A-League fans rebel for democratic rights

December 3, 2015

Red and Black Bloc banner on November 29.

A large-scale revolt of fans of the A-League, Australia's leading football (soccer) competition, has broken out. With several “active support” fan groups on an indefinite strike and fans from each of the 10 clubs protesting in one form or another, it is one of the largest sporting-related protests in Australia's history.

The issue at stake is basic democratic rights denied to fans by Football Federation Australia (FFA), which appears far more concerned with appeasing the right-wing media engaging in outrageous and slanderous attacks on football fans than with actually promoting the interests of the sport.

The protests are driven by an inspiring and unprecedented show of solidarity and unity across often hostile active support groups in each club.

Active supporter group statements and comments by fans on social media reveal a growing fury at the shocking way supporters of the round ball game are treated in this country – by police, sections of the media and the FFA that, as almost every one involved in the sport now says, mismanages the code.

Protests were seen on terraces across the country in the round starting on November 26, with large protest banners and dramatic walkouts by the active support groups of the Western Sydney Wanderers, the Red and Black Bloc (RBB) and Melbourne Victory, the North Terrace (NT).

In the lead up to the next round, active support groups of all clubs except Wellington Phoenix called for boycotts or a walk out. Phoenix's Yellow Fever fan group offered their full solidarity, but with the FFA seeking to abolish their club on the grounds it is not viable, they understandably feel they have to prioritise game attendance as a matter of survival.

By the time the round began on December 3, an offensive FFA press conference that made clear the governing body was refusing to deal with fan concerns led the RBB and NT to declare their boycotts were now indefinite.

Dubbed the #StayInThePub round by fans, it began in Gosford with Central Coast Mariner active support group Yellow Army on strike, leaving a large banner reading “GONE TO THE PUB” at the front of empty bays.

There have been many protests by A-League fans in recent years against an array of harassment, slander and injustice targetting football fans. But the scale and unity of the current protests is unprecedented. Individual players and representatives of the players' union - themselves in dispute with the FFA over player pay and conditions - have backed the fan protests, as have several coaches and club CEOs.

The protests represent a “boiling over” of frustrations building up over some time. In April, the situation deteriorated dramatically, with the 2014/15 regular season ending with Wanderers fans being pepper-sprayed by police in an unprovoked attack at a home game. A 14-year-old boy was hospitalised.

In recent weeks, A-League fans have been slandered in the media and by police as “thugs”, “grubby pack animals” and even, in an absurd Herald Sun op-ed, “suburban terrorists”.

The protests were sparked by a potentially defamatory front page by the Sunday Telegraph on November 24. Sports commentator Rebecca Wilson published a supposedly confidential list of 198 individuals banned from attending any FFA events for periods ranging from one to 20 years.

Wilson then went on Alan Jones radio show to attack the FFA for allegedly having its “head in the sand” over A-League “thugs”. Jones asked her whether “this was like terrorism in Paris”, to which Wilson responded: “That's exactly right”.

Wilson used her article to claim that the A-League has a "cultural problem" with specifically higher levels of violence and anti-social activity by its fans than in other sports.

But fans repeatedly point out that the claim that violence or anti-social behaviour is worse at A-League games is not backed by facts, pointing to higher amounts of arrests and eviction of fans from grounds at other sporting events.

In fact, three days after Wilson's attack, the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, which runs the SCG and Allianz Stadium was listed as one of NSW's most violent venues. It has been hit with special alcohol restrictions as a result.

But a break down of the source of violent incidents finds that most occurred during NRL games, followed by cricket, rubgy and AFL. Soccer was last on the list with just one violent incident in the past financial year.

The SCG Trust -- whose board members include Alan Jones and Wilson's partner -- is also one of the prime suspects in leaking the confidential list of banned fans to Wilson.

Of even bigger concern than the hypocritical singling out of A-Leagues fans, though, is the lack of justice involved in the banning process to begin with. Fans banned for alleged “anti-social behaviour” such as lighting flares or sometimes alleged physical violence, have no right to see the evidence the FFA uses against them. They also have no right of appeal.

Many of the banned fans claim they are victims of mistaken identity. There are multiple cases where individuals have been charged with offences by police and automatically given FFA bans, only for the charges to be dropped or dismissed in court. But the FFA bans remain in place with no capacity for redress, despite the fan being proven innocent in court.

Bound up with this are two other controversial and revealing factors in the treatment of A-League fans. The FFA hires Hatamoto, a private firm specialising in counter-terrorism, to spy on and infiltrate fans, especially the active support groups. The evidence gathered by this group is both highly secret and gathered in a manner that fans feel is intrusive and unfair.

The second factor is the extreme over-policing of A-League games – especially the Wanderers and Melbourne Victory games. Fans are faced with an intimidating police presence, including riot police, police on horses and, in the case of the Wanderers, even the NSW Police Strike Force Raptor squad set up to deal with criminal bikie gangs.

The police directly work with the FFA over bans – meaning police know that if a charge does not stand up in court, they can still get the fan punished by passing details of the charge straight on to the FFA, who refuse to apply the principles of natural justice.

The key demand of the protests is for the FFA to install a fair and transparent appeals process for bans. No protesting fan group is asking for the right to break the law or FFA regulations – nor endorses violence, even if the Murdoch press want to twist the issue to claim it is about “defending thugs”. The issue is that people are being banned wrongly or unfairly with no recourse.

Although the protests were sparked by the Telegraph's attack piece, which the RBB is organising a collective legal action against, it quickly centred on the issue of FFA bans. All fans are asking for is that, in the case of bans, they are allowed to see the evidence against them, that they have a right to appeal the ban and that the basis for deciding on bans is the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

The FFA, however, has outright refused these demands. First the FFA tried to claim an appeals process already existed – despite the fact no fan group had ever heard of it and all attempts to get bans overturned were flat out refused by the FFA.

Then the FFA promised an appeals process, but insisted that the evidence against fans would remain secret – that is, the FFA would protect its Hatamato agents. Fans would also have to prove their innocence – despite not even knowing what the evidence against them is.

Whether or not you personally care for the sport – or indeed any sport – the simple fact is all citizens should have the right to participate and enjoy any sport of their choosing. The FFA routinely denies people that right – and then denies them any form of natural justice.

Banner raised by Melbourne City fans at AAIMI Park on November 27. Security tore it down.

Add to this the fact that right-wing media outlets, with terrible records of racist demonisation of various sectors of the community, repeatedly seek to sensationalise supposed “soccer hooliganism”.

When looking at why this often absurd demonisation occurs,it is essential to consider that football of the round ball is unlike other codes for some specific reasons. It is a “foreign” game, long derided in Australia as “wog-ball”, disproportionately supported by migrants or those born into migrant communities.

It is no coincidence that the fan groups that are the most targetted by police, the right-wing media and the FFA are those with the largest working-class migrant fan bases – the Wanderers and Victory.

And it is no surprise the RBB and NT have been the first to take the strongest, united actions – agreeing on walkouts and sharing each others statements with declarations of solidarity.

There are other issues at play than just racism. The “world game” is growing in support in this country. Soccer is now the most played sport at the junior level. Established codes, backed by friends in the media, are seeking to use fears of “hooliganism” to undermine the sport.

The ridiculous thing is those running the FFA appear to agree with the attacks. The FFA seems desperate to appeal to a mythical (white) “middle Australia” and are terrified of media attacks. In the process, they are alienating their actual fans and threatening the growth of the game.

One thing is clear, the FFA heads – especially FFA CEO David Gallop and A-League head Damien de Bohun – are under intense pressure. They have dug their heels in, insisting they would get round to investigating the question of appealing bans in February.

As a result, the terraces at games of the A-League, which have been growing in recent years, may be conspicuously empty for some time to come.

But the solidarity, unity and determination of the fans to oppose a grossly unjust process, mixed up with racist media attacks and police repression, has already forced an increasingly isolated FFA on to the back foot. If the unity of fans, players and club officials holds, victory in a campaign for basic justice may well be possible.

[Carlo Sands is a Western Sydney Wanderers fan who is subjected to a ban by Pirtek Stadium, despite the the criminal charge leading to the ban being dismissed in court.]

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