Bounce of the ball

Bounce of the ball

Fourteen penalties: Sydney’s A-League derby off the pitch

AAP/Dean Lewins

Last weekend’s A-League derby between Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers was a tense and thrilling game. More than 40,000 spectators cheered on their respective teams, with the match also available to viewers on subscription TV.

The official fan groups, Sydney FC’s The Cove and the Wanderers’ Red and Black Bloc (RBB), were – as always – actively singing and chanting during the game, bringing atmosphere and “carnival” to football.

Throwing the game

On this occasion, the Wanderers prevailed 1-0 over the Sky Blues.

The Cove, displeased with their captain not being awarded a penalty in the dying minutes, provided an unexpected encore to the carnival: at the end of the game some of their fans threw a range of objects – the largest being seats – into the playing area.

An apology – four days later – admitted that “there are never any excuses for this type [of] vandalism and dangerous behaviour”, though The Cove stopped short of offering to pay for damage. Accepting and taking responsibility are very different.

Making a mockery

In the final minutes of the game, the RBB – perhaps emboldened by their team leading – held up a tifo (a decorative banner first made famous in Europe), a typical prop in the carnival of football. In this case it depicted an image of the opposition coach, Graham Arnold, engaged in a sex act: a mock penis was being thrust into his mouth in co-ordinated fashion.

The explicit and indecent nature of the tifo, especially in an arena where children were present, was not appreciated: there soon followed a chorus of criticism from both the Sydney and Western Sydney clubs, Football Federation Australia (FFA), football commentators and sport journalists.

Even Brendon Santalab, who scored the winning goal, expressed alarm:

For the fans who are interested in causing trouble, it’s not what we want in the A-League and definitely at the Wanderers. We’d like to stamp that out and just have a nice family evening and a great spectacle for the game.

Spreading the word

Unlike The Cove, however, the RBB responded by rejecting all public criticism, instead drawing attention to an ongoing dispute with the FFA, whom it described as “dictatorial”.

From this perspective, the FFA is reactionary and authoritarian when it comes to fan conduct: after all, prior to February 2016 there had been bans with no appeal process. The RBB soon upped the ante: it added to their official Twitter feed an edited image of Robbie Slater, the football commentator, holding a comic phallus rather than a microphone. Slater had criticised the RBB’s explicit tifo; this was its way of ridiculing his stance.

Meanwhile, the RBB added a new range of “merchandise” (clothing, mugs) on its Facebook page – which were adorned with a depiction of Arnold engaged in a sex act. Thus far this post has attracted 92 “shares” and 1,400 “likes”, with an original photo of the tifo garnering 155 “shares” and 1,900 “likes”.

Five days after the derby, Western Sydney Wanderers reported that after poring over video tapes of the tifo incident, 14 members of the RBB would be given notice of an intent to ban for 18 months.

Subsequently, the FFA gave notice to the Wanderers that, as a consequence of the actions of this group, the club had “brought the game into disrepute” and thus would be fined A$20,000. The individuals would be required to complete a “social inclusion program” before being eligible to return to games.

There was now an explicit onus on Western Sydney to monitor all social media platforms and the actions of fans at games: “any further breach” could result in “shutting down the active area”. Despite this warning, smutty images continue to adorn the RBB’s Twitter and Facebook sites.

Aesthetics and politics

Western Sydney University’s Jorge Knijnik has explored the cultural politics embedded in the RBB, learning that the group – overwhelmingly male and from diverse ethno-cultural backgrounds – share similar grievances against authority, economic privilege and “mainstream” (integrationist) multiculturalism.

The RBB is a forum for them to express solidarity, to create their “own space” and to “sing for themselves”. The musical, theatrical and satirical contributions of active fan groups are common in Europe; the RBB has been at the forefront of such creative expressions in Australian football.

Carnival, in the tradition of Michael Bakhtin, involves challenge to the established order:

Hierarchies are overturned through inversions, debasements and profanations, performed by normally silenced voices and energies.

From this perspective, celebration and satire provide opportunities for poking fun at authority, offering critique and advocating liberation of the oppressed. None of these general objectives is in dispute.

Moral sensibility

The query, in the case of the RBB, is whether the Arnold tifo was appropriate in what organisers describe as a “socially inclusive” and “family friendly” public setting. The banner parodied homosexuality as the “ultimate” humiliation for a straight man.

The explicit nature of the mockery was not lost on those directly impacted, as Arnold revealed:

My family were upset, to the fact where my girls have come to every game of football that I’ve coached and played since I can remember and they don’t want to come anymore. It’s a strong statement from the girls and my wife, my wife is extremely upset.

None of this appears to have moved the RBB or indeed the club. Arnold has not received an apology from either group.

Wanderers CEO John Tsatsimas told a Sydney radio station that because the offensive behaviour was conducted by the Wanderers’ active supporter group, but not an official or player, the club itself was not responsible. Therefore, the club would not be apologising for the behaviour of “others”.

The club agreed to take responsibility for punishing transgressors, but would not apologise or direct a statement of regret to Arnold in recognition of the offence caused. This did not stop the FFA:

… commend[ing] the Wanderers for acknowledging that the club must carry responsibility for the actions of its fans.

There are, no surprise, social media commentators who have described the tifo as merely a “bit of fun” and “just a joke”. In that sense, critics are “going overboard” by way of “political correctness”.

No doubt people have different moral compasses. However, there is no absolute right to “freedom of speech” (that is, anything goes) at a ticketed public event: codes of conduct are a condition of entry, whether by organisers or venue managers.

We can debate the merits or otherwise of such rules, but there can be no doubt they were violated by The Cove and the RBB. Yet only one of these groups has owned up to that.

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