Saturday, 11 June 2011

Flares, Fun and Football: The game that had everything, except goals.

Three days after Melbourne played host to a friendly soccer match between Australia and Serbia, it is fair to say a 0:0 draw has rarely garnered so much attention.

Almost 30,000 people turned out on a chilly Tuesday night to Etihad Stadium to see two world-class football teams in an eagerly anticipated World Cup re-match.  Long before the first whistle was blown, it was evident the night would not disappoint.

In a game worthy of uniquely European football derbies there was colour, noise, politics, posters and fireworks.  No one was hurt (on or off the field), a small handful of supporters were removed by police (as is often the case at most large-scale international sporting events) and several flares were ignited (first by Socceroos supporters, then by both sides).  So why is it being painted as such a troublesome affair?

The main point of controversy is the unveiling of a banner from level 1 of the stadium displaying an image of Serbian hero and accused war criminal, Ratko Mladic (currently on trial at The Hague) between the text “Free Mladic.”  Controversy, which is perhaps rather ironic considering that most people outside of the Balkans have no idea who Ratko Mladic is or what significance he has to Serbian people, other than what they have read on their Ninemsn internet homepages within the past two weeks.

One thing is clear however; with various sections of Australian media pouncing on the opportunity to extract a sellable story from a scoreless game, and ill-informed individuals turning into political pundits, the end result can never be a positive one.

Victoria Police Inspector, Michael Beattie was quick to highlight his well-tuned generalisation skills from the outset.

“The only group that we had problems with were the active Serb Supporters.

These idiots… that was part of their viewing culture and it is just trash,” he said.

Insp. Beattie omitted any mention of the Socceroos supporter misbehaviour.  This included throwing the first flares of the evening and pointing lasers at Serbian players including Zoran Tosic and Neven Subotic during free kicks, an omission that has angered many in the wider Serbian community.

“I think that’s absurd,” said Abbey Stojanovic, who attended the match with her family.

“There was definitely controversy caused by some Australian supporters.  He really has picked on the Serbian supporters unfairly,” she said.

Suzana Tasic also attended the match with her family and challenged the validity of Insp. Beattie’s claims.

“Everyone in the stadium was passionate, just like for any other soccer game. Flares and chants are part of sporting nature.

“I think that it’s easy to point the finger at one or two people rather than look at the big picture – there were no major issues at all in the grand scheme of things at the game,” Mrs. Tasic said.

Insp. Beattie’s comments have been labeled ‘xenophobic’.  Some have even questioned the legitimacy of the “un-Australian” label he attached to supporters he deemed unfavourable, given Australian spectators’ own checkered past.

After the Geelong Football Club’s most recent Grand Final win, police arrested 35 supporters for being drunk and another 12 for offensive or anti-social behaviour.

Following the 2009 Boxing Day Test held at the MCG, 91 people were kicked out, 13 of them arrested for drunkenness.  Police also issued 28 penalty notices for drunk and anti-social behaviour, such as offensive language.  All culprits were “Australians.”

Despite this, Insp. Beattie has remained defiant, saying the stands at Etihad Stadium were full of “dancing and a lot of unhealthy carry-on”.

No word yet on whether Insp. Beattie plans on laying charges against Channel 7’s ‘Dancing With The Stars’.

With various news agencies smelling blood and getting into a feeding frenzy, FFA head of corporate affairs and communications, Kyle Patterson was quick to praise the success of the game and quash claims supporters marred it in any way.

“To say that they’re somehow a problem for football and a problem for the Serbian community is absolutely outrageous and we won’t be a part of that.”

Even after the last flare was extinguished and the final whistle had been blown, the ‘Free Mladic’ banner has continued to draw widespread attention, as was no doubt intended.

To put the issue into context, almost two weeks ago to the day, Serbian General, Ratko Mladic was captured and extradited to the war crimes court in The Hague – an action unpopular with a vast majority of Serbs who still view him as a hero.  Many Serbs who were actually saved and protected by Mladic’s forces from Islamic fundamentalist fighters managed to escape to Australia in the 90s.  Some were even in attendance at the match on Tuesday night.

For many of them, the memories of genocide against Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are still fresh, further fuelling their anger over General Mladic’s arrest.

According to filmmaker and political activist, Boris Malagurski, the protesters had every right to give voice to that discontent, so long as it was done peacefully.

“[General Mladic] hasn’t been convicted so he’s not a war criminal.

“[John F. Kennedy] himself once said that we’re all free to disagree with the law as long as we don’t disobey it, so we’re free to support who we want and it’s interesting that we have to remind Westerners of their own values” Mr. Malagurski said.

While the FFA has stated it does not support the use of football as a platform for political protest, mixing sport and politics is no new concept.  Sport has a passion, profile and influence unmatched throughout the world and has long been a tempting tool for activists.

Amongst boycotts of Olympic Games and refusals to tour South Africa during apartheid, one of history’s most prominent examples of peaceful protest was on the sporting field.

At a Mexico Olympics presentation ceremony in 1968, black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won the gold and bronze medals for the 200 metres, made a celebrated civil rights protest.  They mounted the dais barefoot and raised one gloved hand in the black-power salute.

Both players were suspended and ordered out of the Games village.  Only after more than 20 years were their actions deemed “eloquent expressions of non-violent protest,” according to Olympic historian, David Wallechinsky.

“It’s about showing you stand for something bigger than sport,” said one of the Serbian protesters.

In stark contrast to their recent coverage of the Mladic protest, The Age newspaper in fact published an article less than five years ago entitled “It’s refreshing when sport and politics mix.”  What a difference a few years makes.

The loudest criticism has come from the Bosnian Muslim community who took offence to the banner remaining on display for the world to see for such a long period of time.

“This should be treated as a shameful act,” said Hariz Halilovich, a Bosnian Muslim from Monash University.

The FFA has disagreed and it is unlikely any action will be taken against spectators, especially due to the difficulty of identifying those responsible.

Many have defended the actions of the protesters, saying it was simply a group of people exercising their right to freedom of speech and peaceful protest with support coming from outside the Serbian community.

“I didn’t take offence to it… it didn’t affect play,” said one Socceroos supporter after the match.

“I can’t see the difference between that and a ‘Free Tibet’ banner out in the city.”

Whatever the future of football in Australia, it’s clear that there is a willingness and potential to make it a spectacle worthy of matching some of our European counterparts.

This may mean celebrating its successes rather than searching for its mistakes, and embracing its culture, however foreign it may seem – flares and all.