Supporting football in Australia – the challenge to the mainstream culture

The year was 1978. It was my first year of following Australian Rules football.  It was a Fitzroy vs Carlton match at the Junction Oval.  A lady, looked early 60’s. was sitting at the fence with her Fitzroy scarf and a lovingly crocheted maroon and blue blanket on her knees.  As the Fitzroy players ran out on the field she shouted: “Go Royboys! Show those poofters how to play!”

I am not going to justify that fairly homophobic remark.  But then there was plenty of that stuff going on in the VFL in those days.  People would accept it.  I wasn’t a cricket fan but I remember as I new Melbourne resident the infamous MCG Bay 13.

These expressions were not approved, but often seen as a form of Australian larrikinism.  Part and parcel of the irreverence of the Australian culture.

Shane Warne is asked by English wicketkeeper Alec Stewart to come out of the dressing room to speak to the rowdy MCG crowd and stop them from throwing bottles and balls and rubbish onto the ground.

Sunday, Melbourne Victory fans revelled in a comprehensive victory that gave the team the Championship.  But what did we see on Monday beside articles about the football?  The usual reports about crowd misbehaviour.

This was surprising because Victoria Police released a statement praising the behaviour of the fans at the Grand Final.

But then Brett Guerin, Commander, North West Metro Divisions, Victoria Police was interviewed by Neil Mitchell and he had this to say:

GuerinThen we had reports of outraged parents upset by swearing.  This was apparently from a TV reporter.

I think that in some ways these reactions are the product of football success.  Twenty years ago, when an Association Football Grand Final was more or less ignored and only the true believers went to the matches, the way football was supported wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.  But now Association football is attracting a wider variety of fan, people that may have not grown up with football, but in fact may have grown up with Australian Rules and may find organised support in Association Football somewhat confronting.  Swearing is not good.  But booing the opposition team and being ‘disrespectful’ is hardly ‘vile soccer hooliganism’.

When I realised that this issue was being discussed I couldn’t resist tuning to Neil Mitchell on 3AW.  Many of us football folk get really pissed off at Mitchell and that station.  But really it is to be expected.  The demographic is 40 and above, and as someone who is reaching his mid 50s I believe that younger people to be more soccer friendly.  Also it is very strongly associated with the AFL and so would its listeners.  However Mitchell sounded quite reasonable.

What we see here is the ‘violence’.  But what is our perception of violence?  For me it’s someone punching another person.  Or being really intimidating and threatening to someone else.  Lighting flares is stupid and dangerous, and shouldn’t happen, but unless it is thrown at someone is not by itself a violent act.  Neither is jumping on seats or standing in the aisles.  Again shouldn’t happen because of safety issues.   Same as a group of people chanting ‘Fuck off Sydney’ and booing the opposition.  We can call that stupid and immature, but violent?

I hope that whoever is reading this is not interpreting me as a so called ‘soccer apologist’ or condoning these acts.  I was arguing against flares ten years ago in the Melbourne Victory forum.  But I believe that if we are to address the problem we are not going to get far if we equal actions that are certainly  not acceptable, such as shouting profanities, the same as someone going to a game with the intention of causing bodily harm.

But in the end we have to ask ourselves, where this perception of violence come from?  Back in January last year I wrote a post who touched on this.

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 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.

This type of argument was taken up a couple of weeks ago by another Melbourne City fan,

Many Victory fans, arrested by the psychology of tribalism, will assume my criticism is the bad faith of partisanship – as if disgust at the endangerment of children might only be registered if it were committed by rival fans. Then there’s the infantile paranoia – again a function of tribalism – that assumes criticism of football crowds is the work of a saboteur, an “egg-ball lover” inventing grievances to keep the sport in its place.

Both are cretinous abandonments of responsibility. I will report what I’ve seen, anxious to keep the beautiful game from the influence of thugs. I would prefer more fans had an interest in awkward truths. Would prefer that more fans absorbed these stories and transformed them into shame and embarrassment.

Yes, the few are ruining it for everyone. But the “few” at other codes is approaching zero. By arguing the “few” you are complicit in the garbage, incapable of demanding more: club sanctions, for instance, and a revised, co-operative relationship between club and police. The game is being damaged by apologists. This includes the FFA, and the patronising congratulations of its original release.

I was there. In fact I was in the section where Mc Kenzie was as well. I was hit by a couple of empty plastic cups and a few more paper planes.  For me was a nuisance but I could see that other fans were a bit more distressed.

But while we have these accounts we also hear about what a great atmosphere football matches can achieve, an atmosphere that has been stamped out by other sports in the interest of  safety.  When this argument was raised back in January 2014,  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.

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.
But then we have to say that the atmosphere at a football match is unique.  When I go to AFL matches there is noise, but it is mainly waves of sound caused by individuals reacting to events on the ground.  There may be some chanting like ‘Geelong!’ then clap clap clap, but nowwhere near the type of involvement I have seen at A-League matches.
In the hubbub of the ‘soccer violence’ media storm we had on Monday people may have missed an article by Greg Baum, a writer that mainly writes about Australian Rules football but also likes Association Football.  There He writes:
Ceremonials were minimal. The setting of the stage was left to the Victory fans, scarves arrayed, singing Stand By Me, which proved if nothing else that volume is its own tunefulness. Note to the AFL: this was the fans complementing the spectacle, not having the complement forced on them. Soccer might have had to exclude 20,000 fans by playing at AAMI Park, but it lost nothing else for the accident of this staging. There is a difference between a venue and a stadium.
So is Michael Lynch right?  If we kill the chants – even the sweary ones –  the taunting and the humour are we going to destroy the atmosphere?  Is the ‘edginess’ and apparent intimidatory environment that make football fans (such as Alana Schetzer or perhaps ) used to the type of atmosphere in an AFL or NRL match unconfortable part and parcel of the unique experience that Greg Baume has talked about?
If that is the case how can we have the passion without the misbehaviour?
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 and martin McKenzie Martin 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  ‘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 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.


Filed under Football

2 responses to “Supporting football in Australia – the challenge to the mainstream culture

  1. Pingback: Violence among fans. Maybe we are not that different after all. | The accidental Australian

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

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