Leadership, education and defining anti-social behaviour – A story of football culture Down Under

by Mark van Aken on Apr 19, 2011

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So the highest selling paper in the country decides to run a headline recently ‘Soccer Fans The Worst’. It follows up its claim, on the front page at least, with a sum-total of 37 words describing the view of Victoria Police Superintendent Rod Wilson. It fills the rest of the page that will be seen by millions around the city, state and country with Judy Moran.

To be fair, the piece penned by Paul Tatnell does at least attempt to balance the officer’s claims with Blue & White Brigade ‘capo’ Adam Tennenini – that’s ‘Tunna’ to most who’ll be reading this.

At the Fans’ Forum on Wednesday night in Melbourne, of which I was a panellist, we certainly saw tensions flow. Some, if not many, of the points raised by the gallery were valid, and in most cases the respective panellists responded to them the best they could.

It should be noted, as was predicted pre-event, most of the questions were pointed at the Victory’s Managing Director Richard Wilson and General Manager Operations Trent Jacobs and FFA’s Head of A-League Lyle Gorman.

Not for nothing, I want to put in my two bob’s worth, as someone who’s spent plenty of time on the terraces in both the old and new national league, been in and around active support, but also worked on the media and commercial side of the game, albeit not directly at club level, for nearly seven years.

There are three unbelievably simple things that need to happen to resolve this issue and it will take leadership, education and concessions by all the stakeholders. The real question is whether all the parties can or will do this – and that includes the fans, as they don’t get off scot-free here by any stretch.

1. A less hysterical definition of ‘anti-social behaviour’ must be found as officials tend to hide behind it in debates like this. Or, even better, just scrap the bloody term.
2. Police, security and stadium management need to be educated on the unique attributes of football fan culture and then, within reason, ‘police’ accordingly.
3. Fans individually and collectively need to stamp out genuinely ‘anti-social behaviour’ in relation to flares and breaking of seats.

Let’s explore point one. ‘Anti-social behaviour’ is such a frivolous broad term that it allows clubs, the FFA and security to hide behind it. What does it mean?

At the forum, Michael Lynch, football journalist of note with The Age and a Londoner who’s been in Australia for 23 years, made a significant point about football culture. He explained that it is, in addition to supporting your team, about taunting your opponents. There is in football a level of antagonism that is simply accepted. This is, by the definition plastered on the big-screen pre-game, ‘anti-social behaviour’. If so, too bad, that’s football. It is what it is, so on this point I say to the man, back off and deal with it and this goes for when fans come together with handbags at 10-yards pre and post game too.

Broad, slightly out of context, anecdote time.

An old mate, let’s call him Barry for the purpose of this yarn, who works for VicPol and is a football fan, told me a story of the NSL.

From memory, it was the last time the Knights played at Bob Jane in the top flight. Post-game at the Clarendon Street end the two sets of fans were divided by a five-metre high cyclone fence. They were trading verbal blows and there was even some – shriek – empty plastic bottles being thrown back and forth. My mate’s boss, armed with a batton and another handful of policemen urged him and the others to ‘get amongst and sort it out’. At this point Barry, understanding football fans a little, urged his gaffer to pull back and let it peter out and within minutes it had.

So, put down the capsicum spray and let ‘em vent I say… though I’ve got a solution for that too – read on!

Don’t try and tarnish a Melbourne fan who screams out to Travis Dodd ‘that he’s rubbish’ with the same brush as an Adelaide fan who might ignite a flare. Please note, I only use these two teams to illustrate my point. One is a football fan being a football fan, the other is engaging in a dangerous and criminal act. But I suspect right now they’re both simply seen as ‘anti-social’ and thus deserving of a full-force sorting out. I know, I know, I’m talking in generalities, but there’s not really another way to do it. As for flares, more on them later.

Now this isn’t all about how Police are the big bad wolf, I promise. Fans need to change too, that’s coming... BUT… Point two is one that the boys in blue have happily let go through to the keeper for a decade. But if we want this sorted, it has to happen.

Let’s have it right, criminal behaviour is a no-no and should be treated as such. But, and I touched on this in point one, police and security must get their heads around what makes football fans tick, as opposed to cricket fans (hardly a sport with model fan behaviour), Aussie Rules fans and Rugby League fans – though, wait for it, many of these people are one in the same.

I’d say to the powers that be, don’t sweat the small stuff. If you finger a bloke who’s ripped a flare, come down on him like a ton of bricks. But the majority who are simply doing what fans do, back off and let it go.

The robust jumping, singing and chanting of the ‘home end’ is just that. Stop hiding behind this ‘anti-social behaviour’ label and realise that people in these areas are there because they want to be. Families and the elderly and pretty much anyone who doesn’t want to partake in such behaviour simply don’t. They sit on the wing (which, as was pointed out on Wednesday necessitates them paying over the odds for the ‘good’ seats, but that’s by the by) far away from the antics of the ‘peanut gallery’ – whose output, it might be noted, is half the reason ‘casual consumers’ go to the football in the first place.

But what about when this rambunctious mob spills into the general public area you ask? My answer is, and this is part of the education process, look at the UK and Europe and hold the ‘active’ fans back post-game. Quite simply for ‘high-risk’ matches – i.e anytime Sydney plays Victory, Victory plays Adelaide etc you hold back the away fans and the ‘home end’.

That’s right, let’s have a special set of rules for football that don’t apply to others. It’s called adapting. A little like, shock-horror, the concept of a home and way end in the first place. We seemed to have got our heads around that early on, so here’s the natural progression.

The specifics can be worked out and benchmarked against Europe, but for the sake of argument, let’s hold the away mob for 20 minutes and the home enders for 30. Any scally-wags that work their way around to circumvent this should be dealt with accordingly.

Plenty will tell you that some of the best fun travelling fans will have is when ‘locked in’ after a big away win, as illustrated by the video below.

So on to point three.

Just as I implore Police, security, the stadiums, the FFA and the clubs to give some considerable wiggle room, I ask the same from the fans.

First things last. I love flares. Sat on my desk is a framed San Miguel ad with hundreds of fans waving over-sized flags obscured by the glow of what must be 30 flares burning brightly. For mine, the flare-induced haze that hovered over Etihad Stadium during Melbourne’s third A-League derby, was magic.

Here’s the but. We can’t have it. They are part of the game in sections of Europe and South America, but here they are simply not on. As much as I’ve rolled my eyes when hearing it countless times, they genuinely are too bloody dangerous. More importantly as long as they are going off on Aussie terraces, the moral high ground when it comes to heavy handed policing sits with the powers that be.

Fans need to lead this.

Remove the flares, and the breaking of chairs while you’re at it, and you regain the high ground. If security is still overzealous, then you can argue for your rights from upon high.
Fancy the atmosphere at most EPL games? When was the last time you saw a flare White Hart Lane or St James’ Park?

‘Tunna’ shrugged when I mentioned this to him mid-week. He asked ‘how is he supposed to stop flares on his own’. It’s a fair question, and the responsibility doesn’t sit with any one individual or group, but rather every individual and group.

So with the powers that be taking a step back and the fans giving them the confidence that they can do so without the world caving in, I think we can move forward.

Freelance Sports Writer Mark van Aken is a former editor of Australia’s longest-running football magazine Soccer International and a GGArmy member

Follow Mark on twitter @markvanaken