Racist attacks on A-League fans a broader problem

Western Sydney Wanderers support group the Red and Black Bloc respond to Daily Telegraph journalist Rebecca Wilson at a January

Well, January isn't even over and the race for Biggest Hypocrite of 2014 is well under way. And the ever-reliable contenders from Parliament House in Canberra already have some serious competition in the media.

One impressive contender so far is Daily Telegraph sports writer Rebecca Wilson, who wrote a ridiculous and blatantly racist article on January 3 insulting fans of the Western Sydney Wanderers A-League football (soccer) team.

Wilson lied through her teeth about bizarre fictional misdeeds of Wanderers fans and slandered many as criminals, alleging the presence of “very bad people” among the core of Wanderers supporters.

The hit piece by the rugby league-aligned Wilson specifically targetted members of the Red and Black Bloc, which provides “active support” to the Wanderers by singing and chanting on the terraces.

Under a picture of very “ethnic” looking young men in the RBB, fronted by a large shirtless bloke covered in tats, Wilson writes: “So what is it about this that makes my skin crawl? Why do I feel extremely uncomfortable when I see the so-called RBB (Red and Black Bloc) in full voice at an A-League game...”

The term “dog-whistling” is often used to describe an appeal to prejudice (such as racism) that is not stated explicitly but is clear to the intended audience. However, Wilson's comment about her skin crawling at the very sight of the notably multicultural RBB is less dog-whistling and more screaming “I HATE ETHNICS” into a megaphone.

The picture used to accompany Wilson's rant was clearly intended to imply dangerous thugs. But having a few tattoos is not actually a crime. Nor -- outside the bigotted imagination of the Wilson's of the world -- does it make you violent.

On the other hand, what is criminal, dangerous and widely considered to be “very bad” is drink driving, which Wilson has repeatedly been charged with. Which is why, at a January 11 match at Parramatta Stadium, the RBB raised a huge, three part banner reading: “Rebecca Wilson: worry about an RBT not the RBB!”

As well as fomenting the kind of racist hysteria the Murdoch tabloids are infamous for, Wilson's agenda is not hard to see.

The growing success of the A-League is a direct threat to the Murdoch-aligned National Rugby League, and the growth of the Wanderers is emblematic of the rise of the “world game” in Australia. Better remind people these ethnics are all thugs bringing a foreign “violent culture” to our country!

In the process, Wilson made disgusting references to the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy in England, in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives. As part of her campaign to demonise the RBB, Wilson repeated the totally discredited implication that the tragedy was the fault of the fans themselves.

After outraged complaints, Wilson quietly deleted the Hillsborough reference from the online article ― with no acknowledgment. However, this screenshot shows the original wording.

Wilson's piece was not isolated, but part of a hysterical media beat-up about a supposed culture of violence among A-League fans. This follows repeated outbreaks of media hysteria during the 2012/13 A-League season, with right-wing shock jocks and the Herald Sun in the lead.

The catalyst for the latest round of football fan-bashing was a brawl between a handful of Victory and Wanderers fans outside a pub before a Melbourne Victory-Wanderers match on December 28.

Drunken violence outside a pub in Australia? Unheard of! It is obviously foreigners with their foreign sport bring their foreign culture of drunken violence into our country, as we all know real Aussies would never behave like that!

The incident was caught on camera and broadcast widely across all the networks. Never mind that evictions from cricket, Aussie rules and rugby league matches tend to dwarf those at A-League matches.

The blatant double-standards were revealed in an alleged leaked email from Channel 10's chief of staff to all the station's staff, asking any staff member going to a Victory-Wanderers follow-up game on January 14 to use their cameras to film "amateur" footage of angry fans or police evictions for Channel 10 News to use.

On the inconvenient truth about evictions and arrests at other sporting events, Wilson has an answer: “These fans are not part of a gang culture.”

That mention of “gang culture” in relation to the RBB should ring alarm bells... about the agenda of Wilson and her ilk. If you want to know where beat ups about “gang culture” can lead, look at Queensland, where it seems anyone who has ever touched a motorbike is at risk of arrest.

Many progressives who don't follow or care about football can unthinkingly swallow the media's hysteria about “violence” and “criminality” among fans. This campaign includes dire police and media warnings of “European-style hooligan groups” forming ― with no real evidence.

It is accompanied by severe over-policing and infringement on people's rights. Wanderers fans frequently complain they can be made to feel like terrorists just for attending a match.

It is accompanied by draconian measures by the Football Federation of Australia (FFA), which employs private counter-terrorist firm Hatamoto to spy on fans and imposes up to 20 year bans on attending matches on fans based on evidence the fans have no right to see and are denied the right to appeal.

The demonisation of football fans is driven by a combination of standard “divide-and-rule” race baiting sections of the media are infamous for, sectional interests from other sporting codes threatened by the A-League's growth and police forces always on the look out to secure greater resources.

The FFA is more than willing to join the campaign. After the media hysteria, the FFA charged the Wanderers and Victory clubs with “bringing the game into disrepute”, and is threatening to penalise them three competition points if fresh incidents occurred.

This form of collective punishment is widely regarded as an extreme over-reaction. It was also clearly media-driven, given that other incidents that did not generate media hysteria did not lead to similar responses from the FFA.

The A-League is a code run by people who seem to actively dislike the fans they have. The season started with fresh attacks on “active support” by the FFA and club management at various clubs.

Melbourne Victory active support group North Terrace, for instance, has been in dispute with the club since the season's start over attacks on their rights, with frequent protests at matches.

Active support is a crucial part of the appeal of football matches, adding colour and noise. It is a way for fans to do more than simply sit and watch, but directly take part in driving your team on and psyching-out the opposition. Its ability to influence events on the pitch has lead to active support being referred to as the “12th player”.

It is a feature of the game all over the world, but it is in the FFA's sights as part of its ongoing campaign to “de-ethnicise” football. The thinking seems to be that in order to make the game as appealing to what it considers “Middle Australia”, corporate sponsors and the corporate media, the sight of passionate fans singing and dancing in the terraces is too much.

The irony is the rise of the Wanderers is bound up with the role of active support. Many won to the Wanderers side were fans of other sports attracted by the carnival-like atmosphere the RBB helped generate. The development of a new, passionate fan base for the Wanderers also meant huge amounts of money for the FFA via merchandising.

This places the FFA in something of a bind ― on the one hand, the growth of the code is bound up with the attraction of active support, on the other it needs to keep as tight control as possible over the game's image and presentation, if only to keep the Murdoch media at bay.

A similar contradiction can explain the wildly shifting response from the Daily Telegraph. The paper, which is a sponsor of the Wanderers despite running slanderous pieces like Wilson's, vacillates between seeking to ride the wave of enthusiasm for the Wanderers and joining its southern sibling, the Herald Sun, in using football fans as stock villains in sensationalist coverage.

The FFA and the Tele would love to find a way to overcome these contradictions. But to enforce a much tamer form of support ― where everyone sits in their seats and merely claps or cheers a goal ― is to undermine the appeal of the game.

The use of racism and the attack on the democratic rights of football fans should be of wide concern ― whether or not you have the slightest interest in the sport itself. Don't think that extra police resources and mobilisations used against football fans today won't be thrown against protesters tomorrow.

This is why it is not an issue simply for those who follow the game, but for everyone. Just like treatment of refugees is not just an issue for those who need to seek refuge and attacks on bikies is not just a concern for those who like to ride a Harley.

For me, I'll tell you one thing for free: I'd sure as hell rather be singing on the terraces with the “very bad people” of the RBB than on the road with a drunk Rebecca Wilson behind the wheel.