Football traditionalists could be forgiven for taking an immediate dislike to the corporate, advertising vessel that is Melbourne Victory Football Club. But don’t take it out on the fans.
As Football historian Joe Gorman puts it in his excellent work “The Death & Life Of Australian Soccer”;
“A-League franchises are ostensibly rent-seekers, benefiting enormously from the wealth created by others, without any obligation to put anything back into the community”.
Hyundai A-League clubs operate as investor-friendly, homogenised franchises on pain of licence revoke. Melbourne Victory certainly fits this model. Much of the club’s exterior fabric appears very americanised. Its sharp, modern, fashionable yet vacuous crest is reminiscent of NFL franchises, and the moniker “Victory” immediately conjours up the image of half-time shows and cheerleaders. The monolithic Etihad Stadium (Victory’s occasional home) is, like its Mancunian namesake, designed to inspire; a concrete, steel and glass Mecca of consumption. The Emirati obsession with grandeur and opulence hums from every square inch. While the great city of Melbourne undoubtedly deserves a world-class sports facility, the Etihad is every bit as vulgar and capitalist as you could imagine.
A-League teams, such as Melbourne Victory, are indeed corporate, rent-seeking and unoffensive by design. But Australian Football’s colourful history is rich with partisan fanatics and sectarian supporters whose often extreme behaviour has obligated the establishment of a Football system that is intentionally neutral, marketable and apolitical.
FFA-licensed A-League clubs participate under strict guidelines to operate in a manner that is sustainable financially using a marketable brand void of association with any specific ethnic group. Directors and managers are compelled to maintain an image with mass appeal capable of translating into ticket and merchandise sales. The outcome is organisations that are prone to cost-saving measures, extensive promotional campaigns designed to attract as many spectators as possible and exploring any activity that could potentially maximise revenue. It is no surprise that Melbourne Victory, or any other A-League side for that matter, behaves and appears far more like an American sports franchise than a tradition-orientated European Football club that has its roots in community engagement.
This corporate and revenue-driven existence is however in stark contrast to what many people see as the true soul and traditions of Football played in Australia.
Victory was formed in 2004 as the National Soccer League was being faded out in preparation for the A-League’s inaugural season. The NSL had existed as the ultimate Australian Football competition since the 60’s, a time of significant migration to Australia from most notably the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Hungary and Italy. Many of these immigrants pooled resources together to found Football clubs that represented and served their respective communities. Croatia immigrants in Victoria would for example frequently congregate at Melbourne Knights matches to indulge in their own language and culture, providing the often needed support and comfort to each other far away from the Old Country. Contemporaneous “native” Anglo-Australians had little interest in Football, thus these “ethnic” Football clubs consequently rose to prominence, frequently occupying the NSL’s top spots. With pretty much all leading Football clubs being associated with differing ethnic communities, Australian Football quickly became synonymous with the Macedonian, Serbian, and Italian etc communities.
Fans exhibited passionate and extreme behaviour unseen elsewhere in contemporary Aussie sport, chanting in their ancestor’s native language, eating sunflower seeds on the terraces and openly using pyrotechnics. While everybody likes a partisan atmosphere, the ethnic associations of leading NSL clubs introduced political tension to Australian Football. Violence peaked in the 90’s as tensions between notably Croat and Serb communities and their respective Football clubs boiled over in response to the Yugoslav conflict. The abundance and high-visibility of wild ethnic-Australian Football supporters had the effect of marginalising the sport, as much of the country’s media (an industry dominated by Anglo-Australians) simply propagated the message that the existing Football system and the NSL were preventing assimilation of ethnic-Australians into the Anglo culture. What’s more, many NSL clubs saw little interest from supporters outside their corresponding ethnic communities. Financial turmoil and bankruptcy was all too frequent whenever matchday attendances declined. In spite of the consistently high interest and participation in Football at grassroots level across Australia, the NSL was not viewed as a success.
As international Australian Football continued to disappoint, the FFA took action. Under the guise of reforms designed to improve the quality of Australian Football, the FFA ushered in a new professional league forbidding the participation of “ethnic” clubs and obligating privately-financed participants to stay in the black. Australia’s leading NSL clubs that had produced countless fine Socceroos and shaped the country’s nascent Football culture were denied access to this new league that featured no promotion-relegation system. 50 years of tradition was pushed aside without a single thank you. The establishment of the A-League is the story of a transition from a focus on community to revenue in Australian Football. This is why Football traditionalists can be forgiven for disliking franchises like Melbourne Victory. The creation of the oh-so-sterile and capitalist A-League is a metaphorical spit in the face of the Hungarian, Serb, Croat, Greek, Italian and Macedonian communities to whom Australian Football owes a great deal.
But while the system requires Melbourne Victory to present a squeaky-clean image, the fans are in no way obliged to behave themselves accordingly. Melbourne’s Football fanatics have reluctantly acknowledged the end of the good old days and are now supporting Victory with the same fervour and passion as they did the likes of South Melbourne Hellas, Footscray Jugoslav United Soccer Team and Melbourne Knights.
Victory stands out as the A-League franchise boasting the most proactive fan groups. The Blue and White Brigade of the late naughties has been replaced by the Northern Terrace and Horda Melbourne, the latter being Victory’s leading Ultra group. Actions of NT and Horda members have frequently come under scrutiny by both the FFA and the Victorian law enforcement to the extent where Horda have announced a temporary boycott of A-League fixtures. Episodes of NT and Horda exploits against fans of Sydney FC, Adelaide United FC and Melbourne Heart (now Melbourne City) would not sound out of place in Thessaloniki or Split. Without doubt, the explosive Mediterranean and Balkan Football Culture has left its mark. Melbourne Victory’s success has of course attracted additional fans; Victory is the most popular A-League club in terms of members, a testament to the huge market for Football in Victoria.
That market has been driven by Melbourne’s Greeks, Croats and Serbs etc who were the first to take Football seriously in the city, and who continue to define the famous atmosphere at Victory games. Melbourne Victory FC is understandably not able to formally acknowledge the important role that immigrant communities have played in Victorian Football. Doing so would violate a key A-League criterion. Instead, Victory has attempted to brand itself in such a way that acknowledges the importance of sport in Melbourne and Victoria. The chevron perched across the club’s logo and jerseys spells out a masculine “V” that subtly eludes to Victoria’s Aussie Rules pedigree. And what is in a name? I also didn’t realise for a long while that this moniker is a reference to “Victoria”.
The A-League by its very nature forces Melbourne Victory FC into a shape that appears American, corporate and soulless. But, as much as is possible within the system, Victory represents a proud Football history built by Victorian migrant communities whose enthusiasm for the sport has not waned. Fans choose to support Victory on this basis, doing what they can to keep Victoria’s Football traditions alive within the narrow confines of A-League existence.