising the owner that a handful or more supporters would buy beer at each viewing, and Fresno Gooners was born. Through the leverage of social media, and a natural ability for graphic design and getting folks interested in a cause, Jordan managed to grow Fresno Gooners from about ten committed members to around 80 in just two seasons.

For Jordan, soccer was not just an avenue for drinking beer and watching a game with friends. He channeled his natural creative energy into soccer and/or Arsenal-centric art shows put on at Peeve’s Public House, that included collaborations with supporters from London, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. This, of course, generated some attention from Fresno’s soccer scene and beyond, but more specifically, from Fresno Fuego’s General Manager, Jeremy Schultz.

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Fresno Fuego was founded in 2003, when two brothers, Tony and Francisco Alvarez teamed up to start the franchise. Prior to this PDL team installation, the furthest a player could advance within the Valley was within the collegiate systems that offered the sport. With the advent of an amateur league based in Fresno, players had an option to continue training and competing post-graduation, and hopefully get signed to a semi-pro or professional contract in the States and beyond. The Fuego found great success on the field, earning five division championships, having had more than 50 players move on to sign professional contracts, and winning the Franchise of the Year award in 2017.

Despite the relative successes of the team, however, 12 years passed without any substantial growth in an independent supporters’ base. This is not to say that there were very few fans attending games, or that those in attendance were not passionate about the game and their team. In fact, a very dedicated, rowdy, albeit small, group of fans had been consistently present at matches since the very beginning, headed by Adam Juarez, known as La Bombardera. In 2013, Jeremy Schultz first approached Jordan Wiebe with the idea of extending his passionate support of Arsenal to the local team. Life circumstances at the time didn’t allow Jordan the room to venture forward with this new prospect, and Jeremy left it at “Ok, but if you ever want to chat, let me know.”

A little over a year later, the proposal was once again on the table. Jeremy, along with the Alvarez brothers, called a meeting with Jordan and a couple other men who’d been involved with Fresno Gooners. This time, the independent supporters club for the Fresno Fuego was born. In the winter of 2014, the men would begin crafting an image for the supporters club, doing all their own social media, graphic design work, photography and the like. Jordan settled on Fire Squad Fresno for the name.

“I remember putting it out there and thinking, ‘One: nobody’s gonna show up to this thing.’ genuinely that was the thought, and ‘Two: this is just a thing that maybe me and a couple friends will have a good time with. But it’s not gonna like become a ‘thing’.’ But then it became a thing, and that was weird.”

Fire Squad Fresno was a presence at Fuego games from the very beginning of the 2015 season. A little side note: to have tried in earnest to build something for Fresno natives to be proud of and excited about had it’s complicated nuances. “There’s just this long-standing self-deprecating, self-loathing kind of mentality here,” Jordan explained in our interview, “There’s a really interesting dynamic in that… out of the defeatist attitude, you had two things happening – one, we’re gonna stay humble because it’s just Fresno, we know what we are, and on the other side, it was like no, that’s lame, we can have nice things and we can build them and I’m proud to be from Fresno.” Pushing forward with this dual mindset, the men in charge of Fire Squad hoped for a natural growth that would  “challenge directly that defeatist mindset, but also not be too serious about it.” Because after all, as Jordan puts it best, “we’re all here to have fun and hang out and watch soccer and yell indiscriminately at players on the field, who are not getting paid!”

From the start, the aim for Fire Squad was to provide an inclusive space for all, one in which anyone could feel welcome to join and stick around. There has been a tendency in professional soccer, especially in England, of using racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs and jargon in chants carried out by the supporters sections. While the atmosphere has certainly changed in this regard over the last few decades, the leadership of Fire Squad laid down the ground rules to avoid this territory.

“We tried to set expectations pretty early on. We don’t stand for racism, homophobia, [or] misogynistic chants. Anything that’s going to denigrate who someone else is, that’s not what we’re here for.”

In every instance from the beginning, where any such chants were heard or called out to be derogatory toward any one group, they were quickly addressed. The interesting upside to maintaining this position on speech is that it offers supporters who wish to partake in jeering at the players or officials to become a bit more creative. Instead of falling back on usual tropes, Jordan and the rest of the guys pushed for witticism without the common crudeness. “I don’t think you oftentimes have to be vulgar or denigrating to somebody else to have a bit of a laugh. There can be a higher level of banter… and it makes the mood light and fun…!” Fire Squad Fresno has also steered clear of the “hooliganism” that’s been seen from supporters of many English teams. It could be easily said that this particular supporters group is one of the more “family-friendly” in existence, despite a proclivity toward some profanity heard in the stands during matches.

“… We are respectful to our team, to our fellow fans, to match officials, to everybody that’s involved in the game because we have respect for the game.”

The style in which these fans express their support and excitement is one aspect of soccer culture which was imported from Europe and Latin America. The English don’t use flags and drums, which has become a staple in Latin America, and now North America as well. Jordan suggests that Fire Squad Fresno’s style, which includes a “capo” who leads chants for the crowd, is similar to “German, Italian, maybe some Latin American style, but also kept it pretty close to Fresno too,” meaning, the chants that are used often take popular songs, usually from the hip-hop genre, and twist the lyrics to fit soccer jargon in. At any given Fresno Fuego match, you’ll hear drums banging all night, you’ll see large flags waving over head, large painted sugar skull or fox heads on poles held aloft above the crowd, a man on a megaphone keeping the group in unison, and a smoke bomb lit after every Fuego goal scored.

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Andrew Ueland became a soccer fan around his time in college as well. This now almost 40 year old owner of the Hook and Ladder Lounge in Clovis, California, found himself rooting for his English buddy’s rival team out of jest one early morning, and has been an ardent Chelsea Football Club supporter ever since. Years later, after attending a Fresno Fuego match in 2015 with a few friends, he’d found himself yet another team to throw his support behind. “The whole inclusiveness, the family aspect of it, and everybody singing together and everything,” caught his attention, and drew him into the Squad.

“With soccer I feel it’s an event on the field and an event in the stands as well.”

This entrance into the active supporter world for Andrew took him further than Fresno Fuego, helping create a local Chelsea supporters chapter, as well as participating in American Outlaws watch parties for the U.S. National Teams. But it was in these settings that the games, which drew many together in the first place, ended up becoming second. “There’s this game, soccer, and it’s just so simple… but it brought so many different people together.”

There’s a part in all of us that aches to find belonging in some way. We want to connect with others, as Jordan puts it, in “very genuine and authentic way[s].” These connections can be searched out in different areas of our lives, whether it’s through occupation, religion, or otherwise, and it seems that a sport has just as much power to provide those connections. “I’ve honestly made some of my best friends through this,” Ueland stated with sincerity during our interview. It’s a recurring theme between the two men, one of whom is quite frankly responsible for providing this space for others to connect, and the other having come into this space and now taken up a leadership role a couple years later.

“When I’m in the middle of the Squad section, it feels pure. I can be 100% me, authentically me. Again, you don’t always necessarily get that in day-to-day life. And I think that’s what it’s given me, is a space to be myself.”

There’s an aspect to this side of the history and legacy of a supporters group that is harder to grasp than solid facts. Yes, the Fire Squad officially started in 2015. Yes, it’s been moving forward with solid growth for 3 years, and keeps on going. Yes, it does what it’s there to do – cheer on the team and create an energetic and inviting atmosphere wherever the game is being played. But, it’s in the ephemeral moments, the ones relegated to memories and stories between friends, that are also a vital part of its history. Some of these moments can be captured through photos or videos taken by the supporters themselves. Some of these friendships are clearly documented in a similar manner, if not written about by any given individual (if anyone still does write in a journal or other such capacity anymore). It’s all a bit fleeting though. The supporters section, in essence, puts on a performance at each match, and when it’s over, it’s over. It isn’t highly documented like the game itself, in which we’ll know as long as records exist who won, who scored, what happened at what minute. It’s up to the supporters, photographers, or videographers at the stadium to capture those moments, or to keep passing on the stories of “that one time when…” in order to document this history.

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There are high hopes for Fire Squad Fresno. As Fresno Fuego has made the transition into Fresno Football Club, the new United Soccer League franchise, the Squad remains a mainstay on match days. Despite Fuego no longer being in the team’s name, the group chose to retain it’s fire-themed name. Fuego’s red and black also remained, as a nod to the team that laid the groundwork for this venture into the professional soccer world. The supporters section, which has shifted places over the years, and previously took up the outfield bleachers, now takes over more than three sections along the third base line of Chukchansi Park (it’s a baseball stadium, first and foremost). These sections no longer swim in a sea of red and black, but a random mixture of navy, light blue, a gold-toned yellow, red and black. The soccer-influenced sugar skulls have mostly been replaced by fox heads of a similar style.

Jordan Wiebe has much to thank this sport and his love of the game for. Through his efforts building Fire Squad, he was offered a position to work as Fresno Fuego’s Marketing Director and Social Media Manager (as well as taking on myriad other roles as needed during his time there). He was hired on with Fresno FC last year as the Director of Marketing and Communications, and continues in that position today. “I might not have a home if it wasn’t for Fire Squad,” he told me with a laugh. Jordan is no longer involved with Fire Squad in an official capacity. It’s now lead by a few different people, Andrew Ueland being one of them, and moving forward in its love and support for Fresno FC. Jordan does have his own personal hopes for the group though.

“I want Fresno FC as a club to become a cultural institution in the Valley, and to be a genuinely inclusive space. What I mean by that, is actually breaking down some of the power structures in the Valley that have existed for a really long time… I think Fresno FC has the potential to engage those uncomfortable spaces for a lot of people, and have the conversation to say, ‘No this is a club for all the Valley.’…  Because I think the beauty and the strength of the Central Valley is its diversity, and how hard-working it is. And I think that Fire Squad can reflect that really well. It has the opportunity to do that.”

Membership of Fire Squad Fresno is at 350, and growing continually, not to mention the countless numbers of people who aren’t yet official members but still pack the supporters section every game. Fun is continually had, beers are consumed, smoke bombs are lit, and friendships are being forged and deepend. It seems that as long as soccer is here to stay in the Central Valley, so are the passionate supporters, and the universal hope is that Fire Squad Fresno maintains unity in growth, includes all who wish to join, and keeps fighting for those wins. The first two are yet to be seen, but out on the third base line in the mild early-summer heat, each match day the Squad just might get to go wild celebrating a win with the team they love – scarves and all.

“The best way I can put it is: there’s this game, soccer, and it’s just so simple, it’s that basic, but it brought so many different people together… It means so much to me in that, again, it’s not just about the game… It means so much more, it’s a community.”

Kathryn Johnson is a recent graduate with a B.A. in History from California State University, Fresno. When she’s not busy serving beers to downtown Fresno regulars, she spends her post-college time listening to podcasts, discovering the joys of film photography, and watching the FIFA World Cup. This is essay is part of the Valley Public History’s project The Other Football: Tracing the Game’s Roots and Routes