Football and its fans

A flare at the Melbourne Victory versus Melbourne Heart derby in January 2011

Football fans and violence: what is really going on?

By Roy Hay

The blogosphere has been full of vitriol these last few days since Superintendant Rod Wilson of Victoria police was reported by the Herald-Sun as saying that soccer fans were the worst because of their violence, anti-social behaviour and lighting of flares. Conspiracy theorists, supporters and opponents of the world game, clubs, fan groups, ex-policemen and xenophobes have all had their say. As usual more heat than light has been thrown on the issues, so what is really going on?

A couple of years ago, Dr Ian Warren of Deakin University, Michael Pocklington, who had just completed a thesis on soccer supporters and I spent some time with Victoria Police and the City of Melbourne trying to bring the latest international and national research to bear on what was a new phenomenon in this country. How do you try to ensure exciting, safe and enjoyable experiences at soccer matches where the crowds are up to 55,000 on occasion? At the time the police had very little appreciation that the reference point for the predominantly young active supporters of the game was what they were seeing at Premier league games in England, Serie A in Italy and La Liga in Spain, where choreographed displays, chanting and, in Italy at least, the release of pyrotechnics was commonplace. Police brought up in the cricket and football traditions of this country with their unique patterns of support found this strange and threatening and many of those who were rostered to attend soccer matches did not want to be there. So when incidents occurred, and they did occur, the fans and the police were soon at loggerheads and trouble began to escalate because of incomprehension and inappropriate action on both sides.

Meetings were held with fan groups, police were trained in the peculiar characteristics and behaviours of active supporters, liaison was established between the parties and the club, Melbourne Victory, the venue managers and security settled down to watch the games in the best atmosphere possible. Of course, there were always incidents, as there are every week at football and big cricket matches, but by no means out of proportion on the part of the soccer fans. The big crowds did attract a few miscreants who would smuggle in flares or act as agents provocateurs, inciting fans to react and taunting police. At one recent match a single individual stood at the back of the terracing, threw three flares one after the other and then stood around admiring his handiwork until he was huckled away by security. Normally the provocative ones would stir things and then depart leaving the fans in the area exercised about what most would perceive as over-reaction by police and security staff.

When an incident starts it nearly always is snuffed out quickly and quietly, or it begins to take on a life of its own, so that those on the periphery are only aware of the aftermath. When the fans see a mass movement of security or when the police and security see a surge of fans towards the epicentre of an incident, the potential for real confrontation grows rapidly. The self-policing of fans, which is the key to safe experiences in normal circumstances, can be overturned very quickly, with severe consequences possible. All this was known and understood by the majority of police, venue managers, security and fans and as a result the vast majority of matches passed without serious incidents in Melbourne.

However, recent changes in the personnel and organisation of Victoria police, the introduction of a new security firm and some developments and turnover among those attending football matches have coincided with one or two unsavoury incidents this season. It is permissible to wonder whether some of the lessons learned have been forgotten or not passed on to those involved today. So the calling of a meeting by Melbourne Victory to thrash out the issues and reconnect the various parties is more than welcome. This will do more to deal with any trouble at soccer matches than the incendiary headlines and prejudiced twittering of recent days.

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