Capo Corner: Meet Leo Bopp

Why Capo Corner?
There are 14 matches played each week.  All of them have 22 men battling on the pitch for the W.  But when that battle takes place in the soccer cathedral that is Q2 Stadium, something special happens.  And that something special is created by individuals doing their part to lift our Verde boys when they need to be strengthened.  This will be a recurring series with the purpose of telling their stories, so that the supporter culture of the Austin FC continues to grow deep and wide.

Meet Leo Bopp

Fast Facts:

  • Capo since: 2022
  • Originally from: Frieberg Hessen, Germany
  • Favorite Ausin FC Player: Diego Fagundez & Brad Stuver
  • Favorite Austin beer: Hopsquad’s Dr. Montopolis
  • Favorite Austin FC match: The first home opener vs. San Jose in 2021
  • Favorite Soccer Match He’s Watched: Italy vs Germany in the 1990 World Cup
  • Alter ego: Electrician

Leo Bopp and I sat down over a beer on June 14 at Hopsquad, where he told me a bit of his soccer journey, and what life’s been like as the first deaf capo at Austin FC (and probably the whole of Major League Soccer).
Leo’s journey can be summed up in one word: adaptation.  
Leo’s versatility and adaptability are actually awe-inspiring and a huge asset to the Austin FC community.
Leo’s abitlity to adapt was developed as a boy in Germany, where he played a lot of pickup soccer games in parks and practiced in his backyard, bouncing countless passes off the back wall of his house.  Playing the sport, and cheering for the local Bundesliga team, Eintracht Frankfurt, are what led him to fall in love with soccer. When playing soccer, it didn’t matter that he was deaf, the hearing kids just wanted another guy to make up the teams. So soccer has been a way to break down barriers with hearing people since he was a kid.
This came in handy when he moved to a small town near Syracuse, NY back in 1995.  The German version of sign language he grew up with wasn’t all that helpful for communicating in American Sign Language (ASL), so soccer became another opportunity for him to make friends as a 15 year old in a mainstream high school, in new country.
When he moved to Austin, 10 years ago, it was tough at first, and he struggled with depression at times because he had a hard time figuring out where he fit in.  Finding others who love the sport was an important pathway into finding community here in Austin.
Especially once Austin FC started up…

A Newer Capo, but an OG Verde Fanatic

Leo’s Austin FC story started much like my own, putting down that deposit on season tickets and then waiting until he could finally select his seats.  For the 2021 season, he sat in the north end, feeling overawed by the sights and sounds vibrations of the matchday party vibes that have become synonymous with Q2 Stadium.
At the first home match versus San Jose in 2021 (still his favorite Austin FC match to this day), he sat there with tears in his eyes, overwhelmed by green lights, swaying flags, and vibrations coursing through his body.  He remembers the feeling of the ringing in his ears the next morning, to this day.
By the last match of that season, he was able to meet some members of the La Murga and Los Verdes. One person in particular that  he met that day would end up being key in developing something that is truly unique in all of Major League Soccer.  Mateo was the one who started encouraging Leo to consider capo training. Leo took him up on that offer midway through the 2022 season.  

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This gave birth to a mind-blowing creative/linguistic journey that has given rise to something truly beautiful within the Austin FC community.  This journey involved a lot of curiosity, courage and experimentation on Leo’s part, alongside Stephanie and Anthony.  
EDIT/UPDATE: Somewhere along the way it got lost in translation (literally communicating through an interpreter) how instrumental Kirk Mangum was in Leo’s development as a capo. Kirk was one his biggest champions in the beginning, and he has continued to consistently use the signs he’s learned whenever he’s in the capo stand, whether he’s sure there’s deaf people in the supporters section or not.

There were two obstacles that had to be overcome, first Leo’s lack of Spanish language knowledge, and Spanish sign language.  Once he started to get a handle on all the Spanish verbiage used in all of La Murga’s songs, then he had to get to know the different motions and gestures used by the capos when leading the different songs. Once he figured out those visual queues, he was able to sync his newly invented Spanglish signs with matchday music.

This whole process took months of trial and error, and creative development.  But the fruit of all these labors has been an environment that’s been uniquely inclusive to deaf fans.  The Texas School for the Deaf being situated in Austin (the 3rd largest such school in the US), along with a raucous Q2 Stadium environment, already created the perfect situation for this to happen, but the missing piece of the puzzle was what Leo’s efforts provided.
You see, the wildness of Q2 Stadium is double-edged sword for a deaf person; with its beer showers, bright verde lights, pulsating vibrations it’s definitely attractive to deaf people, but it’s also equally overwhelming and incomprehensible.  

Verde passion needed translation.  Without that, deaf people wouldn’t really feel like they belonged at the party.
Leo’s steadfast efforts to create a verde (Spanglish) sign language that could make the songs and the signs (and even safety) accessible to deaf people was essential.  Things that the hearing take for granted, like being able to call out for water on a hotter-than-hell matchday have been solved through Leo’s leadership – he’s taught the rest of the hearing capos the sign for water, so they can be on the lookout for dehydration amongst the deaf (like they already do for everyone else).  
Learning this was a good reminder for me that capos do more than just keep the musicians in sync with the singers; they provide leadership and a semblance of order in a southend that could otherwise be on the brink of chaos.

From Leo’s Passion, a Community Came Forth

So now a group of 30-40 deaf Austin FC fans now attend matches because the verde culture is accessible to them thanks to Leo’s pioneering efforts.  Each matchday they connect in an area of the stadium they’ve nicknamed the “moth section,” because like moths, they’re drawn to the flame of community.  
They get to catch up on life, and talk about all things Austin FC. Every match there’s group of people who are just as excited about the play in the field as they are to reconnect with their friends, and you can see them fervently signing with smiles on their faces.
 It’s even become a way to build a bridge with the hearing people who are trying to practice their ASL.  Even some of the players  like Diego Fagundez and Brad Stuver have stopped by to interact and try out some signs. Diego even learned his sign name from Leo!

They do their best to be as inclusive and inviting as possible to the genuinely curious hearing Austin FC fans who want to grow in their ability to sign.
Whether it’s because their stadiums don’t physically vibrate the way Austin’s does, or because they haven’t been lucky enough to find a deaf pioneer like Leo Bopp, this community of deaf fans is unique within MLS.  It’s one of the best and beautiful examples of Austin “keeping it weird.”
One of my favorite proofs of this has been the participation of a deaf soccer fan in Houston, he found it to be way more satisfying to support Austin FC than his local team because of how much more inclusive our fans are (another L for Dynamo).

The growth of this passionate community of deaf soccer fans, within the Austin FC supporters, is inspiring to many. Leo’s work has been recognized by the club in it’s marketing, with the “Verde is a Language” spot. In addition, fellow supporters Javi Pereyra and Aaron Rochlen even went so far as to create a new short film about Leo that debuted at Hopsquad before the Austin FC on July 1st!

There’s still more work that can be done by the club to make it more inclusive from the top down. Interpretation services and other accommodations are areas where the club can facilitate growth among deaf community going forward. 

The partnership formed between Leo, Los Verdes and La Murga has laid a great foundation for an amazing space of belonging for Austin’s deaf soccer fans, and the front office would be wise to listen and actively participate in cultivating its growth.

On a personal level, I wasn’t ready to spend 1.5 hours learning about Leo’s journey to becoming an Austin FC capo. I learned a lot! I thought my own Verde passion was already at a fever pitch, but I don’t know if it was the passionate, kinetic way of Leo signing, or the excitement written all over his face during this interview, but I found myself truly inspired by him and all the efforts he’s made. 
Leo’s pushed the supporter culture of Austin FC to become even more inclusive, and to truly embody one of my favorite La Murga lyrics: “Y’all means all.  For Austin here we go!!!”

All Photographs courtesy of Adam Ribbeck, Austin Anthem, Austin FC, and Leo Bopp.

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