RBB’s silent protests show fan engagement has a way to go

Joe Gorman Columnist

By , Joe Gorman is a Roar Expert

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    Western Sydney Wanderers fans represent one half of the derby magic. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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    Last weekend, the Western Sydney Wanderers supporter group – the Red and Black Bloc – staged a twenty minute silent protest at Parramatta Stadium.

    Their silence was a statement of solidarity in opposition to the treatment of their fans by Hatamoto, and the subsequent bans placed on several supporters by the FFA.

    It follows similar silent protests staged by Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United fans this season.

    In case you’ve missed it, Hatamoto are a private security company that the governing body hires to police the terraces at A-League matches. They’re infamous for their heavy-handed and punitive treatment of active supporter groups.

    Their presence in the stands has led to a severe lack of trust from many fans towards the FFA, who have, on more than one occasion, used evidence given by the police and the security company to excommunicate fans for lengthy periods.

    Recently, several Wanderers fans were banned after two incidents – one at the W-League derby in Campbelltown in January, and another which occurred outside the inner city Royal Exhibition Hotel.

    Still, the issue here is not whether the accused parties are guilty, but rather the treatment they have received from both the FFA and sections of the media.

    Administrators, paranoid at the prospect of screaming tabloid headlines, have embarked on a zero tolerance approach to unruly fan behaviour. It’s understandable after decades of battling to change public perceptions of ‘soccer violence.’

    And it’s not just enforced in the A-League.

    The Dandenong Thunder were hit with a $40,000 fine and lengthy crowd lockouts after an incident last October. All fans of the Albanian backed side will be punished for the incident, while the fine is potentially ruinous for the community run club.

    But at least the Victorian club have had a right of appeal. The Roar spoke to representatives of the RBB, who say that there has been no similar process afforded to the men in question.

    To make matters worse, the accused are still yet to be presented the evidence that has informed the FFA’s decision.

    “We value the burden of proof, the right to a fair hearing and the impetus on the accuser to provide sufficient evidence to prove the guilt of the accused,” explained spokesman Matt Adamson.

    “The response received (from the FFA) by those who attempted contact was one of disdain and dismissal.”

    Indeed, football administrators need to realise that there is a fine line between zero tolerance and show-trial punishments.

    It’s easy to simply write off individuals as “troublemakers” and “hooligans.” It’s even easier to lecture fans on “ruining the games for everybody else” in an attempt to gloss over the problem and appease the tabloid press. But that is just stating the obvious.

    There are times when a united front is good for the game. But the flip side is that it can allow people to fall through the cracks.

    The Red and Black Bloc have closed ranks, demanding that – at the very least – their mates be given a fair trial.

    It’s not just the FFA who should be listening to this. It’s pleasing to see that this issue has received some coverage by the media.

    More work needs to be done, though, to help fans make their voices heard. After all, it is the responsibility of journalists to look after people, not power.

    Many will say that the game is bigger than a few wild fans. It’s a perverse attitude. Surely a more responsible and inclusive policy would be to support and aid the self-regulation structures already in place.

    Self-regulation is an important part of this debate. Many groups have been doing it for years, perhaps best illustrated by leaders of The Cove at Sydney FC.

    The self-regulation work of all active supporter groups is a thankless task that is usually ignored by the press.

    In this regard, perhaps fans groups should look at joint efforts to make their voices heard. A supporters union – backed by autonomous fans groups – would give them greater strength in numbers.

    But while the RBB paid tribute to the North Terrace in Melbourne and fans in Adelaide, you’d be hard pressed to get these rival fans to come together in any meaningful way. Still, it’s an issue which transcends club loyalties.

    Red and Black Bloc representatives say that they pursue a policy of “individual responsibility.”

    In this regard, it’s clear that their main problem is with the process. They have a point. Surely it’s not too much to ask for the FFA to provide evidence to prove guilt beyond doubt.

    When the Wanderers traveled to Gosford a fortnight ago, there was security everywhere.

    Police sent in the dog squad and highway patrols to monitor fans. It seemed that every security measure short of the Army were there to make sure the natives didn’t get restless.

    There is a common perception that the governing body pursues these zero tolerance policies in order to show that its cracking down on ‘rogue elements.’

    Kind of like those nebulous and grandiose promises to crack on ‘gangs’ or ‘crime’ by politicians before an election.

    Big on style, but lacking in substance.

    Particularly when the FFA has been quick to use colourful images of heaving supporter bays to promote and sell their product.

    Increasingly, it is the match day experience that has drawn new supporters to games, thanks to the work of supporter groups from Perth to Wellington.

    Someone should remind the FFA that it’s unwise to put the ‘talent’ offside.

    Indeed, the silent protests speak directly to this point. After several appeals to the governing body have been ignored, the RBB’s statement reads: “We believe that the only way to make our voices heard is to make our voices silent.”

    Which was plain to see on Sunday evening. It was an eerie and uneasy feeling at Parramatta Stadium for the opening twenty minutes.

    Wanderland it was not.

    It’s become a cliche, but the fans are quite literally the lifeblood of the game.

    Without the RBB, the Wanderers would be a non-entity.

    That goes for all other A-League clubs around the country. It is those groups that provide the identity of clubs that marketing packages never will.

    Ultimately, the media and the FFA should be responsible to fans.

    Guilty or not, each individual will benefit from a democratic collaboration between supporter groups, the FFA and the press.

    Otherwise, the ‘we are football’ slogan will look increasingly empty.

    Joe Gorman
    Joe Gorman

    Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.

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