Browsing articles in "Football – The World Game"
Feb 13, 2015

The Object Of My Sporting Affections

While the Australian summer has served up no end of sporting delights, I have been finding it difficult to be enthused. In a tragedy of Grecian proportions, I have found myself falling out of love with sport. The 2015 Australian Open was, objectively speaking, an entertaining competition with upsets, crowd favourites, home-grown heroes, veterans and upstarts. But I could barely watch a game. I love cricket in all forms. But the Big Bash League is the target of much of my derision. To my eyes, all professional sport has been corrupted by money, drugs and the desire to be “entertainment”. I am only seeing my love’s flaws, not that which made me fall in love.

Facing such a test of my ardour, a potential solution presented itself. Novak Djokovic served to Gilles Müller’s backhand. When Müller slapped the return past Djokovic’s forehand for a winner, the beaten Serb applauded. In terms of loving sport, there were two pertinent actions in this moment. Müller’s shot demonstrated the physical beauty in sport of executing a skill perfectly. And Djokovic’s sportsmanship highlighted the mutual respect that exists between opponents attempting to beat each other in a sporting contest. It is only fitting that a potential solution was highlighted in a sporting moment. Perhaps by focusing on the aspects deserving of my affection I could pull myself from the funk.

Australian Open tennis at Melbourne Park

I turned up to pre-season footy training last week. In my 35th year I thought there was little that would surprise me as 20-odd guys gathered to prepare for the Central Australian Football League’s 2015 season. In the kick-to-kick before training, my partner kept trying to mark the ball with only his right hand. I inquired as to the health of his left only to be informed that it was functioning as normal. I was later told my kicking partner was on day release from a local institution. Although it crossed my mind that my new team-mate might not be the full box-and-dice, I considered his predicament. One thing that he must have missed about a free life was being able to go to footy training. Only sport could make him feel normal. And only sport could give him the sense of fun that must be entirely absent on the inside.

The Asian Cup was a revelation for Australian football. Preceding the event, much was made of how little it had captured the collective Australian imagination. That Australia was out of form and ranked beyond 100 in the world did not help. Fast-forward a couple of weeks and Australia won the final in extra time. The Socceroos appear to be a representative team that is devoid of personal ego. With the notable exception of Tim Cahill, the players seem to be low-profile. The player of the tournament was little-known Australian Massimo Luongo. They each perform their role within the team as best they can and seem to understand that representing Australia is a privilege that could end at any moment. Even this cynical Australian is proud to be represented on the field by a team such as this.

Football at Melbourne's rectangular stadium

I am excited about the cricket World Cup which is about to begin in Australia and New Zealand. While interest in 50-over cricket has been declining rapidly, the World Cup is still a competition that teams genuinely want to win. And players genuinely want to play. In contrast to the BBL where retired “stars” cash in for the purposes of entertainment, the World Cup will only contain the very best players in the world. And those players are often at the peak of their powers. Sport is at its best when two high-quality opponents are doing their utmost to win. Each time India visits Australia for test matches, there is an asterisk next to the result for there is a widespread belief India only really care about tests in front of their home crowds. Certainly this will not be the case for any team during the World Cup.

In some corners, the Tour Down Under is criticised for not being the Tour Of Australia. While there is almost certainly better cycling in other states, the South Australian government created an event that the Australian cycling community loves. From humble beginnings in 1999, the event has grown due to its popularity with spectators and cyclists. On television the racing and scenery pales in comparison to the Tour de France, but evidently the live atmosphere is something to behold. A non-cycling person was in Adelaide coincidentally and somehow found themselves watching the People’s Choice Classic. They were impressed for two notable reasons – the speed at which the pros whipped around the circuit and the atmosphere they felt part of as a spectator. In an era of over-hyped events that fail to live up to the marketing, it is refreshing to see the Tour Down Under thrive organically.

Cyclists corner during a criterium in Melbourne

Perhaps it was always to be this way. When my knowledge of sport progressed to include some unsavoury aspects, perhaps it was inevitable that my love would waver. Perhaps this has been the case with lovers of sport for millennia. (I can picture in my mind’s eye a cynical Bugler amongst the crowd in the Middle Ages, disappointed because the current crop of jousters don’t seem as authentic as those of his youth). Perhaps my method of focusing my attentions on the aspects that I love will be a success. More likely, my love will remain but will not be the same. But I also see love growing anew elsewhere. The mini-Bugler has begun to catch and throw. He identifies the cricket and tennis on television and watches enthralled by the players running, throwing and hitting. His will be a love that I encourage. For although my love is not the same, I will always recall the good times and know that sport was always worthy of love.

Jan 24, 2014

Is The Game Between Players Or Supporters?

Melbourne Victory took on Melbourne Heart a couple of days before Christmas in the latest edition of the local derby. Some naivety on our part saw us with front row tickets for the game. I say naivety because the seats were directly behind the goals, in front of Victory’s cheer squad. While we enjoy watching the odd game of football, we are not quite on our way to becoming North Terrace devotees. Walking past the remnants of flares on the way to the ground gave us some cause for trepidation as we took our seats.

Brisbane Roar celebrate a goal in their match with Melbourne Victory while fans look on

Almost immediately a brief argument broke out next to us. A couple of aggressive guys had occupied seats in the front row that were not theirs. When the rightful owners asked them to move, the more aggressive pair ‘negotiated’ an exchange of seats that were a couple of rows back. The polite pair were not pleased but couldn’t think of a solution that wouldn’t involve them constantly looking over their shoulders for the duration of the game. It wasn’t a great introduction into the world of the North End.

The game passed as games of football do. After Heart’s Patrick Kisnorbo was sent off at the 20min mark, Victory were able to score through Mitch Nichols (twice) and James Troisi. Heart pulled a goal back late thanks to Nick Kalmar but Victory were victorious.

The most memorable part of the evening were the antics of the ‘fans’. A considerable amount of time was spent baiting the security guards. Young men stood on the fence and the ground daring the security guards to respond. At other times, verbal taunts were the norm as were chants from the greater cheer squad. Heart’s then coach, John Aloisi, was also subjected to an inordinate amount of abuse. The mood in the cheer squad made my brother comment that it would be some time before he would take his kids to a game of soccer in Melbourne.

Christmas in Burramine South and a triathlon caused us to miss the next match on the fixture, the now infamous game against Western Sydney Wanderers. The 1-1 scoreline was not the talking point. The behaviour of both sets of fans was. Some Wanderer fans had congregated at the Royal Melbourne Hotel for a pre-game warm-up. Victory fans then approached the venue with no other purpose than to provoke and intimidate the Wanderer fans. One young man was taken to hospital from the inevitable fight, while a couple of others were later arrested. Both sets of fans were to blame for the skirmishes at the pub, and later at the stadium during the match.

Brisbane Roar players congratulate each other after scoring another goal in their 3-0 win over Melbourne Victory

Football Federation Australia (FFA) was rightly upset that the game was being upstaged by the violence of some supporters. The A-League was introduced some years ago promising to leave behind the yobbish and partisan nature of the previous NSL. FFA decided to punish both clubs by deducting points should violence again occur at their games. While many argued that the punishment was harsh and imperious, I think that the point made was an important one – if those calling themselves ‘fans’ of the clubs cared about how the team went on the field, then these true fans would ensure that they behaved off the field. After all, the purpose of the football club is to wins games of football and be successful in the league isn’t it?

We were back in Melbourne for the new year and took ourselves off to the next game on the fixture, Brisbane Roar at the rectangular stadium. After the debacle at the same venue a week prior, the attention was focused on the behaviour of the crowd.

Selfishly, the powers-that-be at the stadium seat the visiting team’s cheer squad in a corner. While the visiting cheer squad view the game from some of the worst seats in the venue, Victory is able to set up cheer squads at each of the north and south end. As fortune would have it, we found ourselves seated immediately behind Roar’s cheer squad. We didn’t have the best view of the game but we had front-row seats for the spectacle of the orange supporters.

Vacant North Terrace seats during a futile protest as Melbourne Victory host Brisbane Roar

Almost immediately we noticed the array of empty seats at the north end, the greater of Victory’s two cheer squads. Inexplicably, the cheer squad had organised a protest against the authoritarian FFA by seating themselves elsewhere in the north end stand. The North Terrace supporters felt it was more important to organise a protest to support members of their own group than distance themselves from the violence. It would be quite easy to say that they did not condone the poor behaviour of some fans, and that the interests of the team was paramount.

One member of Roar’s cheer squad caught my eye almost immediately due to the fact he wasn’t wearing the orange of his team. This young man would comfortably have seen less than 10min of the game being played on the ground in front of us. His focus was entirely on the members of his own supporter group. What interest did this young man have in Brisbane Roar? What interest did he have in football?

Brisbane won the game comfortably. Liam Miller scored in the first half, then Matt McKay and Dmitri Petratos added one each in the second stanza. For the remainder of the game, Roar’s cheer squad, led by my man, sung chants gloating about the silence of Victory’s famously raucous supporters. In response, a hooded and cowardly teenager in Victory’s midst gave the finger to the Roar group before retreating to safety by standing near a couple of security guards.

A jubilant Brisbane Roar cheer squad celebrate their team's 3-0 defeat of Melbourne Victory

Each of these incidents exemplifies the problem with soccer crowds. In each case self-important and juvenile males act selfishly and with complete disregard for other fans. They tell themselves that they are bigger fans, but the reality is that others care much more for the teams than they do. The competition is not between those that attend games, but between those that are playing. All these young men care about is impressing their dumb mate next to them. Meanwhile, scads of would-be fans sit at home thinking that soccer is still a boring game where crowd members need to make their own fun.

Oct 30, 2013

Club vs Country

Ange Postecoglou farewelled Melbourne Victory on Friday night with a 1-0 defeat of his former club Brisbane Roar. Postecoglou was hired by Football Federation Australia to coach the nation’s Socceroos. Faced with a choice of coaching Australia or one of Melbourne’s two teams in the A-League, Postecoglou did not hide his ambition. But Melbourne Victory were not enamoured by the loss of their coach only three games into the 2013-14 A-League season. The resulting negotiations between Australian soccer’s governing body and its largest club left much to be desired. As did the visible response of the Melbourne Victory.

Adam Traore throws the ball in for Melbourne Victory in their game against Brisbane Roar

Postecoglou’s qualifications for the role of head coach of Australia are sound. In only eight complete seasons coaching in Australia’s national leagues, the old NSL and the A-League, Postecoglou’s teams have won the championship four times. He won his first championship in his second year of coaching at South Melbourne. In addition, Postecoglou coached Australia’s youth sides for over six years. Oddly, this national team experience almost counted against him as it was a period in which he had comparatively limited visible success. The only other query on him was his limited international experience – less than one year of coaching in Greece’s third division. But his subsequent success at Roar, where he won two championships in three seasons, made him highly sought-after. Enter Melbourne Victory.

Since their existence began in 2004, Melbourne Victory have been one of the strongest clubs both on and off the field in the A-League. That Melbourne is a sporting city is highlighted by the fact that Victory consistently sets records for attendance and membership. In eight completed seasons, Victory have won the A-League premiership twice. But after a disappointing 8th in 2011-12, the most powerful soccer club in the land went on the hunt for a new coach. They tabled an offer to Postecoglou which saw him break contract and leave Brisbane. This despite the Roar being champions and finishing runner-up to eventual premiers Central Coast Mariners that season. To say this left a bad taste in the collective mouths of Brisbane Roar would be an understatement. Meanwhile, it further augmented Victory’s belief that they were more important than other clubs and crucial to the A-League’s success.

Mitch Nichols bursts into attack for Melbourne Victory against Brisbane Roar

When German Holger Osieck was sacked following drubbings from Brazil and France, a chorus of voices rose up cheering on the cause of an Australian as head coach of the Socceroos. The search quickly narrowed to a choice of three – Central Coast’s Graham Arnold, West Sydney Wanderers’ Tony Popovic, and the favourite, Postecoglou. As Postecoglou continued to firm, and was subsequently offered the role, the response from Victory was lamentable.

There was precious little from Victory’s head office that cheered on the fact that their coach was about to realise a dream and a life achievement by becoming coach of Australia. There was nothing mentioned about the reflected glory on Victory due to their coach being head-hunted by the Socceroos. Instead, Melbourne Victory bleated about being ‘compensated’ by FFA to the tune of over $1million. A veiled threat of standing in the way of Postecoglou’s departure also emanated from Victory headquarters. While it is incredibly tough to replace a coach a couple of games into the beginning of a season, Melbourne Victory did not seem to appreciate the irony that the man who broke contract to join them for a better offer was repeating history.

Ange Postecoglou coaches for the final time for Melbourne Victory in their clash against Brisbane Roar

Apparently Victory’s marketing department missed the memo about being angry due to the coach’s departure. Prior to the farewell game they produced a sappy presentation that would have been more pertinent at Postecoglou’s funeral. The pre-match entertainment would have been more befitting of a favourite son rather than a mercenary who coached for little over a season.

The ear-bleeding noise that greeted fans before the game was crowned by an item that caused barely a murmur amongst the crowd. Apparently a boffin within the marketing department saw Liverpool’s fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the MCG earlier this year. Appearing on the screen and drowning out the actual atmosphere and chanting created by the crowd was a contrived attempt at atmosphere only a marketer could dream up. Complete with a bouncing ball signalling which word to sing, a karaoke version of “Stand By Me” played loudly and awfully. How hard is it to recognise that tradition is created by fans, not by a paid employee copying ideas?

For all the efforts of Victory’s marketing department, the game against Roar seemed to lack the mood generated at the rectangular stadium. The larger size of the Docklands stadium meant fans were somewhat removed from the on-field action. Victory had the better of the game early, but Roar often threatened on the counter-attack. Late in the half it was Brisbane who went close to scoring despite Victory’s possession. Goalkeeper Nathan Coe was called in to keep the score at nil-all. Not long after the re-start, James Troisi threaded a ball beyond the reach of Brisbane’s goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos to ignite the crowd for the only period of the evening. A visibly relieved Postecoglou hugged his assistant coach Kevin Muscat. Fittingly, Victory held on for the win allowing Postecoglou to leave in style.

Melbourne Victory captain Mark Milligan addresses the ball in an A-League game against Brisbane Roar

Ange Postecoglou is likely to be an outstanding coach for Australian soccer. He has experience and intimate knowledge of the game through the old NSL days and the transition into the A-League. His teams have won titles and played a skilful and exciting brand of football. But concerns about representative football begin to mount when people and clubs within the game do not show the correct deference. Melbourne Victory’s petulance gives credence to the belief that the success of individual clubs and players is more important than the health of the game and the national team. In an angry speech, Victory chairman Anthony di Pietro said “Are we furious – the simple answer is yes,”

“Melbourne Victory is the jewel of the A-League. We are strong. We are successful.”

Representative sport is steadily on the wane while clubs gain greater power. AFL’s State of Origin is no more. Australian cricket is being undermined by the riches available in the Indian Premier League. In European soccer, players regularly ‘feign’ injury rather than take the field in their countries’ friendlies. Tennis’ Davis Cup is an on-going joke as players say no when their country calls. How long before the Socceroos sit below Melbourne Victory in the pecking order?