Football and its fans: A delicate balance
Football fandom, like sporting performance in general, involves a delicate balance. When you are coaching youngsters to play the game, you want them bursting out of their skins to achieve the highest level of performance on the field, but yet you expect them not only to obey the laws of the game but also to recognise and respect its spirit as well. So, too, with fans. Without them there is no atmosphere. Australian football is privileged and lucky to have thousands of youngsters who are prepared to sing, chant, shout and jump about for ninety minutes at games around the country. This has not come about by accident and while the football authorities deserve much of credit for the changes they have made in the organisation of the game, most of it belongs to the fans themselves. All the evidence suggests that they were desperate to have teams that they could support whose ideology was inclusive and whose locus was ‘a geographical expression’ in Australia,not something that could be portrayed as foreign. Hence they poured out in numbers to support Melbourne Victory, Adelaide United, Perth Glory, Sydney FC and now Western Sydney Wanderers and to give the A-League something which its predecessor struggled to obtain—a dynamic demographic based on the domestic population, not just the most recent cohort of immigrants.
There is no chance that this new style of fandom will be satisfied with the sedentary enjoyment of the qualities of the game by the majority of those who are drawn to A-League games today. Without their ‘active support’, Australian games would be like those of some teams in the English Premier League, characterised as ‘Highbury the library’ or the ‘Prawn sandwiches brigade’ at Old Trafford as castigated by Roy Keane. But these fans are very demanding. They expect high levels of equally committed performance by those who wear the colours of the teams they support. They are protective of each other in face of critical attacks in the media. They are noisy, boisterous and as offensive as sledging cricketers or the Barmy Army or, for that matter, Australian Rules barrackers. Many of them also attend footy matches regularly.
The Melbourne Victory supporters consist of a number of distinct groupings. The largest by far was the Blue and White Brigade which was there when the club began in 2005, even before the league season kicked off. Unlike many of the fan organisations at other A-League clubs, the BWB and other supporter groups are not part of the Victory club but want to influence its policies. They do not accept formal responsibility for policing their peers, though they try hard to influence behaviour and collective support. Victory has been at loggerheads with another group of its active supporters, the Northern Terrace Collective. A loose amalgam of different sections, this element of the attendance professes to want to fill their end of the ground with active supporters. The club however wants to cordon off and control entry to the active support area at roughly its current size so that space is reserved for the accommodation and protection of other, less vocal and active fans.
The activities of the active supporter groups also provide cover for more nefarious behaviour by others whom both the fan groups and the football authorities would like to do without. So Football Federation Australia also has to be careful. Its proposed penalty of a suspended three points deduction from Victory or Wanderers offers a free kick to anyone or any group that wishes to foment an incident at a game or in the lead up to or aftermath of one. This is not beyond belief. Examples have occurred in the past where people associated with one club provoked incidents at the home ground of another resulting in penalties for that organisation. Moreover, it is not clear what the clubs could have done to prevent the incident in Bourke Street that preceded and may have been the catalyst for the events at AAMI Park last Saturday night when Melbourne Victory met Western Sydney Wanderers. As has happened in England, turning the stadia into controlled zones does not eliminate incidents but tends to displace them elsewhere.
In the stand at AAMI Park the other night when the firecrackers went off there was a brief moment when you wondered whether this was something much more serious. The thought of a terrorist attack briefly crossed my mind before it became clear that there was a flare and firecracker episode. That was worrying enough, having been in the press-box at a Victorian Premier League grand final when a projectile flew past the open window at eye level travelling from one end of the stadium to nearly the other and striking a young girl at the conclusion of its trajectory. So the notion of stamping out flares and firecrackers and anti-social behaviour at A-League games is laudable and to be supported, but it needs to be associated with measures to encourage the self-expression of the active fans without whom the football experience would be much poorer. Right to the end of the comprehensive defeat by Brisbane Roar this Saturday night, the active fans of Melbourne Victory kept up their vocal support as others left the ground.