Interview by Alex Baker
Goalkeeper Stefan Frei is collaborating with his club, the Seattle Sounders, and Delta Air Lines on a unique fan-based art project involving one of soccer’s most iconic traditions – tifo – the Italian term used to describe the spectacular visual displays fans create in stadia around the world.
“The Fabric of Sounders FC” is a tifo collaboration with fans under the creative direction of Frei, who in addition to being one of the standout keepers in Major League Soccer is a talented artist in his own right.
Frei, who was born in Switzerland but grew up in Northern California, spoke to IMS about the project, his own longstanding interest in art, and about the unique fan culture in Seattle.
IMS: So tell me about the “The Fabric of Sounders FC” project.
SF: Yeah of course so the project that we’re working on is in collaboration with Delta, and essentially what it is, I designed this project, it’s a huge display maybe 200 feet wide and 75 feet high that’s going to be unveiled at one of our games toward the end of the year. The really cool unique thing about this project is that although I’m the one who designed it, and I have actually already finished the design, I won’t be the one putting paint to canvas so to speak.
What we’re doing is having community activations throughout the year where fans can get involved. They can actually come to these events and they can literally put paint to canvas. It really kind of is a unique way to involve the community because some people, some fans simply can’t do that, whether it be, you know, they’re little kids, who obviously can’t make it to a supporters group meeting, or something else. So this gives them a chance to get involved, to help in this project and hopefully see their big project in our stadium.
IMS: Very cool. How did you get involved in art?
SF: When I grew up in Switzerland I had to take the train to school and soccer practice quite a lot. In Switzerland, as in a lot of places in Europe, graffiti is still very predominant, especially when you’re peeking out a train window.
So I was always fascinated by it, graffiti, especially old school graffiti and you know I kind of started doodling on my own, always doodled on up to high school where I took some art classes, nothing major, but I always enjoyed it.
As I grew in my soccer career, art became kind of a little bit of an escape from the mental pressure of being a goalkeeper. You can make a mistake and it’s fine. In fact it might lead to something nice and positive. So it’s a really nice escape.
I enjoy it and obviously its turned into some bigger things as of late. I helped Adidas launch our jersey earlier this year by designing a shirt and I think the response to that was quite good and just trying to do other things, and enjoying through my art and opening it up to the outer world and giving it a bit of a taste of what I work on when I do my art.
IMS: Is it common for pro soccer players to be as dedicated to an outside pursuit as you are? I haven’t really talked to anyone else I can remember who is.
SF: I don’t know. On my team I don’t think there’s anybody else really into art, but most players have some kind of outlet, whether its golf or video games or whatever something that you do to kind of get away from it all. For me it’s art, I really like art. It’s more than just a hobby.
Who knows in the end when I’m forced to retire, which I know inevitably will happen, what am I going to do you know? [Art] helps me currently with my career in terms of keeping me mentally healthy and maybe down the road it will open a path that I can pursue.
IMS: Do you think that in an alternate life you might have been an artist or a graphic designer or something?
SF: Yeah it’s funny, I went to UC Berkeley and my number one thing I wanted to major in was art and unfortunately, with the commitment to soccer that wasn’t going to be possible. And my second choice was going to be architecture which to me is also a form of art that I’m really interested in and unfortunately that wasn’t feasible either so I had to end up studying something else. So I’m mostly self-taught at this point.
IMS: So the current project is centered around tifo, are you really into tifo or was that just sort of the right medium for this project?
SF: Tifo is a pretty broad term—tifo coming from the Italian word for fans – and tifo was then taken as a display by fans to support a team that encompasses what we know as tifo today; the big banners.
But the way that we’ve done here, it’s a huge canvas, it’s a huge piece and what it allows is, with the backing of Delta, is to take some smaller parts of the huge canvas and to kind of take the smaller parts out to the community and allow them to paint those parts and sew them back in.
IMS: In Seattle, you’re lucky to have one of the biggest, most rabid MLS fan-bases. I know you were in Toronto before, what do you think makes Seattle such a hotbed for fans and fun culture? I know a lot of clubs envy the support you guys have.
SF: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. When I was at Toronto I think the fans they were, I think before the Sounders joined the league, some of the best fans you had in the league. I think what makes the crowd in Seattle very unique, besides that it’s very loud and the atmosphere in the stadium is amazing, it’s always attended very well and everybody participates. It’s not just the supporters’ section that chants. So it makes it much louder it makes us one big vicious cauldron, it’s an unbelievable atmosphere.
But the other thing, and I don’t know who to credit this to, but the overall atmosphere is very positive. One of the issues I found in Toronto was that for some reason a few of the media outlets seem to thrive on negativity, always trying to find the headline that would get the most clicks or whatever. But it put unnecessary pressure on a team that obviously already had a lot of pressure on them. I mean you wanted to do well for the fans, you wanted to finally get in the playoffs you wanted to do those things for your own sake and the fans.
Here it’s never been the case. It’s always been positivity from the media from the fans, the support is always positive. And trust me with that being said we don’t go ‘we know everybody’s happy so we don’t have to work hard.’
No in fact, it’s the other way we put even more pressure on ourselves to want to reward that positivity and support that we get. Ultimately that environment can only create something good, and I think that Seattle as a community as a whole, one of its advantages is its positivity.
Photos courtesy of Stefan Frei.