The art of being a Fanatic

How a brand new team found itself with a cadre of loud, artistic supporters

For Zach Meisenheimer, his family, and other members of the Fraser Valley Fanatics, cheering on Vancouver FC is only one part of what it means to be a supporter. 📷 Fraser Valley Fanatics

This story first appeared in the May 15, 2024, edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.

They are the diehard fans. The ones waving flags and singing songs; those who shape their weekends plans and family moments around watching soccer; those who are with their team through thick and thin.

Across the globe, you can find them packed into the far end of stadiums large and small, standing all game, and providing the boisterous community atmosphere for which soccer games are known. (And which has made television shows like Ted Lasso and Welcome to Wrexham hits.) And last April, you could find them at Willoughby Community Stadium in Langley, hoisting a huge Star Wars-themed banner to a professional team that had never once played an hour of league soccer.

It was a lot of passion for a club that was brand new. So much so that one might wonder: just who are these people who would invest so much passion, time, and energy in support of a brand new team?

But you’d be missing something. Because as much as those supporters were there to cheer on their new team, they were also there to cheer on soccer, Canada, and the notion of fandom itself.

Soccer supporter groups aren’t just heard but seen—both by fellow fans and players. 📷 Fraser valley Fanatics

The club

A soccer supporters group is one part fan club and one part community booster club. Such groups provide the organizational structure that enables soccer-specific shows of fandom like communal singing, drumming, chanting or flag-waving. The ostensible goal is to celebrate and inspire home players with songs, chants, flags, and elaborate visual displays. But the groups can also be an end unto themselves: an excuse to create a community and do something with other people.

Internationally, in Europe and South America, some groups are internationally famous, or infamous, for the way they celebrate their teams. But in Canada, supporter groups tend to be fiercely positive organizations.

Twenty-one years ago, Zach Meisenheimer was just another Canadian soccer-lover when he went to Germany to watch some games. He watched four matches in a little more than a week and came back to Canada a supporter, rather than a fan.

“Once you go to a game in Europe or South America… football is like nothing else,” said Meisenheimer, who in his day job works as a youth and young adults pastor at Sevenoaks Alliance Church. “The way the fans are engaged in it, the way in which fans can actually play an active role in encouraging their side—or discouraging the other side—is like nothing we have in North American sports.”

German clubs are known for their passionate fans—in part because, by law, teams must be owned by their supporters. And the reputation comes not just from the boisterousness of supporters, but from the spectacular visual displays they organize and display both before and during matches.

Meisenheimer soaked it up and came back wanting to spread the same energy at soccer matches in Canada.

“As I came back from that trip, I thought, I can either hope this happens in Canada by osmosis, or I can play a role in helping it grow.”’

Organized football fandom already had a niche tradition in larger cities around Canada and Meisenheimer became involved in supporting a variety of teams, ranging from low-level provincial squads to Canada’s national teams. Since he returned from Germany, Meisenhimer has seen Canada’s soccer culture explode. Major League Soccer teams draw in tens of thousands of people in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, and each of those clubs have multiple well-established supporters groups. And the country’s increasingly popular and successful national teams have their own small-but-vocal legions of travelling fans. Many of those fans also support their local clubs.

But, until recently, the country didn’t actually have its own professional league. (The Vancouver Whitecaps play in Major League Soccer, which is primarily an American league.)

That changed in 2018. For Canada to co-host the upcoming 2026 World Cup, the country had to set up its own Canadian professional league; the Canadian Premier League (CPL) was born. Early on, Rob Friend, a former Canadian pro, began spearheading efforts to create a BC-based team for the league.

Although Friend initially looked to the Lower Mainland for a team home, time was of the essence and no local landing spot could be found. So he started another club, Pacific FC, in the Victoria area first. But two years later, in 2021, the CPL announced that a Vancouver-area team would soon begin play, and Friend would again lead the effort. The following spring, a home was found for the team: Langley’s Willoughby Park.

It was Meisenheimer’s moment. Back in 2018, he had connected with Friend and offered to literally drum up support for the new team. Now that the Vancouver club was searching for its coach and recruiting players, Meisenheimer and other local soccer diehards started organizing a new supporters group they would call the Fraser Valley Fanatics.

For Zach Meisenheimer and his wife, son, and daughter, being a supporter is a shared passion.. 📷 Vancouver FC

But the creation of a supporter culture before a team has hit a field prompts interesting questions about just why fans cheer for a club in the first place.

Usually, a team predates one’s fandom. You may have grown up watching games on TV. Maybe you simply followed your parents and cheered for the team they cheered for. Maybe you caught the bug at a game, or met a player, or were just drawn to a playing style or success. But all those reasons suppose the team exists before one becomes a genuine fan.

Meisenheimer and the Fraser Valley Fanatics were trying something different: to create a new legion of fans before the club ever actually started playing locally. For Vancouver FC’s first game in 2023, which was to be played in the Victoria area against Pacific FC, a group of Fanatics travelled to Vancouver Island, hoisted a banner and made such a ruckus that home players shushed them after scoring.

The game was a loss, with Pacific FC taking the lead late in the game, but the experience was a win. And the Fanatics were just getting started.

For Vancouver FC’s first home game last May, the Fanatics created a massive banner declaring “Welcome to the Dark Side,” a slogan the franchise had been using to define itself and subtly separate itself from the Whitecaps. But the Fanatics didn’t just write some words on a banner; they also created a tifo, a visual display created when audience members in a section each hold up coloured placards to create a larger image. The Fanatics’ tifo itself served as the background to a third display: a massive image of the club’s coach, Afshin Ghotbi, that made him look like Emperor Palpatine, from Star Wars. (They called the tifo Emporor Afshin. We wrote about Ghotbi’s long journey to Langley last year.)

For the team’s opening game, the fans created a large image of Vancouver FC’s coach, stylized as a Star Wars bad guy. 📷 Vancouver FC

It’s those visual displays—fandom rendered as pop art that can wow players, officials, and thousands of fans—that Meisenheimer said he gets the biggest kick out of.

“Being a part of the creative process is very fulfilling and meaningful,” he said. “It’s really powerful when, before the match, large banners go up in support of your team.”

The displays are a sign of support for the club and players and a means to encourage. But they can also be used to welcome other fans: the Fanatics created special visual displays to mark the club’s Pride Night and for Truth and Reconciliation Day.

The games and the team really matter. Becoming a supporter requires caring about who wins and loses. But Meisenheimer wants Vancouver FC to not just score goals and win games, but to succeed on a more-profound and permanent level.

He sees the Fanatics—and the way they add to the atmosphere of watching a Canadian Premier League match—as a way to help both Vancouver FC thrive long-term.

A nation’s own league provides a country’s players with development opportunities, its fans with teams to cheer, and its media with more teams and players to cover and spotlight. It also allows a nation to control its own footballing fate in a way that Canadian teams participating in Major League Soccer does not.

The Canadian Premier League might still be in its infancy, but Meisenheimer sees it being the thing that makes soccer here more like football experienced across the globe.

“It’s just kind of how football is around the world,” he said. “This was an opportunity to help our country establish its own league and grow from there. That’s what I think has drawn a lot of people.”

And sometimes, being a Fanatic is just a way to hang out with—or meet—friends.

“It’s a very eclectic group of people who have diverse backgrounds, who might not see everything in the world the same, but they love their football club together,” he said.

“Being involved in this group and other groups I’ve been involved with… has been a great place to make friends. It’s people you come together with where, whatever else is going on in your life or no matter what else is a part of your worldview, you have this one thing that you all care about and are passionate about.”

The ‘Emperor Afshin tifo now regularly adorns Willoughby Community Stadium in the Fanatics’ end.’📷 Vancouver FC

Another year

Last year was a difficult one for Vancouver FC. The club struggled on the pitch, finishing second last in its eight-team league. Meisenheimer said the losses sometimes impacted the excitement in the stadium, although the last half of the season was more positive.

First-year struggles are common for new teams. What matters is not necessarily how that initial year goes, but how a franchise learns and adapts to find stability and competence on the field and off.

For Vancouver FC that has meant bringing in a swath of new players, including several young, BC-bred hopefuls. The goal is to build a team that wins. But Meisenheimer said the BC players also give supporters another way to connect with the squad, creating reasons to cheer on individual performances, even when a game or season might not be going well. That means rooting for players like Maple Ridge-born T.J. Tahid, or North Vancouver’s James Cameron, both of whom have been called on to play for national youth teams.

“There’s a huge level of excitement for these returning players,” Meisenheimer said.

So far in 2024, the results have been good. The club lost its first game, but has won its next two, suggesting it will be competitive this season.

No matter what the outcome, the Fraser Valley Fanatics will be there.

Every fan is different. Some like to sit and watch with detachment. Others like to sing and dance and wave flags. Some build connections with a club over time. For others, a single game is enough to build a lifetime attachment to a team.

For some, soccer is life. For others, it’s an escape, and a chance to get away from everything else in the world.

Being a supporter doesn’t necessarily even mean standing all game in a supporter’s section, or knowing every player’s name immediately. Mostly, it just means being together and united, at least for 90 minutes.

How to be a supporter

There are few barriers to attending the game alongside the Fraser Valley Fanatics.

Meisenheimer said newcomers are welcome and appreciated, and organizers are happy to provide guidance about how to take part and the best places to stand to get a good view. He suggested can get in touch with himself or other organizers through the group’s social media channels on Facebook and X, by email, or by introducing themselves at the game.

The group typically cheers on in the south stands in Section N, which is a general admission standing section. If you wish to sit, you’ll need to get a ticket in the grandstands on the sides of the fields, but you can still spend part of the game in the Fanatics’ section.

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