In this guest post, reader Zachary Rees reveals the truth behind the contemporary political forces throwing their weight around in Australian Football. All words and opinions are the author’s own.
When I first moved to Australia, my interest in the local Football league, the A-League, was non-existent. I spent many nights waiting patiently until 3am for the Premier League fixtures. I was what many A-League fans refer to as a “Eurosnob”, someone who exclusively watches European fixtures despite the time and geographical distance. I learnt this word from a friend at university, an avid Manchester United and Melbourne Victory fan. It took him an entire semester to convince me to join him for an A-League game. I was hesitant, deterred by the perceived lack of quality, but went along to watch Melbourne Victory play the Central Coast Mariners in the final game of season.
I sat with him in what was formerly known as the Northern Terrace, a section of the stadium reserved for the most passionate fans. My expectations were low but in front of a crowd of 22,000 Victory won 3-1. I do not remember watching the game, my eyes were fixed on the crowd. The colours, noise and passion of the Northern Terrace was really something to behold as every decision was met with a cacophony of noise and every goal met with delirium. After the game ended I stayed in the terrace and watched as the players came over to the fans to celebrate, the relationship they had between each other was something I had never seen whilst visiting Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge. I quickly realized that it wasn’t the quality of Football that caused thousands of people to attend the A-League, but the quality of the atmosphere. It was an atmosphere I had to be a part of and less than an hour after the game finished, I had bought myself a season ticket for the next campaign.
Three years on from that day I still have my season ticket but Melbourne Victory no longer have the Northern Terrace, the large crowds or passion it once did. In fact, none of the teams in the A-League do. The FFA, Australia’s governing Football body, have undergone a steady sterilization campaign of all fan groups throughout the league in a bid to enhance the games reputation and marketability. To understand why this has happened one needs to understand the sporting landscape of Australia.
Australia is a country that historically has been dominated by sports like AFL (Australian Football), rugby and cricket. These games, imports from colonial Britain, still maintain the values and traditions from that era. The atmospheres at each of the sports are fantastic but are completely different to the atmosphere found at “soccer” games in Australia. “Soccer” in Australia belongs to the many migrant communities that now call Australia home. Greeks, Serbians, Croatians, Italians and many more ethnicities have brought their culture to stadia around Australia. The colours, chants and passion really bring something beautiful to the Australian sporting landscape that can’t be found anywhere else in the country. The use of flares, noise and the uncompromising loyalty for one’s team is seen as “un-Australian” by some sections of the media who have done their best to criminalise and vilify football fans, with many supporters being stereotyped as hooligans due to the linking of fandom in Europe to the ethnicities present in the current Australian soccer scene.
To counter this the FFA have made an attempt to sterilise football, to eliminate these differences so that “soccer” can become more palatable for the traditional Australian sports fan, increasing its attendances and subsequently its profitability. Over the last two seasons the A-League has witnessed the collapse of two prominent and vocal active supporter’s groups. The first being the Northern Terrace of Melbourne Victory and the second the RBB of the Western Sydney Wanderers. Both groups have been put under a spotlight as the traditional Anglo-based media outlets in Australia label them “dangerous”, “un-Australian” and “violent”. One radio show host and former national rugby coach, Alan Jones, went as far as comparing Melbourne fans to the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks of 2015.
The FFA, scared by the views held by mainstream Australia, pander to the request of increased police presence, stricter banning orders and atmosphere-killing regulations. All of which have contributed to the death of both the Northern Terrace and RBB who have found themselves battling legal cases, public-shaming in newspapers and some even with jail time. The disappearance of both groups is not only a shame but a disaster. The quality of the A-League may not be high in comparison with the rest of the world but its passion was. The colours and noise that once lit up the A-League no longer exist in the same form and the mediocre Football is now played out in front of a silent, dull and lifeless crowd creating a real sense of doom and uncertainty for the league and sport in Australia.
It is clear to see that the FFA are walking the wrong path. Football is not like other sports and should not be consumed in the same way. The A-League’s one true selling point, its uniqueness, the fans, must be recognised and must be appreciated if this league and this game have a chance of survival in this country. Yes, Football in Australia has many more problems to address but fixing this one would be a massive start. It would provide the wind that the sails of Australian Football are crying out for.
I had given up hope and had written off the future of the league halfway through this season. However, on the weekend of the grand final I saw 5,000 Melbourne Victory fans haul themselves 1,000km to Newcastle to see their team win the competition in front of a packed-out Hunter Stadium. The noise and passion was incredible, giving me flashbacks to scenes I’ve seen in Europe and South America. Football and its fans do have a place in Australia. The potential is here, it is now time to realise it.