Identity is key in football. A fans connection to their club defines them and team colours and kit become symbols and reflections of the culture and fabric of an organisation.

Time and success are also factors in developing that identity and clubs grow and evolve based on years of anguish, turmoil and ecstasy all rolled into one.

Long term players become part of the furniture and supporters’ emotional attachment and allegiance to them can be staggering and unbreakable.

The managers’ style is also key. Teams become known for their tendencies; a stodgy defensive colossus and a fluid attacking unit can both exist in a single league and be adored and worshiped by their home fans just the same.

The home venue, as dilapidated or state of the art as it may be, also shapes the identity of a club. That unique terrace or quirky stand stained with history and culture.

A Stadium Christened with a poetic or artistic name adds to the romance, as does a powerful song that fans sing with hand on heart and tears in their eyes.

In conglomeration, these features build the soul of a club; that tangible and ticking force that brings people to tears and to the ground each week. It shapes the supporters, informs their identity and the fans feed of each other, as the collective becomes something far more powerful than the individual.

However, it is not just the infrastructure, personnel, colours and history of a club that forge its identity. After the fans have soaked it all up, they return serve by providing much of the theatre, atmosphere and energy on game day.

The most obvious example is the active support group; a group of, sadly, over-policed and often misunderstood fans, whom players love in their corner.

Seeing a security guard stomp on a beach ball at the SCG as a young whipper-snapper confounded me. I remember wondering if the owner would get their money back now that their ball was rendered useless after the assault by a size nine Julius Marlow.

I couldn’t quite see the problem or the danger. In much the same way that I believe an expression of dissatisfaction towards the FFA with the support of a rather small banner, should be encouraged rather than frowned upon.

Moreover, passionate expressions of support that involve wild celebrations as drinks fly, garments becoming helicopter blades and a thousand people embrace in a choreographed group hug are not negative influences but fundamental to peoples continued involvement in the game.

That is the type of democracy that I would prefer to live in; one where mayhem in the stands is encouraged, where the governing body is held to account and the odd humorous prop is acceptable. But then again, maybe I am just old-fashioned.

There is a line and violence and flares clearly cross it. However, in an attempt to ‘clean up’ an image that wasn’t particularly dirty to start with, something seems to have been ripped from the active support groups in the A-League.

In doing so, the sanitisation of the game day experience may provide a disincentive to attend matches and become part of active supporter groups.

The clearest example I can provide stems from my recent trip to Adelaide where Sydney FC tried, yet failed, to crack the reds defence for the full 90 minutes and walked away with a rare point.

Sitting in the active ‘away’ supporters section with my wife and kids, we were kept under watch by the eyes of three middle-aged men with fluorescent yellow shirts and stern looks.

Julian Farrell choreographed a travelling ‘Cove’ that was in decent voice. However, without the core of the group there, the knowledge of some of the chants was a little questionable.

As the leaders tried and tried to rally the two or three hundred Sky Blue supporters, the fear in the faces of the security folk intensified and the look of distain was clear.

In all truth, it was the most passive afternoon of support with very little, if any interaction between rival fans. Perhaps the high-point was when the Sydney fans sang, ‘We can drink our water, we can drink out water’ in response to a jibe about traffic congestion in Australia’s largest city.

Pretty tame stuff really and my two girls never felt threatened or in danger at any time throughout the afternoon - and so they shouldn’t. Yet there was something missing, from both sets of fans.

Historically, I have been part of what I like to call the ‘inactive support’; one of those tossers from Sydney who likes to sit far away from everyone else and analyse the game with a colleague.

If you have ever been to a Sydney FC home game, you will know the type; hand on chin, uttering clichéd comments with a bottle of water in their hand and feeling well and truly above all the ‘plebs’ behind the goal.

In truth, perhaps I have always been exactly what the FFA wants everyone in the ground to be; quiet, unassuming and analytical, so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities.

It struck me in Adelaide that such desensitisation could be disastrous for the A-League. As attendance figures fall and passionate expressions of support are slowly discouraged and eradicated from the game, so too does identity.

The fans add that final layer of meaning to a club and recently they have been quieter and less in numbers. No matter how flashy the kit, new the stadium, or successful the manager, the more inactive the fans become, the less identity we all have.

Categories: Opinion | A-League | Football Life

football fans, active support, football culture, a-league

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