Chicago Fire fan culture began in the Spring and Summer of 1997, with the establishment of Barn Burners 1871. The group formed as a precursor to the announcement of Chicago’s selection as a site for the league’s first expansion team, and spent the time prior to the club founding in October of that year laying groundwork for an organization dedicated to the needs of the nascent fan base. BB1871, along with original club GM Peter Wilt, selected Section 8 at Soldier Field as a designated standing area to encourage the style of fandom traditionally seen globally in soccer, at sporting events worldwide, and in college athletics in America.
The experiment was an instant success, drawing large numbers on the way to the Fire’s league championship that first season; and established the club and Fire supporters as leaders of the movement in North America.
The Fire Ultras, originally inhabitants of Section 9 in the opposite South End corner, chose to move into Section 8 in 1999, an event credited as the true beginning of “Section 8″ as it is known now. By mixing the American style of BB1871 with the continental European ultras style of FU98 in a way that could only happen in Chicago sports, a completely new, vibrant, and infectious blend occurred.
The result was a great success and led to permanent cohabitation in the section, soon followed by the establishment of new groups within the whole. Despite an adversarial relationship with stadium security forces, the “controlled chaos” attracted many new fans with Section 8 often swelling past 1000 persons and taking over two sections for matches in 2000 and 2001; when the Fire was home to American and international favorites like Nowak, Stoitchkov, Kubik, Bocanegra, Beasley, Wynalda, and Armas.
In 2002, renovations of Soldier Field forced the club to temporarily move to a smaller neighborhood stadium in western Naperville. Restrictive policies at this college campus and comparatively poor performance by the club stifled growth, but the move introduced behind-the-goal seating to Section 8. The entire north stand was designated as a supporters’ area, and the close proximity to the field led to a greater unity between the supporters, the rest of the stadium, and the players on the field. The small stadium also allowed some more creative elements to take root, with larger flags and banners being constructed by groups to express devotion; or at one memorable cup quarterfinal, the complete relocation of Section 8 to the opposite end at half-time to the surprise and disgust of the visiting goalkeeper.
The return to Soldier Field in 2003 saw Section 8 take root behind the south goal at the renovated facility. The additional space led to a movement of spreading banners along the walls of the field and upper tiers throughout the stadium. Also, in the traditional European style, large organized pre-match visuals (or “tifo”) became standard for bigger matches and incorporated fans throughout the South End and stadiumwide. Also in 2003, the Section 8 Chicago ISA was founded as an independent non-profit umbrella organization to administer fan activities, coordinate with the Chicago Fire Soccer Club, and work as a community presence.
2004 and 2005 were lower years with stagnating performance by the team. The low point occurred in 2005 with the shocking dismissal of club president Peter Wilt by ownership. But this nadir energized the base in a way not seen in years as fans organized a large protest at the next match, wearing black and staying out of the seats for the first 8 minutes in a show of solidarity with the former club president; and taking their case to the media in Chicago and nationwide.
The club moved to its newest home at 71st Street and Harlem Avenue in Spring of 2006. Section 8 took up their residence in Sections 117 and 118 on the north side, or “Harlem End” of Toyota Park — so named for the way it overlooks Harlem Avenue. The combined resources of the groups and the ISA quickly brought several large projects to fruition, including the commission of a traditional wooden sign for the player tunnel, funding a brick display at the front archway in honor of former club president Peter Wilt and creating one of the largest fan-produced flags in professional sports – the 80 by 25 yard Megabandera that covered the entire Harlem End. While lost in 2008, its replacement will surpass the original’s size and concept to keep Fire support at the leading edge in North America.
The stability of the ISA and Section 8 since 2006 has enabled continual growth, with ever-larger and longer-term campaigns — despite constant change in that period with management of the Fire and stadium. To cement our collective relationship with the club and ensure its permanence, a club charter project was undertaken to create a document indicating our (including fans, players, staff, ownership) rights and responsibilities as members of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club, and set down what it means to represent the Fire and wear its colors.
The history of “Section 8″, Fire fans, and the ISA is much more detailed than what can be laid out here. Years of work by a multitude of individuals have enabled what we enjoy today, and it’s our contribution today that will determine what we create for the future. By taking part and dedicating yourself, even in a small way, you are ensuring your part in this history — and that it will continue for a long time to come.