The underdog bites -- the Western Sydney Wanderers story

Tuesday, April 9, 2013
The Red and Black Bloc, the Wanderers' active support group, has raised thousands of dollars for more than 200 free tickets for youths from refugee, Aboriginal and other disadvantaged communities.

“We’re from the streets of western Sydney,” chanted thousands of Western Sydney Wanderers' supporters as they marched onto Newcastle’s Hunter Stadium on March 29. About 8000 Wanderer fans had travelled to watch their soccer team beat the Newcastle Jets 3-0 to secure top place on the ladder and win the A-League Premier’s Plate.

Among other things, it means the Wanderers qualify to play in the Asian Champions League. This is a rare achievement in sporting history given that the Western Sydney Wanderers played its first A-League game in October (and didn't score their first goal until round four). Former Socceroo Mark Bosnich listed the achievement as one of the greatest underdog triumphs in the history of the game most of the world calls football.

By itself, this makes a positive story amid a sea of sporting scandals. But the Wanderers, who still face a sudden death finals system to contest the championship, won the league with a wages bill of less than half that of their cross-town rivals Sydney FC.

AFL star Adam Goodes said, after Sydney Swans coaching staff had visited the Wanderers, they “couldn't believe” how limited their facilities were. “"One coach, one assistant, one sports guy – that’s it … The players for their ice baths, (got) into kiddie pools that they bought themselves.”

The team includes a range of players cast off by other clubs – several of whom embraced their fresh chance by turning in career best form. On the human-interest level, the team also features two refugees – the Ethiopian-born Dutch resident Yousseff Hersi (a fan favourite for his exciting dashes down the right wing) and Labinot Haliti, who came to Australia with his Kosovan family to escape war and oppression in 1999.

A big part of the success has been put down to the work ethic and basic structures set up by the coaching team headed by Tony Popovic.

But the on-field success comes in a context of the widely-acknowledged passion generated among football fans in Sydney's west for the team. The atmosphere created by fans, led by active support group the Red and Black Bloc (in reference to the jersey colours), prompted Fairfax journalist Richard Hinds to comment: "Such has been the atmosphere created by the Western Sydney Wanderers' fans, usually dispassionate critics have left Parramatta Stadium raving the experience makes the [Barcelona football stadium] Camp Nou seem like a winter night at the Wentworth Park dogs."

In a December 23 piece that called the Wanderers “the pride of the league”, sports commentator and former Socceroo Craig Foster wrote “get your kids and pals along quick smart, because it's a thing of beauty to see a congregation of fans endlessly driving on their team”.

Wanderers players have often cited the passion of the fans as a key factor in driving their onfield success.

On one hand, the explanation for this is simple: One in three people in Sydney's sprawling western suburbs are from overseas, so a passion for the “world game” is expected. But it has to be placed in a context of the corporatisation of sport ― in which Big Money speaks louder than the interests of fans.

It is not just that it took seven years for the Football Federation of Australia to set up a western Sydney team, it is that the FFA only did it so after the failure of the team owned by billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer's team, Gold Coast United.

This is sport under capitalism: One of the country's richest men, Clive Palmer, gets his own football team before the area with probably the highest concentration of fans of the game in the country.

It didn't matter that there was no real base of support for a team on the Gold Coast ― with the FFA eventually revoking Palmer's license amid very low turn out to games. Money talks and the fans in western Sydney were left stranded ― only given a team to make up numbers after the billionaire screwed it up.

(It is not just fans in western Sydney who were long abandoned by the FFA. When the A-League was formed in 2005 after the National Soccer League collapsed, it excluded the Illawarra-based NSL team the Wollongong Wolves ― despite on- and off-field success. The team continues in the NSW league as the South Coast Wolves, now as a non-profit fan-owned collective.)

Sydney FC existed in the A-League from the start, but many football fans in Sydney's west felt alienated from the club, which promoted a "Bling FC" image. Among other things, it reneged on a promise to play games in the west, making games difficult to for many to attend.

Instead, for thousands of fans, the Wanderers have become a source of pride in coming from an area whose residents are often disparaged as “Westie bogans” and is home to a range of migrant communities subject to media and police racism.

Wanderers fans are very proud of their multicultural nature. One of the more popular RBB songs starts: “These colours unite us all, all the places we're from.”

“Westie” pride is found in one chant on the RBB's chant list that begins: “We're Westie scum! So fucking what!”

In a society where so much entertainment is manufactored for corporate ends, part of the appeal for fans is the rapid rise of passionate support has risen organically. And when the RBB organises marches through the streets of Parramatta to the stadium before every home game, it is an affirmation that the public, not just commercial interests, have a right to the streets.

This is not to suggest it is consciously political ― it generally isn't. Some of the RBB are leftists, but most are simply passionate about the club ― and homophobia and sexism are sadly, if predictably, far from absent.

This space is also heavily contested. The RBB-led support has come up against police, FFA and media hostility and attacks.

This is not unique to Wanderers fans. Followers of the round ball game have repeatedly been subjected to barely veiled racist vilification in the media in this country. A-League games are often heavily policed (including riot police) and an FFA desperate to paint a friendly “mainstream” image hands out punitive bans against fans for alleged activities with no right to appeal or present counter-evidence.

Such attacks have lead to protests this season by fans of Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United against media attacks and restrictions on fans.

The RBB has protested sensationalised and dishonest media reports of Wanderer fans “rioting”. The RBB also organised a dramatic 20-minute silent protest at the Wanderers home game against Wellington Phoenix on March 10 in response to unfair five-year bans on 20 RBB members and the FFA's use of private security firm Hatamoto to spy on and harass A-League fans.

Corporate media reporting often paints a picture of the RBB as out-of-control thugs, using isolated or invented incidents of violence, but they ignore the activities of the RBB that tell a very different tale.

In a sadly underreported instance of community outreach and solidarity, the RBB raised thousands of dollars of donations from Wanderer fans to purchase more than 200 free tickets distributed to youths from refugee, Aboriginal and other disadvantaged communities.

The attacks on the RBB from the FFA, which is also the temporary owner of the Wanderers, shows the inevitable tensions between grassroots fans and a very corporate-dominated league. After all, the full name of the Wanderers on the club's website is the NRMA Insurance Western Sydney Wanderers.

And, however spontaneous the passion for the club has been, huge amounts of money is being raked in in merchandise alone. In the passion for the Wanderers, the capitalists see an opportunity for profits. A March 26 Australian Financial Review article on the FFA looking to sell the Wanderers to a private buyer pointed out the opportunity presented by a passionate support base, “a higher income yield per spectator as they spend more money on membership, tickets and merchandise”.

The success of the Wanderers on-and-off the field shows there are some things that money can't buy. But rest assured, those with the money are going to try.

Western Sydney Wanderers fans at Parramatta Stadium with their "Who do we sing for"/"We sing for Wanderers" call-and-response chant lead by the Red and Black Bloc.

From GLW issue 961