The halftime whistle goes at the Emirates Stadium and a bumper WSL crowd heads for the concourse. Queues have already formed for stadium food that traverse the walkways, the line for the women’s bathroom snakes out of the door and merges into those patiently waiting for their nachos.
There’s no way of getting a drink, there’s no way of easily navigating the concourse either with those food queues blocking the way. There are people everywhere. Surely this is not normal. Heading back to my spot, an incredibly high-backed seat in the home end, the game restarts with only a fraction of fans back in place.
Post-game, an Australian flag is held aloft to attract the attention of the Aussie contingent in the Arsenal team. Despite flags of every nation surrounding the field depicting the Arsenal supporters’ clubs of each country, including the flag being waved, the security team descend to pounce on the perpetrator. The situation in Gaza has deemed that any flag is forbidden, regardless of the nationality.
Fast forward 48 hours and we are spat out into the concourse by an instrument of torture masquerading as a turnstile at the G-Tech Stadium for a low-key international involving two neighbouring countries from 17,000 km away. The concourse is heaving with people, despite this being a small crowd.
The queues block the walkways, getting from one end of the stadium to the other is a trial, and once in place, security are straight on to the Australian Active fans to make sure that any attempt to support the team and be heard is quashed.
We think of the United Kingdom as footballing nirvana. In terms of passion, loyalty, football quality, proximity and drama, it probably is. However, the stadium experience, other than in your seat watching the game, is most certainly imperfect and in any other situation involving a gathering of people would simply not be tolerated. The fact that these fans have shelled out a minimum of $100 for a ticket, the expectation would be of a safe and well-managed stadium experience.
The football tour ends at my beloved St James’ Park, revelling in the atmosphere as Newcastle United dismantle Crystal Palace. Heading down to relieve the pressure after a marvellous pregame around the town, the concourse is a sea of happy jostling blokes, two tides of people clashing, and getting to the sanctuary of a bathroom is quite the trauma.
We’re almost ready for kick-off by the time I make it back. I try to imagine being the father of young kids trying to negotiate that half-time chaos. It’s certainly not the pleasant experience of entering an oasis of food and drink outlets to while away the 15 minutes of half time.
Western Sydney Wanderers’ Lachlan Brook celebrates a goal with team mates. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
Now, watching live top-flight football in Australia is fraught with obvious issues. The tyranny of distance between clubs means that a Perth Glory away game in Brisbane might cost close to $1,000, with return flights, accommodation, not to mention two lost days travelling across the country. It is certainly a bigger investment than travelling from Middlesborough to Plymouth. A definition of a die-hard A-League fan would be a season ticket holder who might get to one or two out-of-state away games during any given season.
The quality of the football and the on-field drama is certainly not an issue for the A-League, we have that in spades, we have active supporter groups, atmosphere and singing at the games and we have healthy rivalries despite the lack of history throughout the league. Hell, we even have security to rival the Emirates Stadium.
So why do we look at the A-League in a different way to the English leagues? What is it about the experience over there that is so much more appealing to the Euro-snobs and national team bandwagoners? Is it just that we live in the lucky country and there is so much going on to detract from attending live football games?
Is it simply the fact that the demand for tickets is not there and if it was, everyone would want to go? Is it too cheap and easy? Do people want to see desperate fans scrambling for tickets for every game? Is the sub-standard concourse experience and the unavailability of beer at your seat all part of the experience?
I challenge you doubters to attend an A-League game, with as much knowledge and context that you would take into an EPL game. Get to know the players before you go, find out who might be the stars of the show, buy yourself a beer, sit in your seat or join the active section and enjoy the top-quality football action. You’ll find that it’s a refreshing experience and you will definitely want to go again.