Rebecca, my challenge to you is to come with me to a football game, in the hope that you may better understand what makes our sport so great.
For many years, football has been the subject of scrutiny and criticism in Australia. Harking back to the National Soccer League and through the rise and fall of clubs in the A-League, the game has had its fair share of woes.
At the coalface of the anti-football sentiment, you have never been shy to confess that the round-ball game is your 'least favourite code’, and you have been 'highly critical of the code for many years’.
I thought the best way to tackle your perception was to extend an invitation to you to attend an A-League game with me. My shout. Just to see if I can convince you to open the curtain that you have drawn on what we football fans like to call the beautiful game.
Your colleagues, Phil Rothfield and Anthony Sharwood, were critics of football in Australia until recently, when after attending matches, they both wrote glowing reports on their experiences. Do you think such an experience could happen for you?
By extending the hand of friendship, I would love to give you the opportunity to see the atmosphere that so gripped Buzz and Anthony for yourself. Should the day come where we are faced with another hurdle in our code, you would at least be equipped with something that is an invaluable tool in our trade: both sides of the story. I promise that you won’t leave disappointed.
It’s been frustrating for fans of this code to read what we believe are often ill-informed reports of the state of the game in Australia. It’s my hope that we haven’t now reached a point where we have surpassed your capacity just to have an 'opinion’ and satisfy editorial demands; that you’re not now simply hell bent on seeing 'the soccer here on the brink of ruin’. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to have a strict agenda against the round-ball code, and while you claim to rely on expert input with regard to your arguments, I’d like to know who those 'experts’ are.
After the recent spate of anti-social behaviour between Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers fans, Football Federation Australia sent a clear message to unruly supporters that stunned the code. Both clubs run the risk of being stripped of the most important asset to their season, competition points. It is a punishment which could be the difference between being in the finals series or out of it, and not something that can be suppressed with a cheque book.
That stance was an unprecedented infraction in Australian football, with the blaring statement that we will not condone bad behaviour. As a journalist, I am sure you too would be hard pressed to support the rugby league players who have been repeatedly splashed across the newspapers and TV newscasts for domestic disputes, urinating on patrons in a bar, sexual assaults, drugs "¦ The list is long, as you’re well aware. As a code, rugby league is no stranger to controversy or being accused of bringing the game into disrepute, but on a whole, such incidents certainly do not outweigh the positives.
Crowd violence in football is not limited to Australia and is something clubs across the world continue to battle against. It is not something taken lightly, and your ill-informed reference to the Hillsborough tragedy, since removed from this article, which had nothing to do with crowd behaviour, least of all violence, rather an overcapacity issue, has no doubt educated you on what a sensitive topic it is.
What is the biggest key to our success? We are the most popular sport in the world, and despite your comments that David Gallop’s aim to make football Australia’s number one code was a 'ridiculously upbeat assertion’, it’s not unrealistic given the magnitude of the game’s power as a whole.
As fans, we live and breathe football and as the great Beautiful Game photographer Simon Harsent said, 'football is more than just a game, it’s a religion and a way of life’. We are a committed breed that will rise and fall at the most ungodly hour just to watch our heroes and countries battle it out across the world for the most prestigious titles and sporting accolades.
With the momentum that the A-League continues to gain and the FIFA World Cup in June, we have brought that sense of pride and passion to Australia. It’s a shame that through it all, you continue to focus on the negatives. And even in your attempts to be positive – Del Piero’s arrival and the rapid success of the Wanderers – you still concede that you won’t be getting to a game 'any time soon’ and that you’ll be 'the last one on the bandwagon’, if you decide to climb aboard at all.
Since the A-League’s inception in 2005, it’s difficult to not find yourself getting carried away with the atmosphere at these matches, and no more so than now. Whether it’s the infectious trumpet at Gosford, Zads Lads in Newcastle, chanting 'who are ya, who are ya’ in the Den at in Brisbane, being a part of the Poznan for the 80th minute at Wanderland, singing 'Oh how I love to be by the Yarra when the Heart go marching in’ at AAMI Park, returning the 'Sydney FC’ cries at the SFS, seeing the sea of Red pride in Adelaide, joining in on 'Melbourne Victory our boys in blue, the terrace sings as one for you’, the Yellow Fever fans in Wellington, the Shed at Perth.
It’s this level of support from fans that has put rival codes to shame and sparked a universal acknowledgement that to play in front of a passionate crowd of 12,000 at a football game versus a stadium packed to the brim with supporters showing very little or no emotion is an unbeatable experience.
Footballers will often refer to their supporters as the '12th man’ and credit an incredible comeback in a match, or unfailing loyalty during difficult periods, to this mythical extra player. The fans are the very fabric of what makes this game great. Football has the ability to unite different races, cultures, identities and genders, an ability that extends well beyond Australian soil. It is why we’ve seen recent marketing slogans like 'you power the game’ and 'we are football’. The Premier League has even changed its marketing moniker to 'you are football’, because it is ingrained in us, it is who we are and we are proud of it.
Rebecca, I'm not here to convert you into a football fan. I am here to challenge you to join some football fans to experience it for yourself, in the hope that you may better understand the game about which you insist on passing comment.
SBS Football reporter