A-League fans protest in face of heavy handed security

Saturday, February 22, 2014
Melbourne Victory fans protest treatment by club management at a December 13 match against Perth Glory.

In what the Sydney Morning Herald described as the "darkest night" in Sydney Football Club's history, active supporters of the A-League football (soccer) club ― known as "the Cove" ― staged a walkout during the February 8 match against Adelaide United in protest against heavy-handed security tactics.

The Cove displayed banners as the teams entered the pitch stating "We want [Head Coach Frank] Farina gone". A banner in Russian also called for club CEO Tony Pignata and chair of the board Scott Barlow to be sacked by David Traktovenko, Russian banker and sole owner of SFC.

Security staff at Allianz Stadium confiscated the banner shorly afterwards and took the membership of the fan folding it up on the spot. The active support walked out.

Fans gathered at the rear of the stadium, chanting "back the team, sack the board" for the rest of the night. Inside the stadium, another fan threw a beer on Farina, while the team lost 3-0.

Pignata and Barlow blamed the confiscation on "a staff member of Sydney FC who was located at pitch level during the game" and said protocols would be put into place to ensure that "every fan has the right to peacefully and respectfully voice their opinions".

After the incident, the club announced several meetings to engage the fans. However, if the examples from other clubs are any indication, it is unlikely the fans will be given much say in the club's direction.

After a long history of passionate engagement by active fans, Melbourne Victory Football Club announed new standards were being imposed for the start of the 2013-14 A-League season.

New measures introduced by the club included "barcode scanning, perimeter taping and removal of crew banners".

This means the club is removing areas from "general admission", severely restricting freedom of movement in areas set aside for active support, which includes activities such as singing, chanting, dancing and banner waving.

In the letter, the club blamed the A-League's governing body, the Football Federation Australia (FFA), for mandating that all areas, including active areas, have designated seats as part of the conditions of clubs holding a licence.

The leadership group for the North Terrace active support, the North Terrace Collective (NTC), has made general admission in its area during home games and the freedom for fans to move around active bays a "non-negotiable" in their ongoing closed-doors negotiations with the club.

With the club unwilling to budge, the NTC has since boycotted the designated active area in all home games.

The letter detailed several concessions offered by club management in negotiations with the NTC, including trialling ad-hoc admission for those seated in other areas to the active bays and offering members guest passes.

However, after a widely-reported incident, away from the venue, between small numbers of Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers fans before a December 28 match in Melbourne, the FFA had mandated member only active bays as part of the suspended sentence imposed on both clubs on January 2.

These sentences apply to both the north and south terraces for Melbourne Victory fans and the Wanderers' Red and Black Bloc. They were announced without consultation from either group.

A February 12 statement on the North Terrace Facebook page said negotiations with the club were ongoing but "progress has slowed" since the sentence was being applied. It said, "understanding and respect for organised, independent active support in this country — from the governing body down ― is evidently a long way from being achieved."

The security measures come in a context of Australian media racist dog-whistling against A-League fans, espeically active support. Yet all they have delivered is the ongoing boycott of active bays.

During Melbourne Victory's Asian Champions League qualifier against Thai club Muanthong United, fans displayed banners calling for "More Club, Less Franchise" and "Robson out", targeting Melbourne Victory Chief Executive Ian Robson, who has been leading negotiations with the supporters.

Despite such fan protests, the A-league is set for more billionaire antics with the puchase of an 80% stake in perennial under-performer Melbourne Heart by Manchester City ― the English Premier League giant owned by Sheikh Mansour of Dubai's ruling family.

Meanwhile, a consortium publicly headed by Primo Smallgoods owner Paul Lederer is set to buy the Western Sydney Wanderers for $12 million. Singaporean businessperson Jefferson Cheng is the primary financial backer.

But is such corporate ownership the best way to build the league and the world game in Australia?

SFC fans point out the problems with the club are bigger than Farina and stem from a culture of nepotism. Barlow, the board chair, is the son-in-law of owner Traktovenko.

What is the solution? The route taken in establishing the Wanderers in 2012 gives an indication. There was serious community engagement to decide key aspects of the club and strong connections with existing amateur and semi-professional clubs in the region. This has helped establish the club as one of the most loyally and passionately supported within its short existence.

That degree of engagement was necessary for the FFA to win an $8 million grant from the then Gillard Labor government for the development of grassroots football in Western Sydney.

But will the club continue to offer such genuine engagement with fans now it is under corporate ownership?

Or will we see the kind of tokenistic fan engagement as has been offered to Sydney and Melbourne Victory supporters ― at most, winning the right to actively support their clubs on their terms, but never with a say over how the club is governed?

There is another option, which second-tier Queensland-based National Premier League club Northern Fury has opted for as part of its bid to build support for re-entering top-flight football.

The club launched a much-awaited community ownership option this month, in which ordinary supporters hold ownership over the club. This follows the example of Germany's Bundesliga (the nation's top league), where clubs are 51% owned by members.

Club chairperson Rabieh Krayem said members would "actually having a say in the club by voting for the board of directors" ― something a world away from the experiences of Melbourne Victory or Sydney supporters.

From GLW issue 998