Content Warning: Readers are advised that the following piece contains mention of racialized violence and hate speech.
As 7:45 approached on the night of the 1st of October 2022, football fans were hoping that the Australia Cup Final between Sydney United and Macarthur Bulls would be a much-needed advertisement for the local game, as this would be the first time a non A-League team would make the final. Unfortunately, as the event occurred, actions from a minute group of fans before and during the match from the Sydney United side drew up images of a time when football in Australia was heavily tarnished in racism, violence, and nationalistic tension – a time that mainstream media still uses to label and profile any form of football fans in Australia. But to truly understand what occurred, it’s important to look at the period when football was like this.
In the period between 1977 and 2004, the professional league in Australia was known as the National Soccer League (abbreviated to NSL). The league was formed from the clubs that were established and flourished by the European communities that came to Australia throughout the 20th century – making nearly all the clubs at this time include some form of European national identity. An example of this would be clubs like Sydney United, which have a Croatian identity; even originally being called Sydney Croatia. This was all well and fine until it came to European clubs whose nations were rivals, as nations from the Balkan region of Europe have a long history of war against each other. So, clubs with identities of Serbia and Albania would naturally have some tension when it came to their supporters and players. This would become a major issue as the war surrounding the fallout of Yugoslavia occurred in the 1990s, meaning that tensions would rise to war-like levels in Australia within the football stands.
With the creation of the A-League in 2005, the aim for the league was to separate the sport from the images of the issues that plagued the game in the past, as all the clubs in this new league were formed with no European identity, only an ‘Australian’ identity. Even rules were put in place where no other nations’ flags could be shown by clubs in their badges, or even flags brought to games by fans. But no matter how much they tried to clean it up, the mainstream media would still try to tarnish the supporters as a whole for the actions of a few. There could be massive brawls at NRL or AFL matches every week, but one little skirmish at a football game gets major coverage and is added to the ever-growing pile. Frontpage stories were publishing the names of people who had been banned for incidents, constant reporting on arrests at matches, and even Alan Jones comparing the Red and Black Bloc (Western Sydney Wanderers Active Support Group) to the people that orchestrated the Paris terrorist attacks, all for simply showing passion.
The Australia Cup Final is unfortunately another one of these cases. The hype around the game was good and Sydney United were in the news for good reasons, becoming the first non A-League team to make the final and having a chance to win the Cup on home soil in Western Sydney as they took on the Macarthur Bulls. However, as the game got ready, trouble started brewing. During the Welcome to Country before the match, a significant portion of the active support for Sydney United booed during the entire thing. There was also the constant booing and harassment of the Macarthur Bulls Players Of Colour. There were even shots of one man Nazi saluting which conjured up memories of the Ustaše, a far-right group that was aided by the Nazis which attempted genocide on the Serbian minority in the country during World War II. The result of the game to the media now wasn’t necessary: they already had their story. However, Macarthur was successful in a 2 – 0 win.
There had been a lot of people wanting to bring back the National Soccer League as a form of a second division below the A-League, and there was certainly passion, but it is these reminders that make people potentially reconsider.
I want football in this country to succeed, and I want the mainstream to stop its portrayal of football fans as nothing more than violent and backwards-minded thugs. However, events like this still show that we, as football fans, aren’t helping our case.