First published on The Conversation on 11 April 2013.
In 2011, I attempted to warn then-Victorian Police Superintendent Rod Wilson and Australian soccer’s governing body, Football Federation Australia, from “amplifying the actions of a few unruly football fans by inappropriately labelling them as hooligans in the media”.
In particular, I drew attention to the widespread “outsider image of football” within Australia as well as my unease at how all acts of spectator disorderliness at soccer matches were being labelled as “hooliganism”. I also took care to describe how such characterisations may help create, escalate and sustain violence at football matches.
My advice was informed by years of research into related problems in Europe in the period from 1863 to the present day. I concluded by pointing a way forward for the authorities:
"Here’s hoping the Victoria Police rethink their policing strategy for the A-League 2011/12 season – for to do so would recognise that collective violence is a sort of conversation among and between its participants, which cannot be combated by merely suppressing violent ideas and punishing loutish behaviour."
Many things appear to have changed since 2011. Those soccer fans that are violent are now displaying a higher level of coordination, especially in ways that seek to mythologise past escapades both within the group and more widely through social media.
However, a number of things haven’t changed. The problem persists, at roughly the same level as it did in 2011 – perhaps tens, not hundreds, of fans are arrested or evicted each game. And the clubs, the governing body, and Victorian police are making comparable statements to those that were made in 2011.
What we are seeing is a discernible shift in the editorial agenda of Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper.
Whereas The Age and (to some degree) The Australian have stayed relatively quiet on the matter, or have gone to pains to emphasise how the problem is isolated to a select few supporters, the Herald Sun appears intent on manufacturing an image of the world game that isolates soccer and its supporters from Australian culture. As one Herald Sun opinion columnist, Rita Panahi, so passionately put it:
"And let’s set the record straight: it is called soccer in this country. Football is played with an oval ball on an oval ground."
One editorial tries to cause a rift between soccer and Australian rules football by referring to soccer’s “violent culture” in contrast “other football codes”. We are led to believe that this behaviour is so unique to soccer’s A-League that:
"A football fan who enthusiastically barracks for his team at an AFL match one day may turn into an abusive and aggressive thug at a soccer match the next."
Herald Sun readers are routinely told that soccer is replete with “simpleton fans” and “dim-witted semi-literates”, who employ “harebrained irrationality” because their “perpetual state of outrage” forever leads to “the type of aggressive ugliness that must be rooted in a deep sense of inadequacy”. And all that from someone who self-identifies herself as a “quintessential soccer mum”.
All this hateful speech because at Melbourne Victory soccer games we’re told, “the stadium sustained damage that simply doesn’t occur at AFL, NRL, Super Rugby or cricket games”.
Indeed, by Rita Panahi’s account: “you simply don’t see other fans behaving in such a manner. When someone causes trouble during an AFL game, the majority tend to turn on them”.
Really? Fox Sports soccer commentator Simon Hill has tallied the numbers, and found that actually:
"At [Melbourne] Victory matches this year…there had been a total (at all home games) of 36 evictions. An average of 3.25 per game. In an average attendance of 23,610. Doesn’t sound much like an epidemic to me. Those figures are roughly similar to the ejection figures for all AFL games at Etihad Stadium last season. In 2012, there were a total of 210 evictions over 47 games – an average of just over 4 per game."
Whatever your “opinion”, it seems when it comes to soccer the Herald Sun don’t value their readers by giving them historically, factually or conceptually informed ones.