‘Who do we sing for?’ a stranger will ask me and I will reply, ‘We sing for the Wanderers.’
The red and black striped jersey two people share become a reference point for our shared origin, Western Sydney: a predominately working-class area to which I still have a loyalty. This explains why in only a few short months the new Western Sydney Wanderers football club has gained a band of loyal followers – the passion of the fans and their identity is perhaps about more than the club colours and the players on the field.
But if someone had told me last year that I would turn up to a game an hour early, to join hundreds of others in the suburb I grew up, I’d have said they were crazy. I’d been to a few A-League games with friends and marched with tens of thousands to save my favourite Ruby League team – the Rabbitohs – when I was a kid, but I hadn’t imagined my passion extended this far.
The Wanderers supporters group, The Red and Black Bloc (the RBB), embodies passionate football support at a level rarely seen in Australia. It’s a dedication that’s not only drawn the admiration of football fans around the country but that has also ruffled feathers of politicians, the police and the media. Inspired by European and British football culture, ‘active’ football fans do not see themselves as mere spectators in a game, but as vital to their side’s performance at home games, leading some commentators to describe the RBB as the ‘twelfth man’ on the pitch. In active areas, usually at the northern end of the pitch, large banners or ‘tifos’ are unfurled and people are expected to stand sing and chant, often led by a ‘cappo’ with a megaphone, before, during and after the game. The effect can often make the match intimidating for the opposing team, whilst home players draw confidence, as crowds have continued to grow throughout the team’s debut season.
When I attended, I found myself comparing the rituals to demonstrations and political protests I’d attended – and not just the sensation of participation, but because supporting the team from Western Sydney felt like supporting the area itself, like it was part of something bigger.
The bloc poses a very minor threat to the political order or the powers that be, but the parallel between political protest and active support becomes more striking when supporters stand face-to-face with the very same police Occupy protesters faced in 2011 when they were evicted from City Square in Melbourne.
Since the beginning of the 2012/13 season in October, evictions of fans have not been uncommon, often on spurious grounds or with little evidence at all, and sometimes with the use of capsicum spray and force. Many leading members of active supporters groups have been banned for up to five years, with no appeal; usually, they are not privy to evidence provided by private security firm, Hatamoto, a company hired by the FFA to spy on active supporters. According to sources from Northern Terrace, Hatamoto ‘have used invasive surveillance techniques that are more suitable to their self-proclaimed field of expertise, counter-terrorism, as opposed to football supporter[s]’ including ‘accessing North Terrace members private social media accounts’ and ‘surveillance and directing of police at non-FFA venues such as pubs frequented by supporters pre-game’.
Fans are angry: despite their support (arguably) adding value to the A-League, contributing to an atmosphere that attracts more fans and TV viewers, they are seen as a threat, and are not afforded even basic legal rights like the right to appeal bans or see the evidence against them. Fans are also angry that their respective clubs have done little to support them from the relentless smear campaign against supporters by the mainstream media. It led some football fans to set up the Facebook page, ‘Passion is not a crime.’
Take, for instance, Baz Blakeney from the Herald Sun, who in one notable piece asked, ‘What is it with soccer crowds? How can a sport that would seem, on the surface, to be rather genteel, attract so many nasty, vicious drongos and simpletons? … there was this guy. In the Heart cheer squad. With a megaphone. Shouting chants for other cheer squad members to follow. He spent the entire match with his back to the game. Never saw a kick. That’s not a guy who loves sport. That’s a guy who loves shouting.’
Ted Bailleau, then Victorian premier, even got in on the act, introducing harsher laws for football ‘hooligans’:‘They have demonstrated an ugly, ugly side, which we don’t want to have any part of in this country, and certainly not in this state. It’s completely foreign to the basis … of sports culture in Victoria.’
In response, fans took to Twitter to condemn the FFA and media. Many blamed media interests with investments in AFL and Rugby League. They demanded a response from the FFA and their clubs, but when these teams were silent, it led fans to organise further, introducing ‘silent protests’. Melbourne Victory’s Northern Terrace held one on 3 March, which then inspired Western Sydney’s Red and Black Bloc to hold one the following week.
During the protests, fans remained silent for sections of the game, holding banners such as ‘Protect your fans from baseless bans,’ ‘Corporate Ties = Media Lies, support your supporters’ and ‘Hatamoto out of football’. The latter slogan was pulled down by security during both protests. Supporters stressed that their protest was not against teams or players, but against club officials and the FFA, who had left fans with no choice but to show officials what games would be missing without them. The effect on the atmosphere was notable, forcing commentators to comment on why the stadiums were almost silent. Both groups issued demands with their protests, calling for basic legal rights and the RBB suggested a ‘supporters union’ should be set up to fight for and defend supporter’s rights. The protests extended to a boycott of food and merchandise at the last home game of the year when authorities deemed a large banner or ‘tifo’ too high risk and banned it at the last moment.
While these protests are far removed from the scenes of Occupy, and many fans are bewildered that their support could be perceived as threatening, I think it confronts something in the way society expects people like those in Western Sydney to act. People are expected to consume sport – like many other things – as passive spectators, and in the neoliberal age, this extends to other areas, such as politics, where we’re meant to select one team or the other based on what they do on the field or in parliament. We are not meant to participate in this process; we don’t really get a say about what policies our leaders pursue. At least with football, supporters feel like their actions might affect their team, which cannot be said for Western Sydney’s influence on the Labor Party.
Active football support, I think, is evidence of the potential to challenge expectations that we sometimes take as a given, i.e. the lack of engagement in politics. It’s telling that in Egypt, the ‘Ultras’ became a vital ingredient to the success of the revolution, bringing their passion, and their experience of defending themselves from the authorities, to the streets.