Now this will be an unusual football match experience.
On November 15 Australia take on Thailand in their next 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier in Bangkok’s Rajamangala Stadium. Whatever the outcome or the quality of the entertainment it promises to be a quiet, mournful occasion.
Following the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej on October 13 there were attempts by the Thais to move the game away from a Thai venue. Australia was asked to host the game instead. That was refused. Then there were attempts to move it to a neutral venue, perhaps Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. In the end the Football Association of Thailand settled on hosting it in the Thai capital after all.
The problem was that, following the king’s death, Thailand’s military government declared a period of mourning for which some temporary new laws were introduced regarding public behaviour.
Among the regulations is the observance of a dress code. People, including foreign visitors, shall be dressed in ‘a polite manner with suggested colours such as white, black, grey and preferably with no designs on them’. That would mean no green and gold for the fans.
And no boxing kangaroos either. The regulations prohibit banners, flags, megaphones, whistles and cheering sticks. Neither are loud cheering, singing and collective expressions of celebration allowed. During the mourning period there are to be no public displays of joyfulness.
Goodness knows how the Australian fans will cope with such restrictions. But my view is they should try.
This might sound a trifle ironic to some given that recently in this space I advocated a football boycott of Saudi Arabia because of their imposition of medieval laws on visitors. But it’s not the same thing.
I do not advocate that visitors, me among them, defy the laws of the country they are visiting, including Saudi Arabia. I have refused to visit Saudi Arabia in the past because I would rather not put up with its medieval laws. But if I did visit that country I would obey its laws and its cultural norms.
We in Australia, enjoying our sweeping freedoms, including our freedom to be rude and ill-mannered whenever we like, have an instinctive expectation that we can express those freedoms in any country we visit. This is wrong. Countries are different in laws, cultural norms, political processes etc and we should always respect those when we are visiting them. We are guests in those countries, after all.
Australian fans in the main are well behaved when following their teams overseas. I have seen them up close in the last three World Cups and I saw no unsavoury incidents.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. For example crowd incidents during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa raised plenty of eyebrows. During and after Australia’s game against Ghana in Rustenburg, bottles were thrown onto the pitch by Australian fans in protest at the referee’s decisions. There were fisticuffs between two Australian fans and, reportedly, racial taunting of Ghanaian supporters.
The incident was the first case of crowd violence at the tournament and so alarmed the FFA that it feared damage may have been done to Australia’s chances of hosting the 2022 World Cup. Australia’s international football reputation was badly tarnished.
It is extremely important that we Australians behave ourselves in Bangkok.
I am extremely well-traveled in Asia. As chairman of the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union Sports Group for 12 years I visited dozens of countries from Iran, through Kazakhstan and Mongolia to the Philippines.
My experience taught me that Asian cultures and Asian people are unfailingly respectful of each other and go out of their way not to offend. We should be the same if we want to be members of the Asian football family.
Our acceptance into the Asian Football Confederation was not easy and not an overnight thing. It was a 40-year struggle and our biggest hurdle was to overcome perceptions of cultural arrogance and an air of superiority by our Asian neighbours.
Let’s not blow it now.
I ask Australian fans who plan to visit Thailand for the upcoming game to be totally respectful to the Thais, to their Royal Family, their laws and their cultural norms.
And if you feel you can’t abide by the behavioural restrictions required by the hosts, my suggestion is don’t go.