By Aaron Tomich/NPSL.com
Walking up the incline of metal stairs, you might pass through a sea of waving flags, painted tifos of blue and yellow, surrounded by sounds of drums pounding, chants yelling. This is the heartbeat of the match. It beats on for the entire 90 minutes, it seems.
People pridefully dressed in their Jacksonville Armada FC colors greet you with warmth and friendship. People from all walks of life, regions of the country and world stand there welcoming you with arms outstretched as you make your way through Section 904, the official supporters section of the club.
The teams make their way onto the pitch and are greeted by the cheers of the masses, knowing that the mood of the match won’t simply be impacted by their play on the field.
“It’s a different way of living the sport,” said Sebastian Cardona, who is the current president and co-founder of Section 904 (named inspired by the Jacksonville, FL area code). “It’s more fun. It’s more involved. You have the feeling that you’re impacting the game and that you’re there as part of the game, not just watching it.”
“The players thrive from the passion and the front office soaks up the feeling of appreciation,” Jacksonville Armada FC President and General Manager Nathan Walter said. “If you have never felt that you need to, it becomes a feeling you crave and keeps moving you forward. We have felt 16,000 people and we have felt 50 people in the stands. No matter what, it’s the same beating heart.”
Cardona boasts how his section, much like many supporters sections around NPSL and soccer clubs globally, brings together fans in unique ways while impacting the game in a firsthand manner.
“I don’t think there’s any other sport that has that connection between the atmosphere and the game,” Cardona said. “[Soccer] is one of the few sports where the fans are actually chanting constantly and it is very organic.”
Growing up, Cardona never liked watching soccer on the television. He preferred being there in-person. He and his family moved to the United States from Colombia when he was just 12 years old, a place where the in-stadium experience easily beat out watching at home.
Cardona’s love for the game has always persisted, and he wanted to bring that South American flair stateside to the teams he began to support. Years later, this led him to find ways to connect with others in the Jacksonville area, simply starting up a supporters section through the means of Twitter group chat communications.
As a leader of Section 904, Cardona does just about everything. From organizing meetings before matches, to distributing the flags and tifos throughout the stands, to playing the drums: he acts as the maestro of the beautiful, raucous chorus that makes up the supporters section.
But, the impact of Section 904 isn’t limited to just the stadium and the pitch. It’s greater in a multitude of ways. The sense and presence of community is strong.
“The relationships you build with those around you, and even with the front office, players and staff of the club are what make it so special,” Cardona said. “Many of the friends that I’ve known now for years, I met them at Armada [FC] and Section 904.”
Walter reemphasized that notion of strong community and togetherness which Jacksonville Armada FC continually strives to create.
“Just like every club globally, the fans and specifically the supporters groups are the beating heart of the organization and veins within the community,” Walter said. “We are very fortunate that with all the adversity our club has faced, we have a loyal group of followers who cheer for us no matter what and no matter how.”
According to Cardona, the impact that his supporters section and Jacksonville Armada FC have is immense. He was proud of the efforts the group has made over the years to support those in need, whether it be through neighborhood cleanups, food drives, and other community-supporting activities.
“We came up with an initiative that was called ‘Armada Supporters Against Discrimination’ where we sold t-shirts, and all the profits from those sales were donated to the organization in that neighborhood,” said Cardona about finding a collective response to social injustice in 2020. “The neighborhood where the new stadium will be located is kind of a marginalized community, so they were people that we really wanted to help out.”
A collective of styles ranging from South American to European to North American, Section 904 is a melting pot of passion for the sport. Cardona prides himself on that aspect of his group. He loves that the chants, the colors of the flags, and music reflects a broad spectrum of culture and influence, and he believes that is what makes the game all the better.
“Being a part of Section 904 and Jacksonville Armada FC means being part of something bigger than yourself,” said Cardona. “That’s the biggest impact, the biggest takeaway from me. Whatever you’re into, wherever you’re from, you can join us.”
Photo Credit: Keith Garrett and Eldy Mendez