Behaviour at the football – if we have a ‘problem’ what are the solutions?

I was in two minds about writing this post. The issue of fans’ behaviour, how some in the media commented about it etc. I discussed so many times before. I even wrote about Rita Panahi almost a year ago.

There have been plenty of very good reactions to this issue which I am sure most people who follow the A-League would have read. So I am not going to repeat them.

Before I start I am approaching this issue as a question of perception. We may argue till the cows come home that the media exaggerate the incidents at the football and not in other sports (Although I must admit that people throwing stuff and flares at each other in the street is something I haven’t seen before). There are some hard truths that we have to accept, even if we may not like them. We are in Australia. Not in Europe or South America. We live in a country where (1) For a variety of social and historical reasons football has not become the main sport (2) Two other codes have more fans and media interest (and what that implies). (3) This may not go down well with some people but I can’t see football become the dominant code in the foreseeable future (4) there are many cultural currents that make the position of football difficult in Australia.

On the last point you can read that linked post that I wrote some time ago. But suffice to say that unlike football, Australian Rules Football which despite being followed by Australians of different backgrounds (including me) does not have the cultural undercurrents that football has. No AFL fan can go on Youtube and look at the tifo for two teams of Australian Rules in Turkey, or Germany. There is a cultural dimension about fans following the football that does not exist in other codes. This can be seen positively. Even people who were previously against Association Football in Australia were blown over by the type of support.

But the fact that football is supported differently from other codes can make some people feel uncomfortable. Let’s forget Panahi and Rebecca Wilson who hate football and would love it to remain the irrelevant marginalised sport that was 12 years ago or so. One article that took my attention was by the Age journalist Alana Schetzer. She wrote an article titled: ‘A-League violence must be volleyed for competition to succeed’. I disagreed with quite a lot of what she said (and she copped the usual abuse on twitter, which is never warranted) but the difference here is that she is a Melbourne Heart fan, and she does go to matches. What was apparent to me reading this article was that she probably wasn’t exposed to football before the A-League or even perhaps Melbourne Heart came on the scene. To me it read like an article written by someone who grew up with Australian Rules, likes the sport of Association Football and decided to follow a team but bemused and not understanding some of the behaviour of the fans.

When I attend derby games, my best mate – a Victory fan – and I plan our seating in advance to ensure we’re well away from the cheer squads, whose members are chanting and flag-waving one minute and lighting flares the next. It’s unpleasant at best and scary at worst to be in a stadium filling up with smoke.

I hope to take my six-year-old nephew to an AFL game this year but, unfortunately, I won’t take him to an A-League game because I’m genuinely worried about him witnessing fans roughing each other up in the name of ”team spirit”.

It’s true that other sports have unruly fans and that when trouble occurs, it’s almost always dismissed as the work ”of a few”. But what the recent events show is that there’s some sort of mindset that says this sort of confrontation is part of soccer. It’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be.

The fact that she names the active support ‘cheer squads’ is of course quite telling. I disapprove of flares (I’ll explain the reasons later) but personally they don’t bother me from where I sit, but Alana Schetzer feel it is ‘unpleasant and scary’ and obviously sense an undercurrent of potential violence because she’s worried about her nephew witnessing ‘fans roughing each other’. Maybe Alana, who grew up in the more sedate environment of an AFL match (especially in the last 10 years) where there is a real cheer squad that only chants Geee-long! And then clap clap clap when the team kicks a goal, the sight of hundreds of young men at a football match chanting even as they exit the stadium can be intimidating. I’ve never felt like that. I’ve taken my son since he was eight to ALeague matches and the only time he felt scared is seeing riot police forming a line across the bridge from Southern Cross Station to Etihad that he had to walk through.

But then again this is my background. And this is what I think Michael Lynch talked about the excitement and ‘edginess’ of a football match in a series of tweets that I’ve combined and edited:

I’ve hardly ever seen trouble at stadia in Australia. Admittedly I am in press box a lot, but always watch 1st half amongst the fans. I know people get worked up about them, but I don’t consider flares to be crowd trouble akin to a punch up. Seen a lot of wannabe Ultras here in terms of chants and dress, but not really that frightening. Certainly not like parts of Europe despite a punch up in Bourke St last weekend I stick to my view that much more is made of almost any incident in football than in any other sport. Also far more outrage over far worse violence every weekend by drunken “revellers” in CBD which doesn’t seem to get sustained treatment in similar vein.

Why anyone would want to take a 3yo to game unless they couldn’t get a babysitter beyond me. Stadia not kindergartens. Average kid got very short attention span of course. But as I wrote last week, the active support is what gives football its great edge. Stamp out the punch ups, but if you kill the chants, the taunting and the humour you destroy the atmosphere. Kids have their place, but atmosphere should not be compromised for a handful of parents and little children. (The stadium) shouldn’t be turned into a crèche….great to have families but only areas properly stewarded and policed.

Another example is from Western Sydney Wanderers player Mateo Poljak. An article published today stated:

Western Sydney Wanderers midfielder Mateo Poljak says there has been a widespread overreaction to fan violence in the A-League and insists the behaviour of football fans in Australia is a minor issue compared with other countries…….

Due to his involvement with the youth team of Dinamo Zagreb, Poljak was invited to be a ball-boy for their clash against fierce rivals Hajduk Split in 2004 and was granted his wish to be located in the north stand, beneath the home active supporter group………..”When Dinamo scored a goal, I think hundreds of flares came from the north stand and I was running from one and I didn’t see the other one hit my shoulder, but I had a jacket so it just burned the jacket, that’s it, nothing.'”

Despite the initial fear, Poljak reflects fondly on the experience and kept his burnt jacket as a souvenir, despite being handed the match jersey of Dinamo striker Ivan Bosnjak after the match.

”It was actually pretty funny … it was a positive memory,” he said. ”We won 3-0 and I kept the jacket. I was not injured, or burnt or something, just my jacket which was new, but at the end of the day it was a good win for the boys, good atmosphere and it was a good trophy.

Another Western Sydney player Jerome Polenz wrote on Twitter and Facebook: “Pyro is only acceptable if it’s safe and no harm can occur to anyone“. But again that is from someone who grew up in Germany and see flares (or pyro) as part of the game.

Now someone will probably accuse Lynch, Poljak and Polenz to be in denial or an apologist. But they come from parts of Europe where this type of support is almost the norm.
The issue remains that this support is alien is Australia, and whether we like it or not it is restricted by us aficionados but will alienate those who want to support the game but feel uncomfortable with it, because it is not part of their culture experience. At this point many active supporters will say ‘Who gives a fuck about them, if they can’t understand the football culture they can go back to AFL/NRL’. The problem with this attitude is that, as I stated before, we are in Australia not England, Italy or Serbia.  We can’t afford to tell new followers unfamiliar with this sort of stuff to piss off. We need families and we need people like Alana and her six year old nephew to come along and feel safe.  We can’t be in a situation where only 5,000 rock solid football culture loving people turns up to matches. The A-League would die.
On the other hand we also want to create an atmosphere in Australian sport that will make Association Football unique amongst all the codes and make (I am sorry about what I am going to write but I can’t describe it any other way) ‘brand’ different.  The revelation of the atmosphere created in a football stadium has been a revelation for many Australians who never experienced anything like this before.
We need a compromise.
We need to arrive to a solution where fans wanting to be active can do so safely, and the FFA and Clubs fearful that the fans will alienate people.
So what could be explored?

Sorry guys, but flares are out.

Personally I have no problems with flares.  But again we are in Australia where pyro is not an accepted part of sporting culture. Fans can say ‘who cares, it’s football’ but we have to accept that pyro alienate people. I know that (as Michael Lynch said) there is no connection with flares or violence, but the perception is there. I think we will have to let it go. But as a trade authorities need to let the active supporter to go for it in safe ways.

Let active fans be creative rather than being punitive

What seems to be happening is that in their fear and quest to make the game ‘family friendly’ (and I suspect more like other codes) the clubs management and the FFA have gone overboard in clumping down with their restrictions. I see this from the perspective of being a Melbourne Victory Fan. For instance in the Melbourne Victory vs Brisbane Roar game active fans were prevented to bring a drum. Why? How a drum can be dangerous? Also the ridiculous sight of security guards ripping down a banner who said “Football=Freedom” Really? How’s that going to endanger families? This in the context of clubs being able to change the rules arbitrarily. There should be an agreement about what is acceptable and don’t change the goalposts.

This creates an atmosphere of resentment which I believe encourages even more misbehaviour, as some fans may want to act in a ‘up yours’ manner and other fans not caring about it because they feel the club doesn’t care about them anyway. I think it is fairly obvious that if you want people to co-operate you try to treat them equally, don’t impose restrictions like a big cop or a headmaster. Restrictions should be the last resort.

And let active fans be as creative as possible in a safe way and I believe that the flares and other problems will be reduced. Active fans will be caught up in the choreography and this will (a) reduce the number of fans who may be tempted to transgress because they are pissed off and (2) isolate the ‘fans’ who want to create problems and marginalise them as much as possible.

So let’s have streamers!


Balloons!


Coloured cardboard!


Flags!


Confetti!


Now all that support comes from Scotland, Italy and England. True dinky di football nations and it’s all done with no flares. The active fans would be happy because they are allowed to do support like it’s done around the world, and people like Alana and her nephew will enjoy the colour and movement. This of course would not prevent incidents occurring outside the ground. But what we are talking here is to shift the whole culture of distrust. Also some of the tifo would be expensive. Support groups like in the Northern Terrace for Melbourne Victory or the Western Wonderers Red and Black Brigade would feel quite hesitant to accept any assistance from the club itself. The other issue is the cleaning up with streamers and the confetti.  But if trust is re-established, and the clubs sees the gains in having safe and exciting support…why not?

OK You really want pyro…don’t you.

But what about some pyro. I hear.  Well, again I explained why, whether we like it or not, flares give football a bad look in Australia. But what about if Clubs and/or the FFA would invest in some legal and safe pyro themselves?

Just look at this video before a Real Madrid vs PSG game. Again two teams that represent European football royalty.  

A display like that would cost a mint.  But it doesn’t need to be at that scale. After all we want a bit of fire and smoke.  Maybe some fans may not like that either, but they’ll have to wear it (remember we are trying a solution). Also these don’t need to be done at every match. Perhaps matches were rivalries are high (like derbies etc.) and in finals. They would create light, smoke go boom, but would be safe and legal.  This would not remove the desire of transgression of some individuals smuggling flares in, but who knows it may reduce it.  May worth a try.

Best of both worlds (or near enough anyway)

That edginess that Michael Lynch talks about with chants, the taunting and the humour has to continue, and fans like Alana will need to realise that football is not the AFL, and the support is different. While fans who come from a football culture or understand it, have to realise that we live in a country that has a different tradition when it comes to supporting sport teams, and they’ll have to take this into account.

The best thing is that one day we will develop our own way to support football which is not only safe and edgy at the same time, but it is uniquely Australian and recognised around the world as such.  But we have to work at it. In good faith.

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2 Comments

Filed under Football

2 responses to “Behaviour at the football – if we have a ‘problem’ what are the solutions?

  1. Pingback: Supporting football in Australia – the challenge to the mainstream culture | The accidental Australian

  2. Pingback: Flares and behaviour at the soccer. The elephant in the stands | The accidental Australian

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