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Football Can't Lose Its Flair

04/10/2015 6:56 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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GOSFORD, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 11: Western Sydney wanderers fans let off flares during the round 25 A-League match between the Central Coast Mariners and the Western Sydney Wanderers at Central Coast Stadium on April 11, 2015 in Gosford, Australia. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

After ten long years of the A-League, the game's governing body may have cottoned onto the fact that one can not continue to sideline fans around whom the game's marketing materials are built.

Last week it emerged that A-League club the Western Sydney Wanderers and NSW Police were working together to impose curbs on the club's fanatical supporter base The Red and Black Bloc.

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Tensions between police and the supporter group have always been high.

During the last round of last year's campaign, a meaningless clash between the Wanderers and Perth Glory was all of a sudden thrust into the headlines after allegations that police had improperly pepper sprayed a large swathe of supporters following an altercation caused by the lighting of a flare.

It was only one such incident in a long line of incidents between police and supporter groups, with the supporter groups arguing that police had no appreciation of the nuances of a football crowd.

Among the suggestions put forward by police to curb the more rowdy members of the RBB were:

  • A ban on the now traditional pre-game march to Pirtek Stadium from the heart of Parramatta
  • A ban on swearing
  • No flares
  • Members of the RBB to remain in their seats and not "compress".

Despite refusing to comment for the Sydney Morning Herald article, the following day CEO John Tsatsimas issued a statement to club supporters allaying their concerns that any curbs would not affect the match day experience.

It said it had been attempting to mediate between police and the RBB, but went a step further.

"The club has opposed the severity of the proposals and what we believe is excessive and we feel compromises the enjoyable football experience," it said.

Even the PFA got in on the action.

However, what happened next was unique.

The game's governing body, the FFA, which had always shied away from making statements lambasting police behaviour towards fans, put out the following statement on Twitter.

It read: "FFA supports The Wanderers' strenuous efforts to make sure the integral elements of active support will not be compromised. The unique atmosphere created by fans is what makes the A-League special. FFA will work with all clubs to ensure the passion of fans can flourish within a safe and enjoyable environment."

Normally, the FFA is forced to play defence when stories of crowd unrest surface. It's normally required to front up to a media conference the day after a big derby and give the "it's a small section of the crowd" speech yet again.

While the story may have forced both the Wanderers' and FFA's hands, supporters were heartened by what they saw as the governing body being in their corner for once.

Fairly or unfairly, there was always the sneaking suspicion that while the FFA was happy to use the passion generated on the terrace to sell the game to the public and to corporate sponsors. When it came time to stick up for the supporters, as they saw it, the FFA was muted if not silent.

The theory was that the FFA were still scared to death of the 'old days' of football in Australia, where sporadic outbursts of ethnic violence marred a competition which eventually folded.

Fans were left to scream of hypocrisy when the governing body simply trotted out the "It's only a small element" line and then followed it up with perhaps overtly tough talk on stamping out hooliganism.

The FFA simply wanted to have its cake and eat it too.

On the one hand, the passion and the noise generated on the terraces are unlike anything else in Australian sport, but unfortunately it's often the 'No Pyro No Party' set which make the most noise.

The latest statement from the FFA signals that maybe, just maybe, Season 11 could signal the start of a beautiful friendship where the default position is one where it tries to work with fans rather than playing enforcer.

Undoubtedly, there will be hooligans at football matches and the FFA should do its best to stamp it out. Flares will continue to be a blight on the game and despite protestations that they never hurt anybody, last season we got a very real reminder that they can do.

But does the solution really lie in handing down laws from on high, or does it lie with talking to those taking their passion a step or two too far?

While a statement may be a very, very small step it is a sign that the FFA is willing to take a more collaborative approach this season.

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