Springtime at Finley Stadium, and the smell of soccer is in the air again. On Saturday, May 11, 7:30 p.m., a large crowd will gather to watch the boys in blue and white race up and down the pitch chasing a round white ball. But first the crowd will be treated to a rowdy parade of dozens of people filing into the stadium. They’ll settle into one end of the stadium, where they will accompany the match with a variety of hoots, hollers, songs, chants, drumming and blasts on vuvuzelas.
Clearly, these people are having way too much fun.
Meet the Chattahooligans, superfans of both the Chattanooga Football Club and Chattanooga itself. Bill Bolen has been there from the beginning. “I became involved once I heard there would be a team in Chattanooga,” Bolen says. “I wanted to make sure the team had a vocal supporters’ group. I got together with a few friends I thought might be interested, we formed a group and chose a name, ‘The Chattahooligans.’ Then we started to spread the word about the group and the team.”
In Europe, as sports fans know, the “hooligans,” particularly the English ones, are not regarded as a positive force in the game of football. But as Bolen explains it, the whole idea behind the Chattahooligans has always been team support and a party atmosphere. “For me, that's the most fun way to watch a sporting event, jumping up and down, cheering on the home team, waving flags, jeering the visiting team,” he says. The jeering, which can escalate to harassment in Europe, is all good-natured here, he says—although it can have an effect. “There was a game against Atlanta, where we had a good, loud crowd and set as a goal to get under the skin of the Atlanta coach,” he says. “I think we did our job. He eventually was ejected from the sideline.”
Bolen brought in friend and improv theatre colleague Kevin Bartolomucci, who, as an enormous man in a Viking outfit, is hard to miss at CFC matches.
Unlike Bolen, “I am not a sports fan at all,” Bartolomucci says. But after attending a US vs. Paraguay, and then a US vs. Canada match, he began to see the appeal of both soccer and soccer fandom. “It was all positive energy,” he says. “At the Canada game, the US fans began chanting, ‘Where’s our syrup?’ I feed off that crowd energy.”
Now, he says, “I take great pride in being an original Chattahooligan,” and has discovered that soccer is “nonstop action, which makes it fun to watch.”
Bolen, Bartolomucci and others use their improv skills to create songs and chants on the spot to match what is happening on the field. “Once the group sang ‘Darth Vader’s Theme’ for over a minute…and if someone gets ejected, they get to hear ‘Hit the Road, Jack,’” says Bartolomucci. “Once we get started, we do not shut up.”
Chattahooligan Galen Riley, like many Americans, was a diehard American football fan who began to pay more attention to soccer during the run-up to the World Cup and the Olympics. In summer 2009, he attended a CFC match, only to notice a group of “crazy people having a lot more fun than I was.”
Riley meandered over to see what they were up to and is now a confirmed convert to Chattahooliganism. “We are intentionally not violent or vulgar. What we like to say is that we are incredibly rowdy but proudly PC,” he says, explaining that the group sees itself as promoting Chattanooga as well as the CFC. Membership, which basically just means showing up and sitting with the group, has grown exponentially, and “at the last home game, there were about 250 people sitting with us,” he says, of which more than a third are women.
CFC loves their Chattahooligans
“It’s so great what they do,” says Krue Brock, CFC director. “We wanted to give Chattanooga something else to cheer about,” and no one is cheering more than this group.
“The players absolutely appreciate it,” he says. “Most of them say they have never played for a team that has support like this.”
“We usually have at least a dozen people going to away games as well, “ says Riley. “We dominate the stands there…we heard one opposing coach said that his team needed people tailgating in the parking lot that weren’t from Chattanooga.”
“They create a rhythm that coincides with the rhythm of the game,” says Brock. “It adds a layer of complexity.” He notes that the crowds for CFC games are very diverse, encompassing various age, economic and national demographics and that the Chattahooligans increasingly represent that also. “You can learn from other cultures about how to cheer,” he says. Brock also notes that at least two sponsors last season came in because they appreciated the Chattahooligans’ enthusiasm.
“The players say that a crowd behind them can make a difference in the outcome,” says Riley. “When we shout ‘Chatta,” the rest of the crowd responds ‘Nooga!’ And we can see that some of our taunts to the other team sometimes raise a smile or a chuckle from the players.”
Tailgating Chattahooligan Style
One of the best ways to join the group, which is open to anyone, is to join their tailgating party in Finley’s North parking lot from 4 p.m. on for night games. “It’s gotten so we coordinate a bit on who’s bringing what,” says Riley, “but everyone is welcome. Just bring something to share!”
The tradition last year extended to CFC’s coach, who got in the habit of coming out to the tailgate for a hotdog—which quickly became a superstition, says Riley, in which the coach was presented with a ceremonial lucky hot dog. “The players were asking the coach before the match, ‘Did you have your hot dog?’”
“If you want to, dress up,” says Bartolomucci. “Or you can just wear CFC colors, or just come as you are. It only costs $5 to get in to see a match—it’s some of the cheapest fun in Chattanooga.”
“We’re hoping for 5,000 people for the opening match,” says Brock. “It would be great to see 1,000 of them jumping in with the Chattahooligans.”
If so, expect to hear them all the way to the Aquarium on Saturday night. The group’s Facebook page, facebook.com/TheChattahooligans, recently posted: “Harbor Freight has cowbells for $2.99 and restocks on Monday. If someone wants to buy 'em out and donate them to Galen for giveaways at Finley, we wouldn't mind one bit.”
Opening match: Chattanooga Football Club vs. Rocket City United
7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 11
Finley Stadium, 1826 Carter St.
Beer and concessions available.