How a Tifo Gets Made
A picture-by-picture account of how Cloud 9, the supporters group for NJ/NY Gotham FC of the NWSL, made its amazing Headless Horsewoman tifo on Sunday.
Cloud 9 doesn’t do a tifo—a fancy Italian soccer word for a large banner hung from the stadium rafters—for every home game of NJ/NY Gotham FC, the National Women’s Soccer League team that the fan group devotes itself to.
It usually does one for the home opener, for Pride Night and for special occasions. When the supporters group realized that the team’s final home game of the regular season fell on Halloween, that was reason enough to begin planning a spooky tifo.
Three of the group’s leaders in its intentionally loose hierarchy, Jen Muller, Melissa Correa and Natalie Lazo, who all work as creatives, began brainstorming back in August. Once they’d settled on a theme of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman character—only re-gendered, of course—from his classic short The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, they began sketching, fleshing out the details and caption.
They settled on “Protect Ya Neck,” borrowing from the Wu Tang Clan, as they often do.
Muller learned to make tifos through her other fan group, the New York Red Bulls’ Empire Supporters Club. And she has transposed those skills onto Gotham FC, which shares Red Bull Arena and was rebranded from Sky Blue FC last year. By now, Muller has lost count of how many tifos she has helped to hand-paint. Although she remembers the one for a U.S. women’s national team game that couldn’t be used because it was too windy—the one that got away.
When the Halloween design was finalized, Cloud 9 bought a 20-by-100-foot roll of 6-millimeter black plastic sheeting, cut it in half and glued together the two pieces to make it just under 40 feet by 50 feet in size.
Assembly began on Oct. 23, more than a week before the game. “If I wasn’t at Red Bull Arena, I was at Home Depot picking up supplies,” Muller tells me on Monday, still hoarse from a weekend of shouting on her two teams.
Red Bull Arena lets the fans use their parking lots and stadium concourse to create their oversized art. The stadium has always been gracious about that, even going back to when Sky Blue played at little Yurcak Field on the Rutgers University campus. The women’s club’s full-time move to the Arena full-time for the 2020 season allowed its fans to scale up their tifo ambitions. The physical infrastructure of a real arena gave them a roof from which to suspend their canvases, rather than just some bleachers beside a field.
Sketching the design onto the sheeting was finished by Monday night. But time was already getting tight. On Tuesday and Thursday, there would be events at Red Bull Arena, preventing work on the tifo. And on Saturday, the Red Bulls had a home game. So on Wednesday night, Muller and her crew of designers and volunteers began applying indoor latex paint. They finished up on Friday, pulling an all-nighter in a rainstorm that made space even tighter, forcing them to roll up the sheeting as soon as it dried.
“We had people painting and then people following them with hairdryers to dry it as quickly as possible,” Muller says.
They hung the banners after the Red Bull game on Saturday and then, on Sunday morning, mounted it onto the pole from which it would be unfurled.
The whole thing cost just over $400 in materials, and dozens of hours of work.
“It’s a labor of love,” Muller says. “It’s a visual representation of our support for the team. It’s one of those things in supporter culture that is always done. It’s like making scarves. And it’s also an event where you can get your members together outside of gameday. We had a lot of new people who had never worked on tifo before. And whether they’re painting or blow-drying or acting as a human sandbag, they’re contributing.”
At length, just after 3pm on Sunday, the tifo was raised.
“It’s always well received but this one blew up [Cloud 9’s social media] mentions,” Muller says. “[Retiring national team and club legend] Carli [Lloyd] shouted it out during her speech after the game, which was surprising but very much appreciated. I wouldn’t say we do it for the accolades but it’s nice getting them. Especially from the people who support rival teams. It does feel good when you get that because we’re always trying to outdo ourselves. Your next tifo you always want to make better than the last. We have all offseason to step it up.”