Despite the best efforts of administrators, police, and security teams all over the world, soccer violence and hooliganism continues to be an extremely frustrating blight on the beloved sport.
Last December, a 43 year-old man died during melees between different sets of fans in Spain, while currently in Ukraine the ongoing turbulence occurring outside stadiums somehow continues to filter inside them. In February this year, over a dozen people in Egypt were killed in clashes between fans and police, littering the streets with tear gas, lead pellets and dead bodies, and suspending the league season indefinitely.
Today, it’s a highly visible phenomenon with omnipresent media patiently waiting at every match to swoop on any misconduct. It’s pervasive and it unfortunately seems to be ingrained in the culture of the sport. But for Australia, where the game is rapidly growing, it’s not too late to stop it before it becomes part of our own.
The game of soccer (called football in most parts of the world) has been associated with belligerence ever since its inception in 13th century England. Early matches were essentially opportunities for young men of rival villages and towns to settle hostilities, disagreements and land disputes. Though it wasn’t until the early 1960s when the term ‘football hooliganism’ was popularised, and people began looking at it as a cultural by-product. Since, historical, social, economic, political and religious factors have been accepted as catalysts, beyond what merely transpires on the pitch.
Regardless, here in Australia today hooliganism is not a large issue. The introduction of the A-League in 2005 as the nation’s highest level of competition, largely brought to an end the much-publicised hooliganism that plagued the National Soccer League (NSL) for almost 30 years.
“Regardless, here in Australia today hooliganism is not a large issue.”
Thankfully, since the replacement, much of the male dominated gang culture has evaporated into little more than a bad dream.
But with incidents such as those to come out of last month’s Sydney derby, hooliganism has again reared its ugly head. On the night, Sydney FC defeated Western Sydney Wanderers in a thrilling 4-3 contest thanks to a superb late Terry Antonis goal. Another night of brilliant football, another night tarnished by poor fan behaviour.
After the match, four fans were attacked unprovoked by a group of up to 30 while walking to a nearby CBD train station. Two sustained considerable physical and psychological injuries and were taken to hospital immediately. During the game several flares were thrown at crowd members and players, while a Western Sydney fan assaulted Sydney FC defender Aaron Calver. It was not the same kind of terror or trepidation experienced in Egypt a month earlier, but as part of something with such burgeoning popularity, it was more than enough to cause concern.
“All fans need to just take a chill pill to be honest,” said Sydney FC Chief Executive Tony Pignata after the match. “We all want to support our teams win, draw or lose, but after that let’s get back to the world we live in.”
Proponents of the game often remind naysayers of the vast majority of fans lacking aggressive or anti-social intent, and the majority of games in Australia that run without incident. But when the word ‘incident’ relates to the infliction of emotional and bodily harm, then just one is clearly too many.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) is Australia’s overarching soccer governance body and Media Operations Manager Adam Mark said authorities are doing their best to diminish these kinds of behaviours.
“FFA and the Western Sydney Wanderers FC have been working closely with the NSW Police to identify the people responsible for the [match day] attack,” he said. “FFA [does] not tolerate this type of anti-social behaviour and we will continue to work with all stakeholders to prevent such incidents happening in the future.”
At FFA, Mark plays a large part in facilitating communication between fans and the administration. He’s the first port of call for the incessant media enquiries and scrutiny which come the organisation’s way, and he’s integral to managing the game’s public perception. Though he only sees the Sydney derby as one of a couple of “isolated incidents”, he agrees FFA need to do more to prevent them.
“I don’t believe that we have a problem per-se, but we do understand that there are isolated incidents that need to be addressed from time to time”
“When you consider the vast number of members and fans that attend A-League matches throughout a season, I don’t believe that we have a problem per-se, but we do understand that there are isolated incidents that need to be addressed from time to time,” he said.
“The FFA works very closely with the A-League clubs, police, security, venues and fan groups to ensure a safe match day experience for all fans. This is based on best practice standards to create an enjoyable experience for all.”
FFA Chief Executive David Gallop spoke in September last year about the condition of the game, and warned of the impact hooliganism could have on its growth.
“The game has 1.9 million participants (now the biggest of any sport in the country) and because of the game’s booming profile, the mainstream media will generate more attention than ever before,” he said.
“Our governance structures need to be aligned, efficient and ready for the challenge. Every stakeholder needs to know their role and have the trust in others, and that’s the starting point of our ambitious thinking. Fan engagement is the life-blood of everything we do [and] we need to stay ahead of the trend in this digital world if the football family is to remain strong.”
Overseas authorities have deployed a vast array of tactics to keep anti-social behaviour down, providing valuable models for their Australian counterparts to follow. Segregating fans, restricting alcohol, forcing teams to play in empty stadiums and developing ‘fan coaching’ schemes have all had a positive impact. Here, opposition fans are also separated, forced to drink predominantly lighter alcohols, while state legislation—particularly strong in Victoria—has been introduced to cover acts of ‘hooliganism’. By purchasing tickets to matches fans are agreeing to abide by the National Spectator Code of Behaviour, a list of easily followed guidelines to keep violence to a minimum. When they fail to do so, they are breaking the law.
Adam Mark said the FFA is working hard to concurrently maintain the illustrious match day ambience, while also eradicating specific troublemakers before the game falls into irretrievable disrepute.
“The close working relationship between FFA, A-League clubs, fan groups, venues, security providers and the respective police services have allowed us to create safer venues without compromising the match day atmosphere,” he said.
“The development of legislation and use of CCTV and other intelligence gathering techniques have also allowed us to identify anti-social spectators who breach the code of behaviour, and in some cases, this has led to significant (multi-year) bans.”
January’s Asian Cup finals saw all 32 games largely go off without a hitch—including several matches between nations with extremely volatile relationships—which is something to suggest FFA’s strategies are functioning as planned. As time goes on soccer’s brand in Australia – including the Socceroos and the A-League – is growing to rival the more established sporting codes. As fandom evolves at such a critical time, the trick is to make sure it’s the right kind. One devoid of violence and senselessness.