Some months ago Phil Rothfield, one of News Corp Australia's most dedicated rugby league writers and fans, took a sound level meter to a Western Sydney Wanderers game and wrote glowingly of the deafening decibels and how their fan support was louder than any other sports support group in the country.
The RBB, the Wanderers’ active group, was now becoming a source of match entertainment, a marketing tool for drawing more and more people to football. In their first competitive year Wanderers' fans commanded more newspaper space than the players.
Something had to give. This had to be stopped. So this week’s Sunday Telegraph, in a front page splash penned by Rebecca Wilson, the grand mufti of Australian media’s shrinking but surviving anti-soccer clan, came out ‘revealing’ that 198 soccer ‘louts’ have been banned from stadiums around Australia, naming and shaming some of them.
The so called exposé had been planned for a couple of weeks but was bumped back after the Paris terror attacks of 13 November had usurped all prominent newspaper space.
As an exercise in real journalism it was your classic beat-up. The story was not new in the sense that the files of banned supporters, 198 louts as the Tele called them, have been in existence for awhile, in some cases years. We knew they existed. We just didn’t know who the banned were, for that was supposed to have been confidential.
It is important to understand what these files actually are and who is meant to see them. These are not people with criminal convictions or who have ever been charged with any offence. These are mere suspected or known trouble makers, no more.
They have been placed on record merely in order that the various authorities can recognise them and bar them from grounds, much like a suspected shoplifter has his or her mugshot circulated among supermarket security staff.
Four organs are aware of the files: the clubs, the FFA, the police and the ground authorities. One of those had clearly leaked the information to News Corp Australia. So who was it?
The clubs and the FFA clearly had nothing to gain from such damaging media coverage so it is unlikely they did the leaking. For the police to leak such information would be highly unlikely and unusual. The rule book simply doesn’t allow them to do it.
Which would leave the mostly likely candidate the ground authorities who have never been enamoured by crowd behavior of the boisterous and active kind and who consider rival sports to football as their most valuable tenants.
Did the SCG Trust, which governs Pirtek Stadium, do the leaking?
The timing is grotesquely strange for the measures that have recently been taken to avert fan thuggery have been working. At three home games so far by the Wanderers, for instance, there have been no incidents barring two cases of intoxication (nothing beyond normal, we are told). It has been similar at other grounds.
Yet Wilson claims in her coverage that the problem has become endemic and acute. It is a cultural problem, she goes on to claim, that worsens each season.
This simply has no basis in fact. Wilson also refers to football fan behaviour as the "worst problem in Australian sport". Never mind the drug-taking, alcohol abuse and the mistreatment of women in other sports that make regular front and back page headlines, even in the Telegraph.
Jumping onto the Wilson bandwagon is NSW assistant police commissioner Kyle Stewart, an officer who, at the time of writing, has yet to have any dialogue with the clubs or the FFA. Yet, according to the Telegraph, he saw fit to describe some football supporters as behaving like ‘grubby pack animals’.
Nice. That will do wonders to quell the hotheads among the fan groups.
Reaction to the splash in the Telegraph by the FFA has been disappointing. Most of all these pathetic comments by the head of the A-League, Damien de Bohun: "Bans in relation to anti-social behaviour at football matches are imposed after carefully considering all the evidence, including the advice of various police forces,” de Bohun said.
"FFA takes the view that we have a right to decide if a person is welcome among the football community at our matches. It’s a general deterrent to those who cause trouble that they face long bans with no right of appeal."
No right of appeal. That’s real justice in a real democracy for you. One banned fan Wilson refers to in her article works as a kindergarten teacher. With no right to defence or appeal, one has to wonder how this man was greeted by the mums the day after publication as they dropped off their toddlers at kindy.
FFA chief David Gallop was deafening in his silence immediately after the publication of the articles and took till the Wednesday to come out with a statement.
The statement is an exercise in self defence, self justification and the allaying of allegations that it is in denial over fan thuggery. Nowhere in the 700-word statement is an attempt to defend the game in the face of the attack by the Telegraph and the extent to which football had been tarnished by it.
Gallop does defend the decent majority of the 1.8 million fans that attend A-League games but falls short of alleging anti-football bias or agendas on the part of the publisher.
Yet it must be clear to all that the very publication of the article is nothing more than a naked and pathetic attempt to damage football. Given that unsavoury crowd incidents are on the wane and things are on the improve, there is simply no other explanation.
And, of course, there can only be one reason why football needs to be attacked in this way by those who fear it: its popularity is on the rise and feared it should be.
Since the writing of this column, it has been reported that Rebecca Wilson has received death threats. This is contemptible, worrying, distressing, not to say stupid. Wilson might be anti-football but in a free society she is perfectly entitled to be one. The moronic perpetrators of this are not doing the football cause any favours.