What a weekend for Australian football. We were showcased one of the A-League’s best ever games between the Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers, along with the debut of 19 year old Brad Smith for Liverpool against Chelsea.
Yet we find ourselves in a familiar position, talking about fan violence and misbehaviour.
The game on Saturday night was terrific. The football on show was a sign of how far football has come.
But, in another sense, nothing has changed. While we should be writing about how great was the game, or about our future battle with England to tie up Brad Smith for the Socceroos – in which Ange Postecoglou will no doubt show a keen interest – we are left discussing off the field incidents and disturbing behaviour by fans in the stands.
On Saturday night I made my way to AAMI Park. I had already seen hundreds of Wanderers fans at Federation Square before I made my way to the Stadium, thinking ‘Gee this atmosphere is going to be something special tonight’.
Then came the news. My Twitter feed was full of news from a clash between Western Sydney and Melbourne Victory supporters and a phone call with my Dad about the news bulletin regarding it. I gulped and automatically thought, ‘These select few are going to ruin it for everyone’.
As I sat near Melbourne Victory’s south end, in came Western Sydney’s Red and Black Block, the RBB, chanting and making sure that Melbourne fans knew that they were here.
The sound was electric, something you can only experience in the purest of football stadiums around the world. This is what football is about, I thought.
Then came my second thought. The Wanderers supporters sitting – or should I say standing? – on the rails at the front. Plain clothed with faces covered, much like the fan who posted the selfie below on instagram.
What is even more worrying is that this is not the only image on social media. There is one, of a young teenage boy, with his Wanderers jersey, a bandana covering the bottom half of his face, and sunglasses, hash-tagged “rbbiscomingforya”.
In came a friend of mine who said: “I’m actually quite scared of them after seeing them entering the stadium.”
Melbourne Victory’s South End led the Victory chanting, engaging back and forth with the Wanderers fans. It sounded great. There was even an applause by both set of supporters for Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou, who walked passed them as he made his way for a television interview. Postecoglou acknowledged the supporters and waved back.
Then came kick off. The standard of play was superb, some of the best football I have seen in the A-League.
The fans behaved for a while, there was chanting and banter between the two sets of supporters. Great stuff that just increased the atmosphere around the packed out stadium. You could tell the players were being influenced by it as well.
Early in the second half Western Sydney manager Tony Popovic rolled the dice and brought on Brendon Santalab. Minutes later the much improved Tahj Minniecon played the ball through to the substitute, who found the back of the net.
The RBB erupted as Victory fans sat silent in shock.
Then came the celebrations. Jubilation. To no one’s surprise, a flare went off. I thought to myself, ‘Do we really need them?’ as the RBB celebrated.
What came next upset me. A loud bang. It sounded like a bomb went off or something. I was in shock.
Bang after bang came in the following minutes. I saw a mother hold her child in her arms and walk to leave the seating area. I heard that there were other mothers and children like that.
In came Gui Finkler for Melbourne. Wow. What a stunning free-kick into the top corner in virtually the last minute of play. South end went nuts as did the rest of the stadium.
Victory fans were still celebrating the goal as the final whistle came. Back-to-back chanting between sets of fans then continued as players made their way to thank supporters.
That was all good. But the flare and those loud bangs were not. Especially those loud bangs. It was quite frightening. Can you imagine what was going through the mind of young children hearing it?
With the Big Bash League blossoming, this may be the A-League’s loss in the summer. Acts like this can scare off parents and children. Unfortunately for football, if this continues, it will hurt the round ball.
Add to that the pre-match incident on Bourke Street. It is all inexcusable.
Football related violence is not new to Australia; it has just come in a different form.
Long gone has are the ethnic clashes between Serbians and Croatians or Macedonians and Greeks.
I have actually been to a few of games with melting tension. I remember going to a Preston Lions game at good old BT Connor Reserve a few years back when they played South Melbourne in the Victorian Premier League. Tensions were high, but there was going to be no violent actions by supporters. The supporters had seen the repercussions – severe fines and restrictions – the clubs had suffered as a result of previous clashes between fans.
There was animosity between the two, purely on political and ethnic reasons, but no violence; no more of the front page imagery that haunted them in the past. The fans understood.
But what is the animosity that saw Western Sydney and Melbourne Victory fans clash in the streets of Melbourne’s CBD?
Clubs in the old National Soccer League were hurt by fines and even point deductions due to their ill-disciplined supporters. Their actions should not be condoned, and they weren’t.
But my question is, where are those sort of repercussions today?
Is this select group of fans trying to live what they see in hooliganism films based on England’s 1980s, or from documentaries they see from Central/Eastern Europe and South America? This sort of behaviour was not excusable in ‘Old Soccer’, why should it be now?
The FFA need to step in. There is no question. This needs to be solved. Those fans need to understand that they are harming their club’s future, and the game as a whole. Just look at some former NSL teams today and where they are. I do not need to mention the position Preston Lions are in now, compared with where they once were. If it means that the clubs suffer, so be it. Just look at some of UEFA’s fines that have seen federations and clubs fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I will continue to support the A-League through thick and thin. I am a football lover. But I will not condone this sort of behaviour, nor should the FFA.
I do not want to go to another game where children get scared and I am sure their parents will not take them if this sort of behaviour continues.
Football is a passion. But crime isn’t.