15/02/2016 7:48 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Are Empty Stadiums Really The Best Way To Curb Anti-Social Spectator Behaviour?

Scott Barbour via Getty Images
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 13: A flare is ignited in the Melbourne Victory supporters area of the crowd during the round 19 A-League match between Melbourne City FC and Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park on February 13, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Melbourne football teams have been warned by police that they could soon be left playing in front of empty stadiums if club supporters continue disrupting fan games with flares.

Last Saturday night flares, which are listed by WorkSafe Victoria as explosive devices, were ignited both inside and outside of Melbourne’s AAMI Park before and during an A-League match between Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory.

“We are deeply concerned by the ignition of flares inside and outside the stadium by people identified as Melbourne Victory Supporters,” Football Federation Australia (FFA) CEO David Gallop said.

“Given the circumstances we found ourselves in after last week’s incidents involving a section of Western Sydney Wanderers supporters at Etihad Stadium, it’s staggering that some Victory fans chose to act in this way. The spotlight could not have been more on fan behaviour.”

Last week, FFA issued a show cause notice to Western Sydney Wanderers after unruly fans displayed unauthorised banners and also ignited flares in a match against Melbourne Victory at Etihad Stadium on the 6th February.

Associate Professor Ramón Spaaij from the College of Sport and Exercise Science at Victoria University, believes that the use of flares is damaging the public’s perception of football.

“For Australian standards it causes significant damage to the game,” Spaaij told The Huffington Post Australia.

“The use of flares has been adopted here for a while now but it has been seen significantly over the last few years.”

Spaaij believes that there are many reasons as to why Australia has seen an increase in the use of flares at matches, including young men who see it as an opportunity to establish their masculinity and “toughness”.

“It’s a part of the subculture of groups of young men that go to games,” he said.

“Another layer to this is that there is some level of contestation around fans, police and clubs. They (fans) sense that they’re being severely watched, patrolled and punished and there’s quite a strong sense of contestation and a sense of protest behaviour.”

In particular, Spaaij identifies that many Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers fans have felt as though they have been treated unfairly through measures such as banning orders.

“Active fans are being celebrated as creating a sense of atmosphere that is very different from the AFL and rugby crowds,” he said.

“(They) are trying to differentiate themselves from what they term ‘passive fans’. But in the process they are seen as breaching unacceptable behaviours and they’re being punished for it.”

Dr Zhu Zhang, also from the College of Sport and Exercise Science at Victoria University, believes that closed-door games might be one of the only effective solutions in curbing the anti-social behaviour of some of these spectators.

“I think it’s necessary but I think all the fans are being punished,” Zhang told HuffPost Australia.

“The majority of fans obey the rules and behave themselves, it’s just a few of them who don’t.”

While Spaaij also recognises the effectiveness of having empty stadium games he stressed that the FFA should consider the consequences that these might have.

“It does work -- examples from Spain and the Netherlands show that,” he said.

“I find this quite a draconian measure given the nature and scale of the incident. In the Australian context this is quite serious but if you look internationally, this is quite light.

“In terms of the image of the game it’s quite counterproductive. Once you start introducing these measures it’s hard to go back -- you start doing it more often and it becomes the new norm."

It seems that what is needed to reduce the unacceptable behaviour of certain fans is an improved relationship between fans, clubs and law enforcement.

“It comes down to better communication beforehand -- what the expectations are and what will and won’t be tolerated,” Spaaij said.

“Quite a few studies have shown that quite often incidents escalate not because of the psychology of crowds but because of the disproportionate reaction by police.

“Police and clubs need to understand fans' motivations and have a discussion around what is tolerated and acceptable.”

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