If We Are Football, it has to stop being Us vs Them

by Francis Leach on Sep 22, 2011

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We are football. At least that is the bold claim made by FFA in its latest pitch to sell the upcoming Hyundai A-League season.

You could forgive the average rusted on A-League fan for glancing over both shoulders, squinting into the middle distance and asking, “You talkin’ to me?”

In its short history, the A-League has struggled to reconcile football’s fan culture with the FFA’s commercial ambitions. While active support groups at each A-League club has provided the vibrancy and passion upon which the current ad campaign is built on, it has also remained a mystery to the pointy heads at FFA HQ whose main concern is spread sheets, not clean sheets.

The poisonous relationship between the FFA and active supporters reached its nadir last year with claims that the governing body had hired strategic security experts Hatomoto to monitor and provide surveillance on active supporters – particularly at Melbourne Victory games.

FFA insisted the presence of Hatomoto employees at games was simply to provide the most secure environment for all fans and was in no way an attempt to intimidate active support. Fan groups saw it differently. The general consensus was that FFA simply didn’t get it.

As the league strived to sell its self as the summer spectator experience of choice for families, it wanted to use the aesthetics of active support as its calling card, while muzzling it as it suited. It seemed too many it wanted a match day rent-a-crowd to provide the studio audience soundtrack to the days viewing for the armchair fan.

Not that the active support was blameless in this impasse. Any active fan with the IQ of a shredded cabbage should have been able to understand that the use of flares at football matches is a spot kick for the game’s enemies who simply role out the standard tabloid fear and smear yarns each time some trumped up teenage dirt bag lets one rip inside stadium.

The lack of any sense of self regulation amongst active support in setting an agreed standard of behaviour to protect the game from being flailed by its enemies has left those charged with administering the game and countering the negative stereotypes exhausted.

And in that sense, up until now, there has been no “we” in Football.

Here’s hoping though, that those at FFA HQ finally realise that beyond the talent that takes the park each week, it’s most important asset are the fans who bring the game to life with their voice, their passion and spirit.

FFA needs to provide that safe, friendly environment for the casual fan and the family on a day out, but it also needs to allow its active fans to find their voice, for them to be heard and seen and for the game to be lived as much as it is played on match day.

Maybe it should look at the experience of the Portland Timbers in America’s MLS where fan culture is celebrated as the club’s greatest asset and it has flourished as a result.

And active fan groups need to accept that given the unique challenges their game faces in this country, they have a responsibility that extends beyond their love of the shirt, but to the greater good of the game itself.

Because if “We are Football”, it has to stop being “us versus them”.