As the world globalises, expect football culture to become more and more a part of the Australian way of life.
In the wake of the 2013 A-League grand final the Australian media has been awash with elation over the spectacular grandness of the event, mostly in reference to the theatre provided by the fans of Western Sydney Wanderers, the RBB.
I have only experienced pleasure at witnessing the lingering coverage over the ensuing week. And it will probably continue for a while longer.
Let’s first put this to bed as we look back. The match itself was not especially memorable. We have seen many grand finals that were more so, even stretching back to the NSL. It was entirely one-sided, the Wanderers were totally outplayed and Central Coast Mariners thoroughly deserved the win. Congratulations to the Mariners.
Yet the event received unprecedented media space post-game, especially in Sydney, fuelled by the wonder of the Wanderers’ fans who, in just the past six months, have become as iconic as any player, team or coach.
If you scour the post-match media coverage, you will see more pictures, video footage or words written devoted to the red and black mob than you will of any player, any goal or any piece of the on-field action.
In an earlier article Richard Hinds wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: 'This is a sit-com featuring the live studio audience. A play where the best lines are recited in the stalls. A sporting occasion that truly does belong as much to those in the grandstands as to those on the pitch."
And then, 'The Wanderers fans might not be as numerous as those of the world's renowned clubs. But that the RBB has become a drawcard in a league where the word ''crowd'' was not always a collective noun is a potent symbol of the game's progress."
The RBB, beyond the perimeter fence, were indeed the stars. Even the flare-throwers got off, lost in the smoky haze for the adulation they drew by their heaving passion and unique, throbbing affection for their team. Their devilish red and black colours dominated and were the seducers of the scene.
The press elation, I believe, was not just a product of wonder but of discovery. For some time now, and I’m talking 50 years or so, this kind of active, noisy, picturesque support by partisan fans has been part of the game, ever since Liverpool’s Kop began to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone, circa 1963.
Yet it took this long for most of our people, our media, to discover it. The discovery should have come earlier. The rhythmic chanting, the singing, the boisterous colour, the thunder of the fans behind the goals, what distinguishes football from other sports and other so-called 'codes’, have been part of the A-League from its beginnings and part of the local game even before that.
The penny is finally dropping. Football is not a sport and its more even than a religion. It’s a culture.
Like all cultures, football has its rituals, its customs, its deities, its language, its music, its respect for its history, its sense of identity and its urge to celebrate and demonstrate it. Football’s ultimate source of strength is its fans, the global football nation, billions strong, who live and breathe the game every minute of their lives and express through it a sense of their belonging.
This is not a game in which only results matter, and who finishes first, sixth or last. Those things are sideshows, numericals by which rivalries are measured over short instants. They are not where a football club’s strengths are rooted.
The Wanderers, a name worn by a club that is but one year old, deliberately celebrates Australia’s first registered football club, founded in 1880, 133 years ago, and domiciled in Sydney’s west. With it the A-League’s newest club formed an umbilical cord with the birth of the game in Australia and the game’s origins in the region.
The choice of the club’s home venue, Parramatta Stadium, is no coincidence either. It was on Parramatta Common where the 1880 vintage Wanderers played the Kings School on 14 August 1880, believed to be the first ever game of Association Football played in NSW.
From these things the fledgling club and its fans gained an immediate enrichment, a cause, a thing to believe in, a podium from which they could do their cheering, a spiritual and not just a geographical home.
This is the way club football the world over works. The Wanderers and their fans didn’t invent it but they are already unsurpassed in Australia in being able to showcase football as a culture rather than just a sport.
They are not alone of course. Each A-League club already has its noisy, passionate, active fans, some even more numerous than those of the Wanderers. Yet it is the RBB that has thrust this kind of unique fandom onto the front and back pages.
Understanding football culture doesn’t come easily for those who are new to it, much less for those who have no grasp of the game’s soul.
As JB Priestly once put it, 'To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink."
As the world globalises, and Australia is drawn into the web, expect football culture to become more and more a part of the Australian way of life.