It’s 3:40 p.m. on a game day and I find myself weaving in and out of traffic along I95, heading toward RFK at 90 mph trying to get to to the tailgate on time. My two barramates and I perform this routine on every game day; we know the consequences of being even one minute late. Unfortunately, we pull up to Lot 8 at 5:03 p.m., missing the start by three minutes. For the rest of the night we find ourselves making beer and food runs for the Elders and sweating through the same songs over and over.
No, I wasn’t at boot camp or reform school—I was a member of La Barra Brava, DC United’s Legendary 12th Man. After making paying my membership dues and becoming part of the group, I thought I would instantly be granted ‘hooligan’ status. I imagined myself hanging out with Jaime Moreno and shootin’ the breeze with Tino. Instead, on Day One I had to sign a contract with a long list of rules, like “No fraternizing with other supporter clubs,” and “Membership jersey to be worn at all times.”
Breaking the rules in La Barra Brava can lead to stinging criticism by the senior elder (‘just you and me’), losing your credentials (if you kissed enough barrabutt to get one), paying non-member prices for extra tickets, or even termination from the group (‘you’re not barra brava’). While the penalties may be harsh, members who are lucky enough to get a ticket for section 135 and make it into the stadium have to accept a tough set of standards. This club demands that the members look and act the part. Here are some of the most common violations that can get you ‘benched’ for a game, a month, an entire season, or in some cases, the rest of your life.
Being late to the tailgate or game
While this rule should go without saying, busy members still tend to break it. My two barramates and I were still full-time college students at a school almost an hour from the stadium. However, most Elders insist on punishment for being late, whether it’s tearing down the grill, or worse, having to miss watching the game in or to cajole other members to continue the non-stop cheer. And while my punishment seemed a bit severe, I wasn’t ready to compromise my credentials (free tickets) in La Barra Brava by complaining.
Forgetting songs or not singing them properly
A Barra Brava members job, first and foremost, is cheering. 90 minutes of non-stop singing the same 5 songs over and over. Unfortunately, no matter how well you might know a song or Spanish, there’s still a chance an Elder won’t like it. Many will test members before they ever allow them in the stadium. It’s like auditioning, and if you don’t know the words or pronounce them badly, you don’t get a ticket. This translates into not much fun and lots of extra pressure. Not being in Section 135 on game night is heartbreaking—and you’ll probably be watched more closely the next game, so you’ll have to work extra hard.
Not maintaining your appearance
After years of playing soccer for various amatuer clubs and cheering in the great stadiums of Europe and South America, BilboBarra (all members use screen names from Big Soccer for a member’ protection) was ecstatic when he was allowed to pay the membership fee and get discounted tickets. But at the first game, he found that he wasn’t allowed in the section. “I was told that I wasn’t living up to my job requirements,” he says. While no one said it was because of the Club Echa Panza tshirt he was wearing, hints were dropped.
Fraternizing with splinter support groups
Perhaps the biggest no-no is fraternizing with people who left La Barra Brava, for whatever reason, and joined a supporters group whose members were all Barra members. Talking to, drinking beer with, or hanging out with these people can even get you removed from La Barra altogether.
“When I was around some of those splinter support groups I found myself so wrapped up in the politics,” Noamidiot, another (former) member explains. Wanting friends to think you’re tight with the any supporting fan is reason enough to think the rules can be bent a little. Noamidiot felt invincible and joined two veteran members at a fundraising happy hour with the Screaming Eagles. When the Elders found out, however, the members were kick out of the group and asked to return their Barra jerseys.
“It was a devastating time in my life, but I was able to learn from it and redeem myself by joing the Olsen’s Army this year,” says Noamidiot. “I realized I’m here to do a job.”
The bottom line
While being kicked out of La Barra Brava is humiliating, most members don’t find it enough to make them call it quits. “It all depends on the individual member’s investment, coping abilities and support from the Elders,” says psychologist Betty Ballalinger.
After being out of the section for a handful of games, BilboBarra decided to finish out the season with Club Echa Panza. He then ended up starting his own supporters group and has hired a professional artist to make really cool Tifo. “Now, when I put on my club shirt,” he says, “I look in the mirror and am proud of what I see.”
*names changed to protect members’s identity