Despite the annoyance of my some of my inner suburban lefty friends, sport is very important aspect of Australian culture. This is not a new discovery. Sociologists and political academics have known this for some time. One example is Ian Turner and Leonie Sandercock who wrote about the role of Australian Rules Football in Australian culture back in the late 70’s . (Turner was apparently very dismissive of football, seeing it as a foreign game ,which for a Communist and its internationalist traditions, it was an interesting perspective).
But football in Australia has always raised plenty of issues which could fill a PhD in sociology. What is the role of football in an Australian context? It’s society? It’s history? (One place that I would recommend if interested in this aspect is Ian Syson’s blog ). When you go to an AFL match for instance, you can see that apart from the ‘Cheer Squad’ the support is sporadic, with fans barracking basically on their own. Association Football has had the tradition of being a vehicle for people to gather and organise support in some way or another. It can be chanting in England or drums and streamers in South America. The support is unified, and in Europe and South America choreographed and organised. So when Association Football is played in Australia it is understandable that this type of support should occur here as well. But Australia has been very wary about different cultures. Multiculturalism can go only so far – when it appears in things as sacred as sport then the unease can be quite substantial. Because of its ‘foreigness’ this support tends to bring forward all the insecurities and anxieties of cultures which haven’t been assimilated and absorbed in an Australian mainstream. I have already touched upon these themes in another post some time ago.
This conflict has been happening for some time now. I don’t have to remind people of the soccerphobia amongst some in the media about this. But this unease also exists within A-League clubs themselves, and what happened amongst the active fans during last Friday’s match between Melbourne Victory and Perth Glory is a case in point.
The ‘Split’ As Melbourne as Hipsters, changeable weather and good coffee.
Firstly a crush course in the differences amongst the active Melbourne Victory fans. The Northern Terrace is inspired by an European type of support, organised and choreographed. It has a number of groups (Blue and White Brigade, Horda etc.) that work together on match day. This is different from the South End which is inspired by a UK type of support which is not as organised and more spontaneous.
Not sure if other teams have these sort of splits, but ideological splits are very Melbourne. The ALP Split of the 50’s for instance I think that only happened in Victoria. Maybe its the weather. Suffice to say that fans protesting is quite common overseas. (For a wider political discourse about the tradition of fans’ protests you can’t go past ‘Shoot Farken‘ )
Since the start of the season the Northern Terrace fans have been in dispute with the administration of Melbourne Victory because of restrictions placed upon them. According to the NT fans statement the objections were as follows:
- Tarps set up surrounding the North Terrace from both sides at both Swan St and Docklands stadiums (also from above, at Swan St). The Northern Terrace believes that along with the obvious restriction this places a limit to the organic growth of the North Terrace and also presents a serious health and safety risk, particularly when taken in conjunction with the requirement of scanners. Which is the next point.
- Scanners at the entrances to the North Terrace main bay at both Swan St and Docklands stadiums. All North Terrace Home End Category members will be expected to scan their membership barcode when entering and exiting the main NT bay. The objection is that people arriving late to the game will be forced to wait in long queues to enter the bay, and this issue will only be exacerbated at half time as hundreds of people attempt to use the two available exits to either go to purchase food and drinks or go to the bathroom. The NT feels that this plus the introduction of banners has the potential of creating unnecessary crowding and dangers.
- Banning of group banners from the front fence area of the terrace. The NT believes this is a totally unacceptable infringement on their independence as a terrace. According to the NT, they have been assured by the club that it has nothing to do with intrusion on sponsorship space, but rather is an attempt to display a sense of unity amongst the terrace. The NT believes that this imposition shows a total lack of understanding of North Terrace, and global football supporter, culture.
What happened next is very much like an industrial dispute response. The NT effectively went on ‘strike’ boycotting the area designated to them and relocating to Level 3 at Etihad Stadium and Level 2 at AAMI Park.
So what’s going on? I think that the dispute goes beyond just petulance. I think it goes to the heart of the relationships between fans, a Club that was created from a business model, and what I mentioned before, the way different people see how ‘support’ should be in an Australian context.
It’s just not supporting the club. The formation of a Social Identity
Now, I am not member of the NT. I what I would call belonging in the ‘salad sandwich’ section (not as expensive as the prawn sandwich one). My impression come from reading the fans forum and talking to a some members of the NT and what comes loud and clear is the process of identification not only with Melbourne Victory, but within the Northern Terrace (and its subgroups themselves).
Psychology and Management studies have identified and examined Social Identity Theory (SIT) for at least the last 40 years. This theory mainly arose from psychological studies in organisational structures in the 60’s. Basically, according to SIT, people tend to classify themselves and others into various social categories, such as organisational membership, religious affiliation, gender and age cohort (Tajfel and Turner, 1985). Social identification therefore, is the perception of oneness with belongingness to some human aggregate. So in the case of the Northern Terrace, they may define themselves in terms of the groups they belong to. They perceive themselves as an actual member of the group and as a consequence perceive the fate of the group as their own. (Ashforth and Mael, 1989)
Many A-League fans from other teams and Melbourne Victory fans themselves who are not part of the NT are sometimes are dismissive of the NT because they seem to be protesting a lot. (For a great account of how non NT fans see the protest, read The White Line blog post) The criticism stems that we have been provided with a team to follow, and the role of the fan is to support the players on the pitch, not to believe that somehow the needs of the NT are above the needs of the players to feel supported as they play.
I think this criticism fails to understand the issue of how Social, or Group Identity works in the NT. I believe that NT members for the most part do want to support the team and give it all to make them win. But I also think that to do that they need to own their support, not to be dictated by some authority above. In general Melbourne Victory support is different from most other clubs because it hasn’t been sanctioned by the club itself. Unlike The Cove for example, it didn’t start with the option of becoming a member when you got the membership form from the club.
Melbourne Victory didn’t involve itself at all in that aspect. The fans organised themselves and this, I believe, has developed a very different dynamic between the active supporters and the Club where the supporters feel that they owe the Club management very little. So when the Club makes decisions that the NT feel impact on their support they probably see it as an imposition. A restriction on something that the Club haven’t had any part of, but in the same time is used by the Club for their publicity and to look good on TV.
Many old NSL supporters have been dismissive of the A-League as being ‘plastic’ and teams ‘franchises’. For some supporters this was offset by the creation of spontaneous fans groups have ensured that the experience of following Melbourne Victory is authentic. The trips interstate, the meeting before in the pub, the chanting and choreography at the match are very powerful mechanisms for bonding an group identification. While the creation of a team like Melbourne Victory is a business, the NT may feel that their support is not. And that while the loyalty is towards the Club and the players, it is also amongst themselves and how they support the team.
The way forward
My observation from my seat on the wing, is that the more the NT is allowed to do their thing, such as having a megaphone, having banners, and even use things like streamers and perhaps even a overhead display in important matches the less unwanted behaviour such as flares etc. tends to happen. From my own observations there is still some way to go in educating security in how active fans want to support the team. For instance the decision of security to remove an innocuous banner saying ‘Football is Freedom’ is an overreaction if I ever saw one.
I think that there is still unease and suspicion on the part of the Club management about the active fans. They love the atmosphere, but are probably very uncomfortable that they are unable to control these groups. One reason is very legitimate. Amongst the NT it can’t be denied that there is some elements that are wannabees Ultras from Europe, and dismiss any support without flares, and a whiff of violence as ‘AFL crap’. Again here we have an issue about identity and how football plays out their anger and unease in being in Australia from a different background. Behaving as they perceive is a ‘true football supporter’ which is against the Australian mainstream is a way to act against a culture they may not feel part of. But this would take a whole new post. But suffice to say that the Club is entitled to ensure that dangerous behaviour does not occur and it is stamped out. How it does this is the question. The Club seems to label the NT like a ‘problem’ that has to be managed and controlled. As others have said the NT has to recognise that there have been problems with the behavior of some of the active fans, and the Club is perfectly entitled to ensure that these do not occur.
On the other hand the Club should be sophisticated enough to recognise that the football culture the NT has introduced in the Australian sporting landscape is unique, and that an independent active group is that, independent. And as long as the law is respected they should be able to grow, and support the team as they see fit. They are not, and cannot be an arm of the structure of the Club.
Ashforth, Blake E., and Fred Mael. “Social identity theory and the organization.” Academy of management review 14, no. 1 (1989): 20-39.
Tajfel, H. and Turner, J. 1985. The social identity theory of integroup behaviour.. In: Worchel, S. and Austin, W. eds. 1985. Psychology of intergroup relations. 2nd ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, pp. 7-24.