“I can't explain how happy I am that I've taken a small part in something bigger, and how we as a group showed those in power where the power actually lies.”
This comment, on a Facebook group for supporters of the football (soccer) club Western Sydney Wanderers in Australia’s A-League, came after possibly the largest sporting protests in Australian history.
The protests come in a context of sustained attacks on soccer fans – still seen as a “foreign” game by many and with fans subjected to often extreme over-policing.
Including a broadly supported fan boycott, protests forced the previously hostile heads of Football Federation Australia (FFA) to agree on Dec. 9 to seek to meet fan demands.
At stake is basic democratic rights. On Nov. 22, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid Daily Telegraph ran a front page hit job on “soccer thugs” that published a supposedly confidential list of 198 A-League fans who have been banned by the FFA from all FFA-organised events.
The published list included minors. At least one person lost their job as a result. Crucially, the article threw a spotlight on the FFA’s undemocratic practices.
The bans, ranging from between one and 20 years, are supposedly for anti-social, illegal or violent behaviour. But those banned have no right of appeal and are denied the right to even see the evidence against them. Many complain of being the victims of mistaken identity or of bans being based on police allegations later disproven in court.
Part of the reason the FFA wants to keep evidence secret is it uses a private anti-terrorist security firm, Hatamoto, to spy on fans and collect evidence against them – an astonishing violation of fan rights.
As anger grew over the Tele’s hit job, other right-wing voices joined in – a radio host compared A-League fan behaviour to the Paris attacks, another called fans “suburban terrorists” and a high-ranking police officer called fans “grubby pack animals”.
The attacks of soccer fans come despite repeated evidence that arrests and incidents of “anti-social behaviour” are actually lower at soccer games than other sporting events.
Fans from across the A-League’s 10 clubs collectively raised some simple demands: that the FFA allow an independent, transparent appeal process; allow banned fans to see the evidence against them; and for the principle of innocent until proven guilty to be applied.
The Tele’s hit piece managed to unite fans across all clubs – no small thing in the context of heated rivalries on and off the pitch. When the first round of protests only met with insulting press statements by the FFA, protests escalated into a boycott. Attendance over the Dec. 3-6 round were down by nearly a third from the preceding week – close to 20,000 less people were in the stands.
Most decisively, the active support areas, which provide much of the vaunted atmosphere at A-League games, were empty and stadiums eerily silent.
It was an impressive show of strength by fans, as their passion is essential to the growth of the game in Australia.
Anyone with an internet connection can watch higher quality soccer in Europe’s top leagues, but the carnival-like atmosphere created by A-League fans is unique. The experience is more active, colourful, and basically participatory than anything offered in other sporting codes in the country.
The protests have been led by “active support” groups – whose members are those specifically targeted by the media, FFA and police. These groups organise large-scale, collectively coordinated singing, chanting, dancing, music and banner displays. As already organised collectives, they were able to spear-head protests.
No other sporting fans in Australia are treated anything like soccer fans. Clubs with large multi-cultural and working-class fan bases, such as the Wanderers and Melbourne Victory, are especially targetted.
For Wanderers games, fans face riot police and cops on horses. A special police task force created to targeted bikie gangs have even been mobilised, in a revealing insight to how police view the Wanderers’ widely lauded active support group, the Red and Black Bloc (RBB).
It is impossible to separate this treatment from the reality of modern Australia. It taps into deep-seated racist paranoia – soccer has long been derided in Australia as “wog ball”.
Soccer may have been invented in England, but in Australia, the “world game” only took root thanks to the mass migration post World War II by southern Europeans. Anglo-Australians have traditionally followed cricket, Australian Rules football and rugby league.
The corporate media love to sensationalise and ethnic supporters of A-League clubs make for great images to scare “white” Australia – fitting in nicely with “terrorism” scaremongering and fears of refugees invading by leaky boat.
The targeting of Wanderers fans by the right-wing media makes more sense if you consider the support base for the club. One in three people living in Greater Western Sydney are born overseas. As a line in an RBB song declares: “These colours unite us all, all the places we’re from.”
But the treatment of A-League supporters also connects with other attacks on civil liberties - trade unions, for instance, are under severe assault.
To investigate why A-League fans are angry is to come face to face with some ugly truths about the state of the country. To see the collective fight-back is to see an example of how such ugliness can be confronted. In a context where trade union membership and industrial action is at an all time low, it is A-League fans who are debating picket lines and the concept of “scabbing”.
The defiance displayed by active support groups like the Wanderers’ RBB seems to upset sections of those in power. Since NSW police, furious at Wanderers fans use of the phrase “All Cops Are Bastards”, publicly labelled Wanderers supporters as “grubs”, RBB-inhabited terraces have rocked with the chant: “We are the grubs of West Sydney! Go fuck yourself, ACAB!”
Not only do sections of the media and police seem to hate the pride displayed by the often ethnic, young working class people who make up groups like the RBB, but they appear to hate the self-organisation it represents.
Rather than passively consume the corporate-sponsored “officially endorsed” modes of support, active support groups involve ordinary people organising themselves. It provides a rare space where people can come together in collective, creative activity.
Even though it is over something as simple as supporting their team, it seems any example of ordinary people organising collectively on their own terms is too much for some to tolerate.
Fearful of bad publicity, the FFA management appears more concerned with appeasing the right-wing media in a futile bid to appease a mythical (white) “middle Australia”.
This is not that surprising when you see who runs the FFA – the same wealthy, usually private schooled, older white men in suits who seem to run everything in this country. Not for nothing does the RBB defiantly sing: “Suits will come and go, but the Bloc will never fall!”
The recent attacks on A-League fans shows there are no boundaries to injustice and persecution. Sport is not some carved off arena free from social realities, but reflects them.
But those who run the game in Australia are now well aware that the fans are not just cash cows or sheep-like consumers – they are active protagonists who refuse to be treated like “pack animals”. And they will fight for their basic democratic right to actively follow the game they love.
Carlo Sands is a Wanderers fan subjected to a ban from attending Wanderers home games, despite the police charge leading to the ban being thrown out of court.