I was there on Saturday night at ANZ Stadium, part of history, part of over 60,000 people at a regular round football match. Amazing!
For these Sydney derby matches it’s not about just the game any more. It’s now officially ‘a thing’, an event, an experience. Like league’s State of Origin that grabs the attention of people who aren’t necessarily fans of that code as their first preference, the Sydney derby is something to be part of.
Unlike it’s contrived AFL rivalry, this is a genuine ‘us and them’ contest.
The atmosphere created by the passionate fans creates the sense of ‘event’, draws the casual observer to the game. I’ve been a regular at AFL (chanting after a goal, cheering when it’s close in the last quarter), NRL (chanting after a try, cheering when the team gets near the try line or the score is close in the last ten minutes), rugby (‘Come on lads’, if it’s close with two minutes to go) and football games in Australia.
However, this leaves all those for dead in terms of the game day atmosphere. It’s a cross between a high school sports carnival, emotional political protest and full on religious rally, all rolled into one.
But there’s a problematic side to it all. There’s a fine line between banter and bad-mouthing, and where I was sitting it got crossed. My comments are about some of the Sydney FC cheering, not because I’m singling out one side because it’s all I could hear. I have no idea what the Wanderers were saying, it was too far away – a problem with ANZ Stadium, but that’s another topic altogether.
Sydney scored a third goal, a clever, cheeky free kick around the wall and into the net in front of us. The response, after the initial gobsmacked disbelief and excitement, was this chant: ‘F__ you Western Sydney scum, Ole’.
If this was the first time in the night for this chorus you might just take it as one-off excitement, but no, it was one of the regular favourites.
Which part of that chant makes it OK? It’s neither witty or humorous. If you said it to someone at work you’d be disciplined. How do I explain to my young son sitting next to me that this is all just a fun part of the way things are at a football match? Should he copy that next week at the local suburban ground?
The tribalism, the sense of being part of ‘us’, is powerful. I felt it on Saturday, and you could see it on the faces of people chanting. Maybe the theories about sport as a safe outlet for aggression are right in some way, but unchecked tribalism has ways of spilling over into hatred and violence, as history shows us only too often.
When chanting and cheering becomes abuse, even if partly in light-hearted humour, it’s gone too far. I’m not saying we should go back to high school sports, but surely there can be passion, singing and celebration without the abusive tone and the hint of menace.