It was all going so well. The national men’s team had made the last 16 of a World Cup. The crowds that gathered at Federation Square and AAMI Park in the dead of the night were unlike anything we had seen in this country. It was a mix of class, race and backgrounds. More so than any other sporting crowd, it was a neat snapshot of what our big cities in 2022 actually look like. The players themselves were drawn from all around the world. Four were born in Africa. One was born in the Balkans during the war in the 1990s. Two were from Scotland. “Many journeys, one jersey,” the coach said.
Astonishingly, it was only a fortnight ago. After the events of Saturday night, it feels pre-pandemic. There’s no tiptoeing around or justifying the scenes at AAMI Park. The last time sport was played at the arena, the Matildas won 4-0. It was a joyous occasion. This was the complete opposite. Those storming the pitch were, in a way, instantly familiar. They tended to bob up during the darkest days of the pandemic – forever aggrieved, at the margins, resentful of authority, thick as two planks and almost always male. They presented as a motley mix of the stupid, the far right, the selfish and the lost. Saturday night’s crew was from “Original Style Melbourne”. They thought they were Ultras. They thought they were fighting a worthy cause.
Right now, they’re the face of the sport in this country. Not the kids at 2.30am in the morning at Federation Square. Not the women who will represent their country at a home World Cup next year. These knuckleheads. For many, and for the AFL’s industrial complex, Saturday night’s scenes were heaven-sent. The Herald Sun ran its “Anarchy at AAMI Park” and “Soccer’s Shame” headlines with lip-smacking glee. They’ve been jumping at flares for decades now. This was their proof that the administration, the fans and the sport itself were incorrigible. This apparently justified their long-held, gently whispered fears about football – that it’s a threat, and that it’s somehow un-Australian.
It was all so different two weeks ago. The AFL, being the AFL, dropped its fixture at 6am on the day of the Socceroos’ game against Argentina. It’s not an organisation renowned for its wit or irony, but this was verging on being funny. Naturally, it set people off. There’s nothing like a code war at 6am on a Sunday while Lionel Messi is slicing through your defence.
A disclaimer is necessary in pieces like this. I mainly write about Australian rules football. It’s common for people like me to write tut-tutting pieces about the round-ball game, about how violence on the terraces is endemic, how the administration is a basket case, and what the sport needs to do to get a firmer foothold in this country. For a fortnight every four years, we’re all suddenly experts on the world game. We’re tweeting our thoughts on formations. We’re mispronouncing the players’ names. Simon O’Donnell, whose special subjects are more equine these days, was on SEN (of course) wondering who the AFL’s equivalent of Lionel Messi is. That, if you’re a football fan in this country, is what you’re up against and what you have to deal with.
That’s the least of their worries right now. Rusted-on Australian football fans are sick of having to defend their sport. They’re sick of the infantile code wars that play out on Twitter. They’re sick of the parochialism, the provincialism and the ignorance. They’re sick of the incompetent, self-serving people at the higher echelons of their sport. They’re sick of the AFL, which has monopolised and monetised nearly every minute of the sporting year, and punches down at moments like this.
Most of all, they’re sick of the noisy, tiny minority who ruin it for everyone. You could see it on the faces of the families who remained in the stands as they waited for the Melbourne derby to be called off. You could hear it in the voice of commentator Robbie Thomson, who described the shame unfolding around him. You could read it in the tweets of those who have long defended their sport, and who can barely summon the energy any more.
In the lead up to Saturday night’s debacle, there were boycotts, walkouts and membership cancellations. It spoke of widespread frustration, but also a collective will to push back and stand up for their sport. That too, is a distant memory. Right now, there’s just desolation, and a nagging, very familiar question – why is every breakthrough moment for football in this country followed by a crushing own goal?