Hello, and welcome to American Tifo, a weekly newsletter for, and about, North American soccer supporters. Thank you for being here. If you haven’t already, subscribe! If you’re a member of a supporters group, please consider sharing this with the rest of your SG and encouraging them to subscribe as well.
On the night of August 26th, there was no place more magical than Langford, British Columbia. The sleepy city 20 minutes west of Victoria was the site of one of the greatest upsets in Canadian soccer history, when Canadian Premier League side Pacific FC toppled the Vancouver Whitecaps of MLS in a 4-3 thriller. But a miracle doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The real magic of the night rested with the Pacific FC fans, especially members of its two supporters groups, who packed the stands, displayed ambitious tifos, pulsed with energy all game, and celebrated the epic victory with the players. It was a watershed moment for the league, the club, and the fans.
If Pacific FC supporters have their way, it will be the first of many. Although the club is only two years old, Pacific FC has developed a passionate, burgeoning fan base who have the ingredients and the potential to build something special, and in doing so, make it a reflection of the global nature of the game within Canada.
Blake McStravick caught the supporter culture bug while in Sweden, where it had leaked over into the country’s hockey scene. He followed the thread back to soccer and back home in Victoria he started following the highest level of soccer available on Vancouver Island, the Victoria Highlanders. The USL 2 side was supported by a small but passionate group called the Lake Side Buoys.
“It was an awesome but extremely quaint, at the time, little supporters group,” McStravick said of LSB. “It was like four or five guys, but it was awesome. I got right involved.”
It wasn’t until 2018, with the announcement of a Canadian Premier League, that a pro club on the island seemed like a possibility.
“When the Canadian Premier League was announced, I was tentatively making plans to follow whatever team was close,” said McStravick. “It was kind of a pipe dream that we’d get a team here.”
A city tucked into the southern tip of Vancouver Island, a ferry ride away from both Vancouver and Seattle, Victoria maintains a heavy English influence, from the name itself to the many royal palaces. But with only a semi-professional hockey team and an identity based more on tourism and government, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Victoria was overlooked for a CPL franchise.
But on July 20th, 2018, Pacific FC was unveiled as the CPL’s seventh team. With a crest and colors intricately designed to honor the region, from the Douglas fir shape of the crest to the "starfish purple," "lagoon blue," and "lighthouse white" colors, the announcement was welcomed by soccer fans across the city.
With that announcement, members of the Lake Side Buoys knew it was time to push their limits, to improve both their craft, and their numbers.
“When Pacific FC rolled around, that was the time for me that it was like, ‘We are small, but it’s time for us to punch above our weight,” said McStravick. “We want to do this big stuff, let’s do it.”
With almost zero institutional knowledge, McStravick went online, studying tifos from around the world, diving into Youtube to learn how some of the world’s biggest SGs pull off such pageantry.
For Michael Geldreich, president of the Lake Side Buoys, Pacific FC was an opportunity to provide an expansive gameday experience for any type of fan.
“The things that people are there for in soccer are wildly different,” Geldreich said. “Some people are into the tailgate, other people just like being at a live game. Then there are people who want to get straight into the tactics. Others want to wave flags and play drums. So, knowing that we have this fresh new start with Pacific coming out of nowhere, let’s take the amalgamation of those different supporter things and find a way to make it so that more and more people become aware of all these different facets, so that if one isn’t your jam, don’t worry about it, there’s something else for you.”
As the Lake Side Buoys were reinventing themselves and working on honing their craft, another group of soccer fans in Victoria saw Pacific FC as something different, a window back home.
It is more than 7,000 miles from Porto Alegre, Brazil to Victoria, British Columbia, and when Eduardo Santis came to Canada from Brazil in 2015, he knew he would likely have to leave soccer behind. A diehard Gremio fan, he grew up going to the stadium and became an involved supporter for the club.
“So I had this experience for how it is to be in a supporters group in Brazil,” he said.
Luiz Alberto de Souza came to Victoria from Rio De Janeiro to pursue his education, and, although he, Santis, and a group of other Brazilian expats still played the game constantly, the absence of supporting a club was felt immediately.
“It’s funny because we come to Canada, we love this place, but it’s always missing our soccer spark,” de Souza said. “We’re all from different parts of Brazil so we all support different clubs back home, so sometimes you miss that community, that excitement.”
But then Pacific FC was announced.
“When we heard rumors that there was going to be a Canadian Premier League and there was going to be a team on the island, that was everything for us,” said Santis.
Torcida Organizada Pacific, or T.O.P. was formed.
The group immediately began to draw on their South American roots and knowledge base to bring a high-energy atmosphere to Pacific FC matches, along with a classic Brazilian tailgate, complete with what Santis assures is the best barbecue in Victoria.
“We’re there to play with them and lift them. We’re not here just to sit down and clap during the game,” said de Souza.
Pacific has provided an opportunity for a closeness to the organization that was unheard of in Brazil. Now, the group regularly chats with players and club officials after the match, and trades messages with Pacific FC head coach Pa-Modou Kah on Instagram.
“In Brazil, soccer is such a big institution. After the game here, we talk with the players, we talk with Rob, the president of the club,” said de Souza. “This proximity is something that we didn’t have before. Here, we can go to a bar, and perhaps a player will be there with us. For us, that’s something that we never experienced before at home.”
Throughout Pacific FC’s first three seasons, T.O.P. and the Lake Side Buoys have worked together to create an inclusive environment for all fans, and balance the more European style of the Lake Side Buoys with the South American approach of T.O.P.
“So far we’ve been pretty successful at blending these things and getting to a point where both sides can shine at different times,” McStravick said. “It’s always going to be a work in progress, but I think that really makes it unique and cool, when you have the contrast of chants in Spanish next to Scottish bagpipes.”
As both clubs continued to build, grow, and work together into Pacific’s third season, an opportunity presented itself in the last week of August. Pacific FC would host the Vancouver Whitecaps in the preliminary round of the Canadian Championship as steep underdogs.
This was Pacific FC’s first match against an MLS club, and many of Pacific’s players had come from the Whitecaps Academy system while several members of the coaching staff had ties to the club.
For supporters, it was a chance to stake their claim as independent fans.
“With the Whitecaps being the only pro soccer team in the province for a long time, I think it was assumed that Victoria was part of their ‘territory,’” said McStravick. “So this, to me personally, it was important for us to use this to say, ‘Hey, we’re not Whitecaps Jr. We’re not your little brothers. We’re doing our own thing over here.’”
The Lake Side Buoys and T.O.P. began collaborating on the plans for the game weeks ahead of time.
“This was about putting on an unbelievable event that everyone there would never forget,” said Geldreich. “So a lot of preparation went into that gameday atmosphere.”
The Lake Side Buoys unveiled a tearaway tifo featuring a large wave with the Whitecaps logo with the text “A Sea of Mediocrity” which tore away to reveal Pacific FC colors and the message “An Unstoppable Wave.”
Both groups showed up in full force creating a thunderous atmosphere for the entire match, which Pacific won 4-3.
Photos of the tifo, the famous win, and the raucous atmosphere were seen around the world.
“We wanted to show the league and the country that this is the place to be,” said de Souza. “We wanted to bring the real soccer here.”
“It was amazing,” said Santis. “It was one of the times that we felt like how we used to feel in Brazil.”
There is a saying in Portuguese: Não é só futebol. More than football. This refers to when a club transcends the pitch and becomes part of a community, when the bonds built around the game dwarf the results on the field.
The Lake Side Buoys and T.O.P. have found that with Pacific, and are eager to celebrate it and keep growing.
“I would like to see us make an impact on the fan experience to a level where it’s part of what’s driving attendance,” said McStravick. “I know that’s a pretty lofty goal, but I think it would be really cool to have somebody saying ‘Part of the reason we came to the game was because we were expecting to see something really cool down in your end.’”
“It’s unbelievable,” said Santis. “Nowadays, I feel the same feeling and have the same passion for Pacific as I have for Gremio, and that was something I never thought was going to happen.”
“Here we have the feeling of belonging, and that the club is bigger than soccer,” said de Souza. “It’s not just about soccer, it’s a lot more than that. That’s what was missing to be in Victoria. We love the city, and that’s what was missing to give us a feeling of home.”