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"Pusi kurac, Chicago!"
Seated twenty rows behind the visiting team's goal box, Sani Zigic and the STL Fanaticos launch into a cryptic-sounding chant after a breakaway score by midfielder Novica Marojevic puts the Chicago Storm up 5-3 in the third quarter of a Major Indoor Soccer League contest between the Storm and Zigic's beloved St. Louis Steamers. As the referee sets the ball at midfield to restart play, the chant grows louder, echoing throughout the mostly empty Savvis Center as the Fanaticos, two dozen strong, holler in unison to the beat of a banging kick drum in Section 110: "Pusi kurac, Chicago!"
English translation: "Suck on a dick, Chicago!"
"The great thing is, if they swear in Bosnian, security won't get on their case," quips Justin McLaughlin, one of two token American-born Fanaticos. (The other is Johnny Lange, a stocky, snuff-dipping cowboy from Oakville who "just loves fan culture.")
Two hours earlier, as the Fanaticos begin gathering at sunset in the parking lot of the Burlington Coat Factory (where the 21-year-old Zigic clerks) on South Kingshighway, the mood is considerably less manic.
"I can't even smell alcohol after last night," laments 23-year-old Medo Coralic, a former Soldan High soccer standout who now earns his keep as a valet at the Cupples Station Westin. Coralic is coming off a Saturday-night bender at Club Europe on Washington Avenue, a regular hangout for the mostly single, mostly twentysomething Fanaticos. As tricked-out rigs pull into the parking lot, some blaring European dance music, Zigic's seventeen-year-old sister, Ajla, nods at another favorite nightspot, Club Luna, which shares its parking acreage with her brother's employer.
"Saturday night, when people are drunk -- that's when we recruit," the younger Zigic imparts.
As if on cue, a Fanatico pulls a six-pack of Corona and a large blue-and-orange (Steamers colors) flag out of the trunk of his sedan. Besides beer, the Fanaticos tend to favor bright-orange jerseys, scarves from their favorite Eastern European club teams and cologne.
Lots of cologne.
The group was born via word of mouth and the Internet after Sani Zigic and Zlatan "Purger" Kordic attended an early-season home game. The Fanaticos, most of whom are immigrants who came to St. Louis from the former Yugoslavia, consider themselves to be "Ultra Fans." This, according to their Web site (www.stlfanaticos.com), means they "actively support the team during the whole game.
"They are the ones starting every cheer. They are peaceful group, but if provoked are ready to 'return a favor,'" continues the Fanaticos' online credo, penned by Webmaster Akif Cogo in enthusiastic broken English. "They are not afraid to get into any kind of conflict with other groups."
"Last [Steamers game], people were just sitting and watching," adds Dzejna Kurbegovic, a female Fanatico. "Why would you do that?"
The ideal bleacher atmosphere would include torches and smoke bombs, if you ask Edo Kordic, Purger's brother. Which is not to say the Fanaticos should be mistaken for stateside cousins of soccer fandom's notorious "hooligan" element.
"In Europe they set the other team's buses on fire," Ajla Zigic imparts as her cohorts jump up and down in the parking lot, drinking, waving their giant flag and singing soccer anthems.
True, in America soccer is a far more sedate affair. The game -- especially the indoor version -- has been positioned to ride to prominence on the backs of families, not Fanaticos. There's a reason the term "soccer mom" is ubiquitous in popular vernacular. Youth leagues thrive.
And first-year Steamers owner Michael Hetelson, whose team is currently a half-game out of first place in the seven-team MISL, isn't buying any of it.
"Soccer has a very strong youth movement, so some marketing genius decided to sell indoor soccer as family entertainment, much like minor-league baseball," says Hetelson, the 36-year-old Pennsylvania-based owner and founder of MMT Solutions, an interactive communications company. "I disagree with that. If [families] come to two or three games per year, they're doing their part. But they're not buying a lot of concessions, and they're not crazy fans. If we could have 20,000 fans like the Fanaticos, that'd be great.
"People say soccer sells itself," Hetelson adds pointedly. "Soccer doesn't sell itself."
By all accounts, Hetelson is a very good salesman. It's the productthat many people -- including those closest to him -- have grave doubts about. And Michael Hetelson is betting hard-earned money that he can prove them wrong.
For almost as long as there has been indoor soccer in St. Louis, there has been Daryl Doran. Now 41 years old and having recently set the all-time record for professional games played indoors, Doran, who pulls double duty as the Steamers' head coach, still ranks among the league's elite players. A native St. Louisan and graduate of CBC High School, he joined the Steamers in 1982 after one year at Saint Louis University when he was selected seventh overall in the MISL draft.
Back then the team outdrew most professional hockey teams, averaging upward of 16,000 fans per game at the old Arena on Oakland Avenue. The team attracted that sort of following well into the late 1990s, when they were known intermittently as the Storm and Ambush of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) and shuttled between a handful of different owners. The Ambush folded in 2000, whereupon the club promptly relaunched in St. Charles under the original Steamers moniker. But the franchise has had a hard time getting its mojo back. The Steamers hit rock bottom last year, posting a lackluster 14-22 mark and struggling to attract even a few thousand fans per game to the Family Arena in St. Charles.