It was Western Sydney Wanderers, flat as pancakes in the audible mist of noiselessness, playing Newcastle Jets, at home and losing.
Parramatta had not been this quiet since before the Wanderers began to gestate not that long ago. The Red and Black Bloc, the RBB, to whose rhythmic sound the city of Parramatta had been pulsating for almost two years now, was having a silent protest, not for 10 minutes, not for 30 but the entire 90.
I took my significant other to a Wanderers game for the first time, filling her with anticipation of what a splendid match atmosphere she was about to experience. And then this.
It was all quite cute actually, as much as it was almost lifeless, as the gathering away from the RBB, which is three quarters of the stadium, tried to liven things up by mimicking the familiar but now absent RBB chants and tunes, but could never rise to the same gusto or decibel levels.
Even on 80 minutes, when most of the RBB remained quietly seated, the rest of the Wanderers fans stood and turned their backs to the playing field, a ritual borrowed, through contagion, from the active fans.
The episode is interesting and educational, a case study of football’s unique, active fan culture and its uneasy relationship with authority.
The precipitator was the AFC Champions League match four days earlier between the Wanderers and Ulsan Hyundai at the same venue, which saw 14 flares thrown from the stadium’s west terrace, the home of the RBB.
According to the AFC’s disciplinary code, each flare incurs a fine of $5,600. WSW, as a result, will have to cough up a total of $78,400 in fines on behalf of their colourful fans for this behaviour.
Needless to say WSW management was not amused and sent an email circular to all its 17,000 members, including those who comprise the RBB, pledging a thorough investigation of who were the perpetrators, subsequent bans, and zero tolerance for such behaviour. Included in the circular was a ruling to ban all flags and fence banners.
I suspect this was what broke the barrier of what the RBB was prepared to cop as retribution and triggered the silent protest.
In a statement later issued by the representatives of the RBB, the active group said it had had planned to unfurl a large banner reading: 'Stand United, Never Divided’, which was rejected and confiscated by the club.
When asked why non-dangerous and inoffensive flags and banners had to be banned, an FFA official told me that concealing flares inside rolled up flags and banners was common practice and security forces would prefer them not to be permitted, or at least did not on this occasion.
The RBB issued its statement after the day of the silent protest. It ran three A4 pages and contained a catalogue of grievances and anecdotal claims of injustice and maltreatment of fans by the club, the security forces and the police.
Among the claims:
:: Alleged offenders among the fan group were being 'identified’ and banned without right of appeal or proof of guilt.
:: RBB members were being followed, to and from games, by FFA’s hired undercover security firm in order to build profiles.
:: An elderly member of the RBB being punched in the face and having his nose broken by stadium security.
:: Harassment of fans by the security forces and police on game day, with the forces claiming they are under instructions to take a zero tolerance approach.
:: Fans being handed 12-month bans for throwing streamers of paper receipt rolls.
:: Ticketing mechanisms being put in place to deliberately limit, rather than increase, the number of RBB members and active fans at away games.
Watching from my seat on this match day, the security and police presence, especially in and around the section occupied by the RBB, was certainly sizeable and probably a case of overkill.
The RBB appeared from my vantage totally placid, inactive and peaceful. They were having a silent protest, after all. Yet police and security, in their lurid yellow vests, found reason to be everywhere, mingling with and questioning fans, with a huge white police van parked, backing flush onto the western stand, seemingly in readiness to ship multitudes of violent hooligans off to some prison camp.
Nothing happened and the big white van, so far as I could see, drove off empty at the end of the night. Complete waste of petrol and driver time.
The issue of conflict, and potential conflict, between football authorities and the active fans lingers and will continue to linger.
Here is why:
:: On the one hand the football authorities engage and hire police and security forces who have no understanding of football fan culture and see the active fans as an unwashed breed of hostiles, hooligans and anti-social elements. Some behaviour by these forces is even motivated by racism and bigotry. This empowers the forces to act in draconian ways without regard for the fans’ natural rights as citizens.
:: On the other hand, elements of active fan groups see themselves as invaluable to the team and the club and presume they have rights to which others and they are otherwise not entitled. This includes committing illegal acts, like throwing live flares, in the name of what they perceive to be legitimate support or celebration of their team. Some of these active fan groups overstate their value to their club and the game and even assume they own the game.
So there has to be reason on both sides of this equation.
Security forces and police need to understand that active football fans, including the ones that chant the odd four letter word starting with 'f’, are human beings and should be treated as such.
The so-called 'zero tolerance’ policy, which gives security staff licence to harass, bully and exclude without redress or proof of guilt has to be withdrawn. Nazi methods of crowd control, whereby humans are being treated like animals, do not belong in football stadiums.
And, on the part of the active fans, illegal activity, such as the throwing of flares, has to stop. We all have to live by the law and so do active football fans, however wonderful the atmosphere is that they create.
We know, for example, that even the RBB is not an entirely homogeneous group and that it houses some seriously nasty minority elements whose agenda is not just to support the team but act up and make trouble.
The leadership group of the RBB, the capos, does not want these elements and, from what I have been told by members of the RBB, does not want to see the throwing of flares either.
But, as I argued previously in this space, the nasty fan behaviour can only be eradicated from within and by fan groups policing themselves. The jackboot approach of fan groups being intimidated by bruising security staff and police will not work.
The leaders of the fans groups, and they all have leaders, have to stand up and be given the strength to eradicate these elements from their midst.
Fan groups, collectively, have to stand up and show that they are sincere in their claim that they are only there to give support to their team and nothing else. Violence begets violence and nastiness begets nastiness.
No flares, guys! Don’t bring them into the stadiums. Only that will ensure that the bruising cops and security men will back off. And you will have nothing to have silent protests about.
I want my atmos back.
Follow Les Murray here @lesmurraysbs on Twitter.