Recent events and responses associated with the behaviour of a small minority of active fans at the ‘Sydney Derby’ on 18 February are a symptom of broader issues involving supporter group leaderships. They also provide a reminder about unresolved ‘wicked problems’ in the policing of football in Australia.

There has already been a frenzy of media commentary, reactionary social media, opinion pieces and tabloid style responses to that banner characterising opposition coach Graham Arnold. Displayed at the game by elements of the Red and Black Bloc (RBB), I am still bewildered as to how slow stadium security was in getting the banner taken down after being up for minutes.

My view seems to be largely consistent with most other supporters of the Western Sydney Wanderers (WSW). The banner smuggled into the stadium with the involvement of some leaders within the RBB was vulgar and puerile. Any sexually demeaning, homophobic, sexist, racist, discriminatory or religiously vilifying displays have no place in our football under any circumstances. It is surely much more inclusive and even humorous to design genuinely witty ‘insult’ banners within acceptable limits.

Meanwhile, at the opposite away end a small number of fans in ‘The Cove’ inappropriately allowed their frustrations to overflow late in the game. This included damage to seats and throwing objects into the arena.

The game had been another absorbing and highly entertaining encounter, in the balance until full-time. So when the major talking points should have stayed focussed on the gripping football, post match media coverage, discussions and debate instead quickly shifted to fans behaviour. Once again, our beautiful game ‘shot itself in the foot’ through the actions of a few dozen irresponsible or misguided spectators.

That the RBB still has posts on Twitter and Facebook (as of late 2 March) in celebration of the relevant banner shows its defiance, lack of contrition or acceptance of wrong doing.

Disappointingly, the WSW CEO and Board were sluggish to respond.

It took almost a week for Chairman Paul Lederer to issue a public statement of apology. However, the subsequent suspension of members for 14 RBB including several from the leadership group was fair and reasonable. Let us hope there is an appeals process associated with these bans, to ensure at the very least no cases of mistaken identity for the alleged misdemeanours.

Sydney FC’s Cove core fans group cannot take a ‘holier than thou’ moral high-ground given its own history of behaviour by some within its ranks, yet an early statement and apology for incidents at the Derby showed a level of maturity needed across all fans groups in Australia. 

Some sections of the media and elsewhere have used the incidents to demonise the RBB and stereotype hundreds of fans by association, for example self-described sports lawyer, Darren Kane.

In stark contrast to the latter diatribe, there has been other, well-measured contributions including this one from Associate Professor of Sport Management at UTS, Daryl Adair. 

Rather than running an agenda to merely ridicule, corner and severely penalise the RBB as a legitimate entity, it is important to refresh on the group’s proactive and positive contributions.

We need to acknowledge that the RBB since inception of the WSW in 2012 has set the standard to all active football fans groups in terms of galvanising support, through singing, chanting, visuals and of course “La Banda”. Such intense, creative and sustained participation has helped to attract many new fans to the A-League, who have loved to witness their rival teams go head to head with the Wanderers.

Look how the RBB lifted the team in to that vital first leg victory in the 2014 Asian Champions League final, and leading the incredible title winning welcome home reception at Sydney Airport. Also, the fans group has achieve so much by successfully organising numerous fundraisers for good causes and community programs.

After several seasons with the illegal use flares and ‘smokies’ at many games, since October the steam seems to have been taken out of this issue. Obviously the RBB leadership has played a major role in curbing these potentially dangerous devices being set off by some rebellious individuals.

These, and many other positives, risk being forgotten or undone by allowing misguided, socially unacceptable or illegal antics to take the limelight.

It would need expert sociological or perhaps behavioural psychology analysis to unravel the reasons driving motivation to cross the line into highly offensive expression. Another major driver beyond the tribalism of football team fans groups could well be antagonism of many (predominantly men) towards authority and establishment. There is ongoing intense animosity by some aimed towards Sydney FC. This may well reflect a particular distain for the rival club still seen as a symbol of Frank Lowy’s dynasty of power and influence in Australian football.

As a foundation member of the WSW, my plea to the RBB leadership is that the organisation (based upon an incorporated association) must evolve its governance. This includes transparency, accountability and ethics with strongly upheld and communicated code of behaviour. To do this would put the fans group in a much better position to engage and negotiate with FFA, Police, and the club and stadium management on unresolved issues for the policing of football at games.

In August 2015, I presented the results of my preliminary review of governance across all of the A-League club core fans groups. There are important principles of governance which the RBB and other groups would do well to embrace and adopt.

In the bigger picture, FFA were over a year ago forced into agreeing to enable appeals for bans of fans, yet we still do not have a satisfactory and transparent process across the A-League. Broader policing of football failures have not been resolved, so the approach still seems to be focussed on big stick interventions and shows of force rather than more sophisticated engagement as the essential main tool.

Previously I have argued that evidence based policy must be developed for the context of football in Australia, drawing from successful examples in Europe. The ENABLE framework draws from some of best applied research with engagement between relevant stakeholders including fans groups’ leaders at the core. We can learn from these and adapt for our conditions.

Such policy change needs to be facilitated by FFA and for the leadership of police authorities (especially in NSW and Victoria) to shift their own thinking and be open to new directions.

Meanwhile, a crisis of confidence on and off-field at the WSW is the new reality. The spectacular and unprecedented success of the first four seasons since inception of the Club has been replaced by growing pessimism and frustration amongst the broader support.

The domestic league campaign has been a stop/start affair, and this season it looks as if the Wanderers will at very best only just limp in to sixth spot for finals football. In both of the opening games of the 2017 ACL, the team has been demolished and outplayed right across the park. It is up to the coaching staff supported by the club management and board to address this downward trend in form. Regaining competitiveness with our biggest rivals would be helped by the owners opening the purse strings on securing a quality marquee as a striker.

So very many WSW members are even more disconnected and losing patience with the RBB leadership. The West Sydney Terrace choosing to completely separate its support, including standing in other parts of the stadiums is a symptom of tensions. However, the ‘mood’ is now extending into the broader membership.

There is some risk that unless a fresh pathway is taken the RBB could even disintegrate. This could be an outcome not too dissimilar to the implosion of Melbourne Victory’s famous North Terrace supporters group late last year.

An opportunity has emerged for this fans leadership to play another important role by initiating a process to own the problems, enable wisdom to prevail and move forward in a smarter and more inclusive way. To overcome the fracturing we need some maturity to collaborate across the supporter base of WSW, with the RBB, other members and the club working together for long term solutions.

Editor’s Note: Show that the A-League and A-League fans are not homophobic by lacing-up for the love of football during the Rainbow Round of Sport from 6-9 April. Encourage your club to take part too.

Categories: Opinion | A-League | Football Life

a-league, fans, homophobia in sport, #rainbowlaces

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