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NPL fracas indefensible but not racially motivated

Source: Supplied

When English novelist Sir Terrence Pratchett said: “the important thing about football, is that it is not just about football” - you could be forgiven for thinking that he had the Australian game in mind.

In the last year alone, so much of our domestic football scene has had very little to do with the exploits and drama on the pitch, but rather what’s happening off of it.

This week was no different, as the sport’s reputation was plunged into further chaos following the fight between the fans of Sydney United 58 and Rockdale Ilinden FC at the weekend.

The footage was disturbing, the violence indefensible and the condemnation from all corners of the football fraternity and wider society, was justified.  

For a code that has long opined about the mainstream media’s lack of interest in us, these events sure as hell gave them a reason to take notice of football - but for all the wrong reasons.   

In the aftermath, media coverage began spreading like wildfire with headlines like “Man allegedly armed with lawnmower blade in brawl” and “‘Armed with weapons' - NPL match rocked by shocking fan brawl as police investigate.”

Reports have emerged that three spectators were taken to hospital, one man has been charged, while two persons of interest are still yet to be identified. 

Ilinden released a statement on their Facebook page saying they “do not condone anti-social and criminal behaviour” with Football NSW announcing that both sides will contest home and away matches without their spectators for the remainder of the season. 

While the investigation continues, it is not yet known what further sanctions will be imposed on the clubs.  

Like reading straight out of a playbook, the reactions from those inside and outside of football were largely predictable as once again, we were plunged into a situation where we had to defend our game. 

To suggest that both of these clubs should be stripped of the chance to join the National Second Division now is absurd.

Punish them with some form of a points deduction sure, but give them an opportunity to prove that they are taking the actions of these individuals seriously.

Witness accounts will tell you that both sets of fans were to blame and that the events have largely been misreported. 

For one, the spat that erupted on the pitch, in and around the 79th minute was an isolated incident that was nothing more than handbags between two sides contesting a grand final rematch. 

Where it became contentious, was when a Rockdale fan invaded the pitch and punched Sydney United goalkeeper Danijel Nizic in the head. 

Some will argue that the match should have been abandoned by the referee then and there but nevertheless, it continued without further disruptions until the full-time whistle blew. 

Thereafter, players were seen shaking hands and wishing each other all the best for the rest of the season before heading into the dressing rooms. 

It wasn’t until at least 10 minutes after the game the brawl erupted and while accounts may vary on how it started, from words being exchanged to drinks being thrown, what eventuated was embarrassing and deplorable.

Contrary to popular belief, fans did not arrive to the game prepared for a fight. 

The machete, which was reported by some media outlets, was in fact a lawnmower blade found at the ground and many of the items used in the brawl, like the tables and bread crates were also already at the stadium. 

By establishing these points, I am not attempting to minimise the actions but rather to dilute the sensationalism and dispel the inaccurate reports. 

Those charged should be banned from the game for life because not only have they brought the game into disrepute but they have dragged the players, remaining supporters, respective club staff and volunteers through this unnecessary nightmare and they don’t deserve that.  

However, something I have taken serious issue with is the idea that this was racially motivated and the references made to the former National Club Identity Policy by 2GB radio host Ray Hadley.

During an interview with Football Australia Chief Executive Officer, James Johnson, Hadley chose to hone in on the NCIP, saying that he thought it was a “good idea”. 

Released by Football Federation Australia in 2014, the policy was subsequently scrapped in 2019 and replaced with ‘The Inclusivity Principles for Club Identity’, with Johnson saying that it was designed to “bring people together in the community.”

Hadley was intent on pursuing his line of questioning, suggesting that Australia has been “captivated by PC BS”. 

The NCIP has been considered to be a much-maligned and entirely flawed policy which, the governing body, in consultation with a number of the game’s key stakeholders, determined was never fit for purpose. 

At the time, fans felt as though it was introduced in an attempt to whitewash history and prevent a multi-cultural Australia from celebrating its varying ethnicities. 

David Gallop, together with the board at the time, were right to abolish it and move towards a more inclusive approach

So let’s be very clear: the events on Sunday had nothing to do with race - the Croatians and Macedonians have never had any form of racial tension and it most certainly had nothing to do with the lack of any formal NCIP. 

In the same way, we condemn the recent sporting violence that we’ve witnessed across the NRL, cricket and AFL, we must treat this for what it is: foolish acts by individuals who don’t represent the ideals and values of what it means to be a sports supporter.   

It just so happens that when it occurs in football, it almost always has to be a representative of our entire sport which is wrong and creating a double standard. 

There is no denying that as a code, we have experienced issues in the past that have been racially motivated but they transcend football and the game has only ever been a vehicle to exact those sentiments. 

Hadley’s observations of this particular situation though are entirely misinformed. 

“Aren’t we all Australian, be we from Macedonia or from Croatia or from somewhere else? Aren’t we all Australian? He asked Johnson. 

“So why are we catering to an uprising from 1903?”

To insinuate that Australia is “catering” to these nations by allowing them to include ethnic associated terms in their names has missed the point entirely. 

When clubs like Rockdale and Sydney Croatia were founded in 1969 and 1958 respectively, they were formed in an attempt to pay homage to their cultural backgrounds, all the while establishing an identity in their newfound home of Australia, through the global game of football.

They were never built on the premise of needing to be “catered to”, on exclusion or as an opportunity to preclude themselves from Australian society. 

When Hadley insinuated that a young Rockdale boy who wanted to play football for Ilinden wouldn’t feel included because of the club’s name and heritage, it would have been the perfect opportunity to remind him of some crucial facts. 

Both the current head coach and assistant coach at Rockdale are in fact Croatian and the first-grade squad is a culturally diverse mix of players with Serbian, Macedonian, Spanish, Greek, Asian and Arab heritage, just to name a few.   

Excluding Banri Kanaizumi, Tomoki Wada and Enol Ordóñez - the remainder of the squad were all born in Australia.

Similarly, the entire Sydney United first-team squad, barring Sallu Kamara who is from Sierra Leone, were also born in Australia. 

Better yet, one of Sydney United’s most celebrated figures in the club’s history is Australian national team coach, Graham Arnold. 

Arnold, who was born in Sydney and started his career at Gwawley Bay in 1969, went on to make 178 appearances and score 68 goals for Sydney Croatia from 1982-1990.

At the time, racism towards “wogs” was rife and if ever there was an opportunity for the clubs with these ethnic ties to make it about “us versus them” it was then - but they didn’t.   

They welcomed outsiders just as much as they did their own. 

Described by my brother Ned as a “cult hero” at the club, ‘Arnie’ will be the first to tell you that he remembers his time at Sydney Croatia very fondly and that they embraced him without question - Croat or not

The point of all of this? The overwhelming majority of these players were born in Australia and the mere fact that Rockdale is a “Macedonian club” has not deterred previous, current or future participants. 

If you go to an Italian restaurant, you don’t have to be of Italian ancestry to enjoy the exquisite cuisine. It also doesn’t mean that if you enjoy it, that it is detracting from your love of this country.

The same rule applies here. 

You don’t have to be Italian to play for Marconi or Greek to play for Sydney Olympic and so forth - it’s your love of the beautiful game that connects you which no other sport in the world has the ability to do better than football. 

If Hadley is bothered by these clubs paying tribute to their founding fathers and their heritage, well that says more about him than it does about them. 

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission: “One in four of Australia's 22 million people were born overseas; 46 per cent have at least one parent who was born overseas; and nearly 20 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home.”

“Migrants make an enormous contribution to Australia’s economy and provide an estimated fiscal benefit of over 10 billion dollars in their first ten years of settlement. In 2010-11, international education activity contributed $16.3 billion to the Australian economy.”

We are Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Italian, Greek, Malaysian, Chinese, Serbian, French, English, Croatian, Sudanese, Korean, Portuguese, Macedonian, Polish, Filipino, Japanese, Russian, Scottish - the list goes on but the one thing we have in common is our love for this grand country.

So Ray, when you pose the question “aren’t we all Australian?” perhaps you should think about what it actually means to be Australian? 

Because, just as I am damned proud to be an Aussie, I am also incredibly bloody proud to be Croatian too.