Julio Ramos (LAFC: The 3252): “MLS supporters speak the same language but just wear different colors”
In just a few years, LAFC’s The 3252 supporter group have earned a reputation as one of the most passionate fanbases in MLS with ‘community’ key to their activities.
AS USA caught up Julio ‘El Chiva Mayor’ Ramos, director of the Independent Supporters Union for LAFC, The 3252. Ramos is also one of the leaders of District 9 ultras and the conversation reflected on the origin of one of the most active groups in MLS fan culture and the key role that supporters can play in the development of the sport Stateside.
With LAFC being one of the newer clubs in MLS, how do individuals and groups go about starting a fan collective? What’s the process?
The club was founded on October 30, 2014. As soon as the franchise was announced, that’s when we got to work, with activity getting underway early in 2015. It’s been a long but positive process. The ownership group and the fans knew that it would take a ‘street by street’ approach to be able to build what we have right now in the North End. We had to convince the community and the ‘Angelenos’ that we were ready. There are so many people here who love football, they just never got the right product. We had to convince people that LAFC was going to be something unique in that it was going to be something different from other MLS teams, especially the one that was already here in the city of Carson (LA Galaxy). But it was definitely a hard work process and all done on a community basis for sure.
Was there an element of taking the old Chivas USA fanbase and trying to transform this into something new, was that how the process worked?
Not necessarily. In terms of District 9 ultras, we were part of the Chivas USA thing that ceased to exist. Ahead of that I had contact with Don Garber (MLS Commissioner) and we felt that it was important that football stayed in the city of Los Angeles amid rumors of a new club in San Diego. I would say that 85% of the current LAFC fanbase had nothing to do with Chivas USA and you have a lot of people that love football and were just looking for the right thing. Change was necessary and you can see that, in a short time LAFC has become an iconic team and represents the city in so many different ways.
Today, The 3252 are seen as one of the best supporters groups in MLS, that’s a major accomplishment in such a short period of time.
It’s been hard work and I still get fans from other clubs asking about how we did things. I always tell them that every city is different but LA is unique. We had to tell people that they would have a once in a lifetime opportunity of starting from zero and that they could all be part of that history. Plenty of people got this message and I think what you see now is a result of that process.
At what point in time and why did the various fan groups decide to unify under the 3252 umbrella?
There were a number of different groups at the time such as the Black Army, the Expos, the Luckys, Cuervos and District 9 ultras. We all understood that for us to be able to be successful as a supporter group, we had to work under one name and that was a must and was our goal since day one. We saw this with The Timbers Army - in that collective there are many smaller groups but they all love Portland Timbers. We know that there are different egos, and all of our groups are unique and are different in their own way. So we came to this common ground where The 3252 represents all of us and we understood how important it was to work under this umbrella.
Unlike other fan cultures such as Liga MX, we don’t see violence at MLS games. What’s the message that makes MLS stadiums a safe place?
Sadly, violence and football exists but it’s how you respond and go about it that can make the difference. You can see fights here in MLS and some fans are inspired by the South American ‘Barra Brava’ culture, where they look to steal scarves or banners as ‘trophies’. I think here that law enforcement is more stringent, you mess around and you’ll get punished. Most of the fans here, with the exception of that small minority who feel they are ‘Barra Brava’ or hooligans, are focused on making the stadiums and matchday safe experiences where you can bring your kids. Of course in our group we have fans who are crazy and want to get down, but we try and ensure that football is a place where everybody feels they belong and that’s the constant message we want to send as The 3252. The MLS are good too at clamping down on violence but we all need to keep an eye on this issue. It’s the way you react that is key. It was the same with the homophobic ‘puto’ chant, we were clear that it would not be accepted and our incisive reaction was effective.
How is your relationship with the front office? How much collaboration and dialogue takes place between The 3252 and the football club?
We have great communication with the club and we get together with John Torrington (LAFC General Manager) three times a year and we talk about the team. We also spent time with Steve Cherundolo when he was hired and we told him of our ambitions and that we wanted to win an MLS Cup. We have a very open relationship with the club, when we don’t like something we let them know and it works the other way around also. I think that’s been a big part of the success that we have as a club and I think it’s something that we have to continue to with.
Watching MLS supporters groups evolve is intriguing as they seem to take the best elements from European and South American fan culture…. Is this a fair assessment?
100%. Too many times we get people from from Europe or South America and Mexico saying: “You guys are fake, you guys are plastic, you get paid to support, you know nothing about football.” I tell them that there’s nothing better than supporting your city. I’m an adopted ‘Angeleno’ and this place gave me everything I have and I’m pretty sure the rest of us feel the same way. When it comes to our support culture and that of many of the newer teams, we took the best of all the cultures - you know, European style, Latino style and even ‘soccer mom’ style - and mix it all together and make something really, really fun and really good and really enjoyable for stadium goers. So many times we’ve had overseas players comment on the incredible atmosphere at the Banc, or BMO and I think we are open minded to be able to be this ‘hybrid hinchada’.
What supporter groups do you admire or get inspiration from around the world?
Borussia Dortmund’s ‘Yellow Wall’ is massively impressive when it comes to tifos and coreos. I love what San Lorenzo in Argentina do and the PSG ultras put on great displays too. We certainly get inspired by them and there are times for me when football is more than just the result. We as a group are interested in checking out new chants, how they use smoke and flares, and there are certainly groups out there who inspire us daily.
Within most MLS fan groups and certainly at LAFC, inclusivity and tolerance seem to be the key ingredients, with fans from different backgrounds and cultures standing shoulder to shoulder. Why do you feel this is the case in the US?
I think the answer is that it has a lot to do with the leadership. If we go back to the homophobic chant that was being used in the first season, we resolved it in a decisive way. We went public and were clear that if this is hurtful to some then it has to change. The 3252 leadership were on the same page and sent a strong message. If we ever hear anyone using the ‘puto’ chant in the North End, we take it upon ourselves to eject them from the stadium and I think others would think twice when they see strong leadership.
Apart from the obvious (LA Galaxy), has LAFC and The 3252 built up other heated MLS rivalries?
I think obviously our rivalry with LA Galaxy is a positive one and I hope that’s not sidetracked with tension and violence, as I feel we’re building a rivalry for many, many years to come, so we (fans on both sides) should do all we can to protect it. Our second main rivals, I would say, are Portland: games against the Timbers are always intense. In the past we’d always roll over in Portland and for the first time last season the players stood firm and that’s when I knew we could win MLS Cup. I can also see a healthy rivalry emerging with Austin FC and they have great fans who create a fantastic atmosphere. They did their homework and I’d even modestly say, they learned from the best.
Has politics seeped into US fan culture? I recall NYCFC had an issue a few years back with some far right fans?
In a strange way that incident affected MLS in a positive way. It made us show the world how united we are and that we’re not gonna take that crap. It is great to see the rest of the supporters united for one cause and show a message that that type of behavior will not be welcomed in our stadiums.
Many European fans groups have built up friendships over the years (Celtic and St Pauli, Olympiacos and Red Star Belgrade, etc…) Have you forged any of these relationships with any other groups in the US or in other countries?
For us a game of football is more than 90 minutes and I remember when we played Mexican side León in the CONCACAF championship we saw an orphanage literally like four blocks away from the stadium and we took some of the kids to the game and it was their first time watching a live football match. The Club León fans are generally known to be hostile to visiting supporters and after our gesture was reported in local news, the home fans applauded us and at times we have to put aside our rivalry. We did something similar in Costa Rica, where we worked with the Alajuelense ‘La Doce’ fans and their club’s front office in providing for kids in another orphanage. I always say that football goes above and beyond and is more than just 90 minutes on the field. It really can be a tool that can help you to change the world for good.
We’ll continue to drive these initiatives in whatever country we visit and we’ve been involved in similar gestures here in San Jose, Colorado and in Utah. Our aim is to make football more about community. Of course, during that 90 minutes in the stands, you’re my enemy man and I hope you lose, but before and after, we can be friends.
Football, as we’ve seen, has the power to stop wars, it changes lives and that’s the beauty of the game. Of course we have friends with different fan groups in MLS. Some people within MLS culture see that as a negative. You know, how can you be friends with other supporters? For us, it’s very simple… when you love football and you want supporter culture to grow, you have to realise that we speak the same language but just wear different colors.