Let the fans be fans

Harry Kewell of Melbourne Heart is mobbed by fans after the Hearts won their fist game for the year during the Round 15 A-League match. (AAP)

FFA must harness the unique passion of football fans, not try to suppress it, if the game is to survive and flourish here.

When the showpiece of the so called 'new football’ was launched in 2005, Frank Lowy famously begged the fans of 'old soccer’ to come and support the A-League.

They responded and they did. And why wouldn’t they? They love and want their football.

Now, five years on and with crowd numbers already way down on those of that opening season, ignorant forces within and on the periphery of the game are actually acting to chase more fans away.

Even lower crowd numbers are surely to be the consequence of the heavy handed way in which the more enthusiastic, more active fans are being treated by muscle-happy security staff and police around the country.

The issue reached critical proportions recently in Melbourne where Melbourne Victory’s boisterous and exuberant core faction of fans, the Northern Terrace, were targeted by security and police, with flags, signs and 'tifos’ (large banners tens of square metres in size) confiscated, supporters punched and the odd one ejected from the stadium for swearing.

One fan wrote online:

"There has been lots of media attention concentrating on the relationship between VicPol (Victorian police) and active support, especially Melbourne’s Northern Terrace relating to flares, foul language and physical violence.

"This came to a head at the Victory versus Gold Coast game, where a brawl broke out between supporters, police and security.

"The Northern Terrace held a protest at the midweek game stressing their importance to the club and the league as a whole and their desire to be treated as loyal and devoted fans rather than customers."

He went on:

"Firstly, it is my opinion that the FFA and VicPol show a massive lack of understanding for the passion and active culture exhibited by active support across the league.

"The FFA is not used to such behaviour, and the VicPol seem to crack down on the slightest and most trivial discretion.

"The clearest example of this was when fliers that had a new chant on them were being circulated through the terrace and VicPol confiscated them.

"They also tore down a pre-match 'tifo’ at the derby on the grounds that flares may be lit under them.

"I have seen police officers assault fans for no good reason as they abuse their rights and responsibilities as protectors of society. FFA should embrace such dedication especially when crowd figures are getting lower, not persecuting their supporters.

"Also, VicPol need to stop inciting riots and allow supporters to actually support their team."

Fighting words from this young man but he does make a good point when he claims the authorities lack an understanding of football’s unique fan culture.

Such a lack of understanding by third-party security staff and the boys in blue may be excusable. But ignorance of the culture and the passion, which should be valued and harnessed, by football’s own governors is not.

This again is a casualty of the need, back in the mid-2000s, to take football’s management out of the hands of incompetent football people and replace them with others who were competent at many things but had no feeling for football.

It reminds one of the time one high level FFA apparatchik, a lieutenant of John O’Neill, tried to dismantle and disperse Perth Glory’s vibrant and noisy Shed, who were responsible for the best match atmosphere in the league at the time, because of too much foul language.

Thankfully it didn’t happen for surely it would have been a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

But there are still people in high places in the administration of 'new football’ who would like to see a far more passive and sanitised form of support from the active fans that gather behind the goals at each A-League game.

What they seek, I gather, is something modelled on the inert way AFL or NRL fans behave. Or perhaps they would prefer the soul-less, orchestrated cheer squads you get in basketball.

They do not understand the beast. Football supporters are, above all, fans, not spectators, onlookers or, even worse, customers. They have too much pent-up passion to be able to sit there quietly and cheer when the odd goal goes in.

They are active because they see themselves as members of the team and will do whatever they can, short of stepping on the field themselves, to contribute to the defeat of the opposing team.

This is why at many clubs around the world, like Boca Juniors for example, there is no number 12 squad shirt, the number being reserved for the fans who are seen collectively as the 12th man.

It is why I suggested in an earlier blog that, as a tool of engagement, A-League clubs should also dispense with the squad shirt and, instead, distribute replica shirts with the number 12 on the back for the active supporters.

This passionate, active loyalty is unique to football for it is only football among sports which generates this level of passion.

It should be harnessed and encouraged, much less daunted or feared. What, after all, is a football match without atmosphere and the rhythmic din created by the active fans? It is the audible heartbeat of the game.

This does not mean, of course, that violence and mindless lunacy on the terraces should go uncontrolled or tolerated. But passionate, active support should not be confused with football hooliganism, a very different thing.

It is the difference between the two that the authorities do not understand, hence the problem.

There is a deep obsession with fan behaviour among the security providers, and even FFA, that is rooted in images of the defunct NSL’s occasional incidence of ethnically driven fan violence. This is nonsense, the obsession should be done away with and the nature of genuine football support understood.

Within the obvious boundaries, such as the ejection or arrest of mindless thugs, fans should be allowed to be fans, they should be allowed to enjoy themselves and their positive energy exploited for the good of the game.