Fans don't need to change, FFA does

Australian football is going through an identity crisis and a cultural change. These are often painful but necessary steps on the road to progress.

Change isn’t always fun. But it’s what drives the world forward.

Which is why, angry as I remain about the leaking of the “banned list”, the media bashing of the world game by a pair of xenophobic dinosaurs and FFA’s failure to stand up for its key stakeholders in a blunder that betrays a monumental lack of vision – I see a light at the end of the tunnel.

The national governing body finds itself with the opportunity to take perhaps its greatest leap forward since 2005. For in many ways, understanding football fans and presenting the game to the Australian public with pride in preference to appeasing Australia’s more xenophobic elements represents football’s last frontier.

Once again, football has reached a fork in the road. These moments don’t come around often and if the FFA seize the day and display the kind of vision they showed a decade ago, what awaits them is the opportunity to help football leap ahead in this country.

They’ve done it before.

To understand where we find ourselves today, it’s important to go back a few steps.

By 2004, among the challenges that football faced was a national league that was low on corporate and media support. The NSL, rightly or wrongly viewed as representative of a few ethnic communities, appealed little to local football fans, let alone mainstream Australia at the time.

A decade ago, Frank Lowy read the mood of the nation’s football supporters and tapped into it. It takes vision to conceptualise and then breathe life into a non-existent league. It takes great management to turn it into an outstanding success.

By 2005, Australia, more mature than in previous decades, was ready to embrace a “code” that valued skill over brawn, was one at which we were unlikely to become world champions and one that forced Australia into learning to pronounce foreign sounding names correctly. It takes maturity to embrace all that.

So exactly what did Lowy tap into?

It was a feeling of hurt – not only over 32 years of World Cup non-qualification but because our sporting market did not cater for its marginalised football fans, most of whom felt they deserved better. Football coverage, SBS aside, was in the main, xenophobia-driven and mainstream media only sat up and took notice when the occasional act of NSL violence or Socceroo failure could give rise to a sensational headline.

Football, despite its massive participation numbers, was a pariah on the Australian sporting landscape and AFL hierarchy’s infamous comment that they opened a bottle of French champagne each time the Socceroos failed to reach the World Cup highlighted what the game was up against – unlike other sports, football was not considered “Australian” enough to wish it well. Yes, we could all smell the barely-disguised fear behind those comments, but it left most of us football fans seething and hoping for better days.

And so, by the time the NSL was laid to rest and the A-League kicked off in August 2005, football supporters were ready to get on board. The now-marginalised former NSL clubs, knocked off their perch by “New Football” and hurt as never before, viewed the new competition as an interloper and a “plastic league”.

To them, the people who had turned out in vast numbers to support the newly created A-League clubs were theatre goers. The new league and its “plastic” supporters were never going to last. After all, where had the fans been all these years?

They didn’t get it.

A decade on, the A-League remains a viable competition played in front of crowds of, mostly, between 10 and 20 thousand supporters. Perhaps singing “I Will Stand In Moore Park Till The Day I Die” appeared a touch contrived a few weeks into the league’s inaugural season but ten years down the track, it is clear that the majority of those fans were in it for the right reasons and for the long haul.

Just as the A-League clubs have now matured and begun putting roots down in their communities, so has their fan base. The pride we feel for our respective clubs is immense. We have supported our clubs through good times and bad and for many, our clubs have become our way of life.

It is real.

It is tribal.

And it isn’t going away.

Fans have become more assertive. They have earned that right. A player will wear the colours of an A-League club one year and be kissing the badge of another the next, while professional administrators and marketers move freely between clubs and even sports.

A fan, on the other hand, is for life.

And so, various A-League fan groups have become powerful entities, with Sydney FC’s Cove, Wanderers’ RBB and Melbourne Victory’s Northern Terrace leading the way in A-League fan assertiveness. These groups have, at various stages, led fan actions that sent powerful messages to club owners, media or the FFA. More often than not, their calls have been heeded, especially by the clubs, who value their support.

There is no use pretending that occasional acts of antisocial behaviour haven’t taken place. It isn’t ALL a football-hating media conspiracy. But A-League safety is no worse, and most likely better, than at the Melbourne Cup, cricket, AFL and NRL matches. Certainly the SCG Trust’s own list of violent incidents within their two venues – Allianz Stadium and the SCG itself – points to football as the least of its problems.

And so, this is where we find ourselves today. The massive breach of privacy committed by News Limited in publicising the names of people banned from attending A-League matches for offences ranging from severe to trivial has galvanised supporter groups. Some have opted to engage with the FFA directly, others to stage walkouts and support lawsuits.

The breach of privacy is enormous but so is the fact that those on the banned list have had no right of appeal, whatever the FFA may have said last week when backed into a corner. This points to is a major flaw in FFA structure and mindset.

And that mindset needs to change.

After all, many of us expect little better from sections of anti-football media. But we expect better from football’s governing body.

From a fan perspective, the FFA just don’t get it anymore.

A decade ago they did. They built it and we came. What the FFA achieved a decade ago was nothing short of revolutionary. But most revolutionary groups struggle beyond their original goals and having achieved those, draw the line and become conservative by default.

In 2015, if the governing body expects supporters to simply show up on match day, sing a few songs and depart home at the full time whistle, they misunderstand the mindset of the ordinary football fan.

I guess it is in the makeup of the world’s movers and shakers. There is no doubting their good intentions or indeed their love of football. After all, they came in and fixed the game.

But watching the game from corporate boxes or the Chairman’s Lounge, a glass of fine wine washing down an exquisite, expensive meal is a gazillion miles from standing shoulder to shoulder in a stadium heaving with fans, bathed in the sweat and beer of one’s fellow active supporters.

Don’t get me wrong, having easy access to corporate box tickets, fine dining and business class travel is a wonderful thing. But it makes one removed from those who save up their cash for that away trip in cattle class and who will stand with their team in good times and bad.

This is the active fan.

This is the Hoi Polloi.

This is the Great Unwashed of Australia’s footballing world that has been disrespected and riled enough to unite and take a stand.

Just as those 32 years of hurt culminated on November 16, 2005 first in an explosion of anger and then one of ecstasy, fans today are still feeling marginalised by mainstream media and, more importantly, unsupported by the FFA. A-League fans are angry that the FFA don’t understand and value them enough to have their back.

And at FFA executive level, poor old A-League Head Damien De Bohun has been scapegoated for all the game’s ills. No doubt he has to carry the can for various operational mishaps but the FFA’s lack of understanding of and empathy for the A-League fan mindset isn’t De Bohun’s fault.

It goes higher than that.

De Bohun’s and David Gallop’s statements in the face of the anti-football media’s onslaught were cringeworthy. If the best they could do was appease those same anti-football forces that the game was taking violence seriously then it is a slap in the face for football and its fan culture that ought to be a celebrated but is so misunderstood by football’s governing body and sections of Australia’s society.

What we, the committed football fans, needed to hear from FFA’s highest echelons was that:

Publishing the banned list was a massive breach of Australian privacy laws and the FFA and football fans reserve the right to sue;

FFA stands with football supporters, whose good name News was attempting to smear;

The ill-wishers needed to be publicly called out and shamed for their grubby attempt to invoke the memories of terror victims to spread their xenophobic, fear-driven anti-football agenda;

And only then, having assured US, the football public, that the FFA has our back, it could point to the list, unlawfully leaked as it was, as proof that it had football’s anti-social elements under control.

That’s what we needed to hear.

That the FFA respects us, values us and has our back.

Sadly, it does not, and in his latest statements, Gallop has continued to talk down to football fans.

If new boss Steven Lowy understands this, he must drive change from within football’s governing body and he must do it now.

He could start by appointing a Fan Relationship Manager, whose role would be to liaise with fan groups and represent them at the FFA table.

This is not to be confused with a Fan Engagement Manager – the FFA already has a good one in Robert Squillacioti, who heads FFA’s newly created Digital and Fan Engagement Department. It’s a commercial role and each A-League club employs one for much the same purposes.

Appointing a Fan Relationship Manager, however, would help build a bridge between fans and the national body, cognisant of the important role fans play in the game of football. It would give fans, who have for so long felt disenfranchised and treated like customers rather than stakeholders, a seat at the table and a voice that would help power FFA’s new, improved agenda that does more than pay lip service to the active fans of the sport.

The start would, of course, be a rocky one – tantamount to opening a can of worms as fan groups would raise some legitimate issues over which they have been banging on the FFA glass ceiling for some time. Grant Muir, spokesman for The Cove, talks about banned fans’ right of appeal and a general failure to treat A-League fans with the respect that the game’s major stakeholders deserve while other fan groups have lobbied for, amongst other things, improvement in the implementation of security in and outside stadia.

Once these problems are addressed, it could bring about a very different dynamic in the relationship between the sport and its fans.

The Fan Relationship Manager would drive mindset education within the FFA as well as the general media with the view to bringing about change in the way the national governing body regards the country’s football fans. The person would need to be a strong character to deliver pro-fan agenda in the face of internal opposition whilst being clear, open and firm when dealing with fan groups.

The role would suit a very strong, passionate person whose advocacy role would combine qualities of a corporate lawyer, PR manager and shop steward, rolled into one. Finding such an individual isn’t an easy task but a worthwhile one to drive the game forward.

So why could this change represent football’s last frontier?

Because the dignity with which we conduct ourselves becomes the respect we are afforded by others.

If the FFA, as best, grudgingly accepts fan rights and at worst, is dictatorial and dismissive, then the rest of the public will follow suit. If football’s governing body is fearful of its active fans, it will only serve to provide the kind of ammunition that xenophobic, anti-football dinosaurs latch on to in their attempts to slow the game’s progress by exploiting that fear.

But if the FFA embrace change now by backing its fans in a way they haven’t done in a decade – with passion, strength, admiration and respect – what will come out the other side will be an A-League that beams with pride over its fans. And the general public will follow suit. The league needs that to keep growing.

This cultural change within the FFA wouldn’t be easy to implement given the governing body’s current mindset. But it is the only way forward.

As the Dalai Lama said, “A genuine change must first come from within the individual, only then can he or she attempt to make a significant contribution to humanity”.

Change, FFA.

Change now.

And make your contribution to football immense in the next decade and beyond.

Join in the conversation now! @safrossydney

Australian football is going through an identity crisis and a cultural change. These are often painful but necessary steps on the road to progress.

Change isn’t always fun. But it’s what drives the world forward.

Which is why, angry as I remain about the leaking of the “banned list”, the media bashing of the world game by a pair of xenophobic dinosaurs and FFA’s failure to stand up for its key stakeholders in a blunder that betrays a monumental lack of vision – I see a light at the end of the tunnel.

The national governing body finds itself with the opportunity to take perhaps its greatest leap forward since 2005. For in many ways, understanding football fans and presenting the game to the Australian public with pride in preference to appeasing Australia’s more xenophobic elements represents football’s last frontier.

Once again, football has reached a fork in the road. These moments don’t come around often and if the FFA seize the day and display the kind of vision they showed a decade ago, what awaits them is the opportunity to help football leap ahead in this country.

They’ve done it before.

To understand where we find ourselves today, it’s important to go back a few steps.

By 2004, among the challenges that football faced was a national league that was low on corporate and media support. The NSL, rightly or wrongly viewed as representative of a few ethnic communities, appealed little to local football fans, let alone mainstream Australia at the time.

A decade ago, Frank Lowy read the mood of the nation’s football supporters and tapped into it. It takes vision to conceptualise and then breathe life into a non-existent league. It takes great management to turn it into an outstanding success.

By 2005, Australia, more mature than in previous decades, was ready to embrace a “code” that valued skill over brawn, was one at which we were unlikely to become world champions and one that forced Australia into learning to pronounce foreign sounding names correctly. It takes maturity to embrace all that.

So exactly what did Lowy tap into?

It was a feeling of hurt – not only over 32 years of World Cup non-qualification but because our sporting market did not cater for its marginalised football fans, most of whom felt they deserved better. Football coverage, SBS aside, was in the main, xenophobia-driven and mainstream media only sat up and took notice when the occasional act of NSL violence or Socceroo failure could give rise to a sensational headline.

Football, despite its massive participation numbers, was a pariah on the Australian sporting landscape and AFL hierarchy’s infamous comment that they opened a bottle of French champagne each time the Socceroos failed to reach the World Cup highlighted what the game was up against – unlike other sports, football was not considered “Australian” enough to wish it well. Yes, we could all smell the barely-disguised fear behind those comments, but it left most of us football fans seething and hoping for better days.

And so, by the time the NSL was laid to rest and the A-League kicked off in August 2005, football supporters were ready to get on board. The now-marginalised former NSL clubs, knocked off their perch by “New Football” and hurt as never before, viewed the new competition as an interloper and a “plastic league”.

To them, the people who had turned out in vast numbers to support the newly created A-League clubs were theatre goers. The new league and its “plastic” supporters were never going to last. After all, where had the fans been all these years?

They didn’t get it.

A decade on, the A-League remains a viable competition played in front of crowds of, mostly, between 10 and 20 thousand supporters. Perhaps singing “I Will Stand In Moore Park Till The Day I Die” appeared a touch contrived a few weeks into the league’s inaugural season but ten years down the track, it is clear that the majority of those fans were in it for the right reasons and for the long haul.

Just as the A-League clubs have now matured and begun putting roots down in their communities, so has their fan base. The pride we feel for our respective clubs is immense. We have supported our clubs through good times and bad and for many, our clubs have become our way of life.

It is real.

It is tribal.

And it isn’t going away.

Fans have become more assertive. They have earned that right. A player will wear the colours of an A-League club one year and be kissing the badge of another the next, while professional administrators and marketers move freely between clubs and even sports.

A fan, on the other hand, is for life.

And so, various A-League fan groups have become powerful entities, with Sydney FC’s Cove, Wanderers’ RBB and Melbourne Victory’s Northern Terrace leadi

ng the way in A-League fan assertiveness. These groups have, at various stages, led fan actions that sent powerful messages to club owners, media or the FFA. More often than not, their calls have been heeded, especially by the clubs, who value their support.

There is no use pretending that occasional acts of antisocial behaviour haven’t taken place. It isn’t ALL a football-hating media conspiracy. But A-League safety is no worse, and most likely better, than at the Melbourne Cup, cricket, AFL and NRL matches. Certainly the SCG Trust’s own list of violent incidents within their two venues – Allianz Stadium and the SCG itself – points to football as the least of its problems.

And so, this is where we find ourselves today. The massive breach of privacy committed by News Limited in publicising the names of people banned from attending A-League matches for offences ranging from severe to trivial has galvanised supporter groups. Some have opted to engage with the FFA directly, others to stage walkouts and support lawsuits.

The breach of privacy is enormous but so is the fact that those on the banned list have had no right of appeal, whatever the FFA may have said last week when backed into a corner. This points to is a major flaw in FFA structure and mindset.

And that mindset needs to change.

After all, many of us expect little better from sections of anti-football media. But we expect better from football’s governing body.

From a fan perspective, the FFA just don’t get it anymore.

A decade ago they did. They built it and we came. What the FFA achieved a decade ago was nothing short of revolutionary. But most revolutionary groups struggle beyond their original goals and having achieved those, draw the line and become conservative by default.

In 2015, if the governing body expects supporters to simply show up on match day, sing a few songs and depart home at the full time whistle, they misunderstand the mindset of the ordinary football fan.

I guess it is in the makeup of the world’s movers and shakers. There is no doubting their good intentions or indeed their love of football. After all, they came in and fixed the game.

But watching the game from corporate boxes or the Chairman’s Lounge, a glass of fine wine washing down an exquisite, expensive meal is a gazillion miles from standing shoulder to shoulder in a stadium heaving with fans, bathed in the sweat and beer of one’s fellow active supporters.

Don’t get me wrong, having easy access to corporate box tickets, fine dining and business class travel is a wonderful thing. But it makes one removed from those who save up their cash for that away trip in cattle class and who will stand with their team in good times and bad.

This is the active fan.

This is the Hoi Polloi.

This is the Great Unwashed of Australia’s footballing world that has been disrespected and riled enough to unite and take a stand.

Just as those 32 years of hurt culminated on November 16, 2005 first in an explosion of anger and then one of ecstasy, fans today are still feeling marginalised by mainstream media and, more importantly, unsupported by the FFA. A-League fans are angry that the FFA don’t understand and value them enough to have their back.

And at FFA executive level, poor old A-League Head Damien De Bohun has been scapegoated for all the game’s ills. No doubt he has to carry the can for various operational mishaps but the FFA’s lack of understanding of and empathy for the A-League fan mindset isn’t De Bohun’s fault.

It goes higher than that.

De Bohun’s and David Gallop’s statements in the face of the anti-football media’s onslaught were cringeworthy. If the best they could do was appease those same anti-football forces that the game was taking violence seriously then it is a slap in the face for football and its fan culture that ought to be a celebrated but is so misunderstood by football’s governing body and sections of Australia’s society.

What we, the committed football fans, needed to hear from FFA’s highest echelons was that:

  • Publishing the banned list was a massive breach of Australian privacy laws and the FFA and football fans reserve the right to sue;
  • FFA stands with football supporters, whose good name News was attempting to smear;
  • The ill-wishers needed to be publicly called out and shamed for their grubby attempt to invoke the memories of terror victims to spread their xenophobic, fear-driven anti-football agenda;
  • And only then, having assured US, the football public, that the FFA has our back, it could point to the list, unlawfully leaked as it was, as proof that it had football’s anti-social elements under control.


That’s what we needed to hear.

That the FFA respects us, values us and has our back.

Sadly, it does not, and in his latest statements, Gallop has continued to talk down to football fans.

If new boss Steven Lowy understands this, he must drive change from within football’s governing body and he must do it now.

He could start by appointing a Fan Relationship Manager, whose role would be to liaise with fan groups and represent them at the FFA table.

This is not to be confused with a Fan Engagement Manager – the FFA already has a good one in Robert Squillacioti, who heads FFA’s newly created Digital and Fan Engagement Department. It’s a commercial role and each A-League club employs one for much the same purposes.

Appointing a Fan Relationship Manager, however, would help build a bridge between fans and the national body, cognisant of the important role fans play in the game of football. It would give fans, who have for so long felt disenfranchised and treated like customers rather than stakeholders, a seat at the table and a voice that would help power FFA’s new, improved agenda that does more than pay lip service to the active fans of the sport.

The start would, of course, be a rocky one – tantamount to opening a can of worms as fan groups would raise some legitimate issues over which they have been banging on the FFA glass ceiling for some time. Grant Muir, spokesman for The Cove, talks about banned fans’ right of appeal and a general failure to treat A-League fans with the respect that the game’s major stakeholders deserve while other fan groups have lobbied for, amongst other things, improvement in the implementation of security in and outside stadia.

Once these problems are addressed, it could bring about a very different dynamic in the relationship between the sport and its fans.

The Fan Relationship Manager would drive mindset education within the FFA as well as the general media with the view to bringing about change in the way the national governing body regards the country’s football fans. The person would need to be a strong character to deliver pro-fan agenda in the face of internal opposition whilst being clear, open and firm when dealing with fan groups.

The role would suit a very strong, passionate person whose advocacy role would combine qualities of a corporate lawyer, PR manager and shop steward, rolled into one. Finding such an individual isn’t an easy task but a worthwhile one to drive the game forward.

So why could this change represent football’s last frontier?

Because the dignity with which we conduct ourselves becomes the respect we are afforded by others.

If the FFA, as best, grudgingly accepts fan rights and at worst, is dictatorial and dismissive, then the rest of the public will follow suit. If football’s governing body is fearful of its active fans, it will only serve to provide the kind of ammunition that xenophobic, anti-football dinosaurs latch on to in their attempts to slow the game’s progress by exploiting that fear.

But if the FFA embrace change now by backing its fans in a way they haven’t done in a decade – with passion, strength, admiration and respect – what will come out the other side will be an A-League that beams with pride over its fans. And the general public will follow suit. The league needs that to keep growing.

This cultural change within the FFA wouldn’t be easy to implement given the governing body’s current mindset. But it is the only way forward.

As the Dalai Lama said, “A genuine change must first come from within the individual, only then can he or she attempt to make a significant contribution to humanity”.

Change, FFA.

Change now.

And make your contribution to football immense in the next decade and beyond.

Join in the conversation now! @safrossydney