As the saying goes, every day is a new day and November 27, 2012 is one that we may remember for a long time. On this day, Toronto FC supporters woke up to rumours and eventual confirmation that we would have a new President. At the same moment in history, those in DC woke up to the knowledge that they had lost a true friend. Kevin Payne was no longer with the team.
While the best of times, worst of times analogy can apply to the way both cities received the news, it can also apply to the current state of support in Toronto.
Even the staunchest TFC supporter has to recognize that we are at a low point in our relationship with this club. Results on the pitch combined with distrust and anger have resulted in apathy and disconnect between groups. Debating whether this sentiment is misplaced is not the point, our relationship with the team and in some cases each other is broken.
Is Kevin Payne the man to fix it?
With that question in mind, I reached out to Oscar Zambrana, founder of La Barra Brava, to ask him about Kevin Payne and what Toronto FC supporters could expect as we move into a new era. La Barra Brava is DC United's largest supporters group. Founded in 1995, it maintains a membership of over 1,800 composed of over 30 nationalities and is proud of its unparalleled passion. Like our own groups, they bring the "atmosphere" to each and every game as well as hosting social events, tailgates and fundraisers to benefit the local community.
He graciously agreed to speak with me. When I realized how tough this day was for him based on his relationship with Payne, I have much respect for how quickly he was willing to offer his opinion. Our conversation went like this:
MG: How would you describe Kevin Payne?
Oscar: I have known him since day one. He is passionate and very supportive of supporters' culture. As an example, from day one he worked with us to bring in drums as the stadium wouldn't allow it to happen. He is the one that made it happen with the stadium manager.
He's honest and I have a lot of respect for him. You are getting a good one.
MG: As a supporter, what has been your most memorable moment?
Oscar: It goes back to Kevin Payne and Foxboro in '97. This was the first MLS Cup final and the weather was horrible. We came back from behind and won the cup. Kevin came down to stands and down on the field, looked for me, found me and he joined us. We hugged, danced. I'll never forget that.
MG: Can you describe what it means to be a part of La Barra Brava?
Oscar: I consider the group like a big family. We share tailgates, watch games together and do a lot of fundraising. In short, we help each other. One thing really meant a lot to me. This year was tragic. I lost a cousin, Javier "Chico" Solares, and the group got together and raised over $10,000 to cover the cost of the funeral. I'll never forget that.
MG: DC United, though successful, hasn't always had championship years. What has kept your group together during the tougher times?
Oscar: When you treat people right, and make them feel comfortable, there is no reason to leave. We all care for each other. Try to keep everyone happy and organize events. The more we see each other the closer we feel. When people come down for a game or two or come to a tailgate they get hooked by the way the members and elders treat the people.
MG: In Toronto, we seem to talk a lot lately about protesting. Have you ever felt the need to protest a direction the team was taking?
Oscar: We did a protest one time, Fire the Coach or something like that, and it happened. But we really didn't feel the need to protest. We had an open door with Kevin. If something was wrong or we were concerned about the direction, we just approached Kevin and asked how are we going to fix it. He had an open door. He treated us right since day one, we kind of keep up the same mutual respect for each other. There is no sense in kicking someone when they are down. We knew he wanted to fix whatever is wrong as much as we did.
MG: Can you describe your relationship with the Front Office? Has it always been this way?
Oscar: Open. Honest. Always. It never changed with Kevin.
MG: Did he ever have to "reprimand" your group or your members for actions in the stands such as smoke bombs or other infractions?
Oscar: He was always straight up. If you do it again, you aren't coming back. Again, it is about mutual respect.
MG: When you heard the news that Payne was leaving, what was your reaction?
Oscar: My friend scared me, saying we lost Kevin. I almost fainted. I thought he meant he died. After I realized he wasn't and wasn't to going be a part of DC United, I was in shock. He is a friend, he is going to be my friend for life.
MG: What can Supporters Groups in Toronto expect under his leadership?
Oscar: Communication will be the first thing. He knows what supporters passion is like. You have a great guy in there. Toronto is going to be a lot better than what you think you are right now
MG: Anything else you'd like to add?
Oscar: I wish him good luck and we hate to see him leave. The world spins around and we'll have to pick ourselves up. We shared so many great times, it's just hard to believe.