Australia’s battle with the ‘not-so-beautiful’ game

Tom Langford-Clarke offers an insight into the ugly side of the beautiful game, exploring the rise of football hooliganism in Australia and what we can expect for the coming A-League season.

It’s deafening. Blinding. Suffocating. There’s no room to move. No time to think. Nowhere to hide… The chants of the faithful bellow over and over. “Let’s go fucking mental” is the war cry of the moment. 1-0 to the Wanderers, 19 minutes in. The stand is unrecognisable, lit up like Hades in a cloud of thick, red, flare smog. Police are scattered amidst a sea of masked faces. The tension is palpable. “FIGHT LIKE YOUR FANS” reads a banner spanning the width of what the Western Sydney Wanderers call their away-end “bloc”. “Fight” would later become the word of the day.

Fast-forward to 2-2 in the 69th minute and Wanderers midfielder Rodrigues Saba is given his marching orders after being shown a straight red card. The bloc erupts. Saba is innocent. The ref is a cheat. Beers are thrown. 10 minutes later Alex Brosque puts Sydney FC into the lead at 3-2. The away-end is silent. The final whistle blows and the players shake hands. The football is over, but the derby has only just begun.

The second kick-off of the day occurs some 5 minutes down Moore Park Road in residential Surry Hills out the front of the Royal Exhibition Hotel. This time however, there are no referees. The Wanderers’ “Northgate” firm, rabid after losing to their Eastern rivals, have targeted oblivious Sydney FC fans celebrating at their local. Punches fly. Chairs are thrown. The violence that ensues would be at home in a scene from Green Street Hooligans.

pub fight

The footpath on Chalmers Street says it all – Sydney fans have bled for their victory.

It is this chaos that Assistant NSW Police Commissioner, Alan Clarke, responded to in early 2014, announcing that the A-League, and Australian football in general, was experiencing its first wave of football “firms.”

For a select few hardcore fans, this is what the 2014/15 A-League season had become. Ultra-violence was part and parcel of match day. “We certainly recognise there are splinter groups that represent a high risk,” Clarke said. “We’re talking about a small group of people who have the potential to ruin the game for a large group.”

While the game was at risk, so too was public safety.

Innocent bystanders were regularly caught in the fray throughout the season, one such incident resulted in a 13 year old Western Sydney fan being pepper sprayed after rioting broke out between Northgate members and Police. While Clarke admitted that Australia “wasn’t [yet] on the scale of the UK,” the increasing frequency of football related violence in the A-League had started to become indicative of the spread of what was once known as the “English disease.”

This disease is not just plaguing the nation’s premier footballing competition however. Its roots lie beneath the surface and can be found all over Sydney’s semi-professional, representative competitions.

Brayden Sorge, right back for the NSW Premier League’s Sydney Olympic, says that wherever you go, the same sorts of things are occurring.

“There’s obviously a lot of passion involved,” he says, “but there’s a line that some people cross when supporting their local sides… A lot of the time we’ll be playing on the weekend and the usual suspects will be around lighting flares and intimidating the opposition – trying to start sh*t.”

Sorge, who has been knocking on the A-League’s door after being included in the NSW Premier League’s ‘Team of the Year for the past 2 seasons, feels that there is no doubt that what we’re seeing in the stands in the A-League is evidence of a wider problem across the majority of Sydney’s lower-tier competitions.

“What you see on the news isn’t a regular occurrence, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary – the blokes involved are the same sort of characters that’ll knock about in every home ground around Sydney and the Inner West… It’s just the way it works.”

What’s also concerning is that the violence is not just exclusive to the stands. I myself, playing in Sydney’s 4th division tier, have encountered the ugly side of the beautiful game. Brawls on a Sunday afternoon weren’t what I initially signed up for when playing football, but it seems that somehow this violence is indigenous to the game – a “world phenomenon” as its been called.

When Vinnie Jones, former Wimbledon and Chelsea player and member of the “Crazy Gang”, was infamously quoted as saying, “the FA have given me a pat on the back. I’ve taken violence off the terracing and onto the pitch,” he essentially captured the essence of the “English disease”. Somehow, with the permission of its players, football violence has become a badge of honour and a rite of passage for true supporters, and it is this disease that has infected Australian football.

What’s more? It has a history. From the violent chaos of the 2014/15 Round 2 Sydney Derby which featured a brawl between 150 members of a Western Sydney Wanderers firm and 30 Melbourne Victory fans inside the Royal Melbourne Hotel in December 2013 to a Melbourne Victory fan being stabbed by a Sydney FC fan earlier that year; the list goes on and on. It has become clear that this behaviour is not simply a one off and needs to be dealt with.

Earlier in the year I suggested that the A-League was in a state of flux – torn between groups of fans that are there to enjoy the spectacle and those minorities that are against modern football. I posed the question that while the league’s popularity is ever increasing, would the violence of a few will impact the success of the 11th season of Australian competition?

Boy, was I right. It took until Round 3 for a newsworthy incident to arise when Sydney FC once again met their cross-city rivals Western Sydney Wanderers. Brawling broke out before, during and after the Sydney derby with approximately 60 individuals involved in the violence that resulted in 3 arrests and numerous hospitalizations.

flarecop

The question begs, what exactly were the 160 strong NSW police doing when these incidents arose? Clearly, not enough… While the recurrence of football violence remains, increased police presence seems to be failing. What we need to consider, is just how we can possibly curb these tendencies and address the behaviours of those who are repeatedly engaging in anti-social hooliganism. Hopefully the rest of the season isn’t spoiled and the fans learn to behave.

Written in 2015, all images courtesy of Getty images Australia.

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