Peace on Earth and goodwill to all this festive period? Joy to the world and all those other assorted good tidings you ignore as you write a cursory card to go with this year's Kris Kringle? Not in the A-Leagues. Certainly not this year. Bah humbug!
Two weeks after the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) announcement that hosting rights for the next three A-League Men and A-League Women grand finals had been sold to Sydney, and less than a week since Melbourne Victory fans violently invaded the pitch during the Melbourne Derby, Australian football's professional tier remains in a state of crisis and enmity. Rather than any kind of Christmas truce, an airing of grievances remains in full effect. A Festivus for the rest of us.
It makes for a rather peculiar undercurrent heading into the leagues' festive round, and not just because of the absurdity of it also being less than a month since the Socceroos were in the FIFA World Cup Round of 16 and the local game was flying high. There now exists a curious configuration in the A-Leagues wherein the underlying ideological conflict remains the same as it was before the Melbourne Derby yet, simultaneously, the mainstream recognition and condemnation of the violence have completely shifted the environment informing it.
For while the actions of what Victoria Police estimates to be "about 150" Victory supporters have significantly damaged the fans' claims to the moral high ground in the eyes of the broader public, the leagues' main active supporters remain steadfast in opposition to the grand finals decision. It's not all fans, of course; some have become disillusioned since the derby, unable to maintain the rage, were never that fussed to begin with, or have outright turned against the protests after the violence. But the loudest and most visible remain. On Wednesday, protests continued at the re-organised F3 Derby: rival groups the Yellow Army and Terrace Novocastria joining "together in an act of solidarity" to demonstrate fan unity and raising a banner declaring "#OurVoiceOurGame".
The opposition to the grand final decision, reflective of that display of unity by rivals, has evolved from rancour over the deciders , and become impossible to ignore. Be it through joint action, boycotts and strikes, and the use of vocabulary such as "solidarity" and "scabs", supporters are effectively adopting the language and principles of collectivism against the league administrators. It's a logical move, given the APL is a unified body of the leagues' clubs working together.
For now, at least, supporters are operating, if you squint, off a Paris Commune-like model. There is no established football supporters association in Australia, or a leader or spokesperson to represent fans in public in the same way that the APL has its chief executive, Danny Townsend. At least, not unless Craig Goodwin wants to get into politics.
Nonetheless, heading into Christmas, there appears to be little wavering from their shared purpose. The day before the F3 Derby, representatives from 11 of the ALM's fan bodies jointly condemned last week's violence -- Victory's Original Style Melbourne were banished from proceedings -- but reiterated their commitment to protesting against the APL decision through peaceful demonstrations.
Despite the obvious and justifiable focus on the violence, their statement has been received mostly in good faith by the broader mainstream media. For now at least. The lack of a fan figurehead to speak to a broader public largely devoid of an understanding of the nuances and complexities of the local scene -- observe outlets that are unable to differentiate between the independent APL and Football Australia -- may lead to these statements being treated less as serious declarations and more elaborate Facebook rants as time goes by. A curse familiar to many mass movements.
And for all this talk of unity, it's impossible to ignore the elephant in the room, the one that's grasping a bucket in its trunk. The violence that gripped the Melbourne Derby has almost forced this move to a more organised and consolidated front by fans who have suddenly moved from being at the forefront of largely unified opposition to all scrambling to try to disassociate and disavow the ugly episode.
Those who stormed the pitch gave validation to the concerns and prejudices of every individual whose perception of football fans is one of hooliganism, disorder, and affray. One only needs examine the comments under any news story posted about the incident to see that. When supporters of all stripes, not just those engaged in activism against the league, attend games this week, they will do so under a heightened level of security and policing they had worked for so long to shake. There were already anecdotal reports of elevated levels of attention from security as well as the confiscation of previously permitted items the day after the derby, and authorities now have had a week to plan and prepare.
Further, if there was any doubt before, the actions of those who stormed the AAMI Park field mean that hope of a reversal in the grand final decision appears all but extinguished. The previous justifications remain -- the need for funds, the reputational and legal risks of breaking a contract with state government, a belief in the 'festival of football' concept, and more -- but now there also exists the risk that any backdown will be seen through the prism of the violence; a signal that, accurate or not, will be noted by the mainstream public, sponsors and those of a mind to commit such acts.
Perhaps this is why the shift in supporters' thinking towards advocating for broader change beyond a grand final has become increasingly apparent. The grand final decision may prove impossible to overturn but supporters are now using it as a platform for other positions.
In their statement on Tuesday, they added their collective voice to the call for governance reform of the APL through the establishment of an advisory committee of supporters that can be consulted on matters that will affect them, and for a shift to an independent board. Football Australia chief executive James Johnson, his organisation operating as the game's regulator, has also called for the APL to introduce an independent chair.
Importantly, though ALW-specific collectives were not present in the statement, they were consulted during its drafting, indicating steps to collate voices across all levels of the game to maximise the collective volume. ALW groups are also pushing for greater gender diversity on the APL board, which presently features only one woman -- Football Australia representative Ebru Koksal.
While it's very possible that it represented a one-off, the document also hints at a shift in strategy from fans: the next, better organised and more targeted evolution in the saga and, maybe, a path towards a place where the league can eke itself out of a state of existential peril. Because despite the broader public being put off by the violence at the derby, and that incident severely damaging their bargaining power, the APL still needs these fans unless said broader public develops a hitherto unexhibited interest in the leagues; if enough of them go, the league can't survive.
Notable was a subtle alteration in language, a minor softening of a stance rooted in the need for moderation, and a conciliatory tone in the wake of the derby; also a recognition of the optic need to present as a measured partner that merits a place at the table. Though there were calls for an apology from the APL, there were none for Townsend to step down, a previously well-worn catchcry from fans who have made the executive their public enemy No. 1 during this saga.
Instead of a demand for the grand final decision to be reversed, there was a request for "exploration into the reversal of the decision" and for "any commercial alternatives available" to be explored.
It's delicate, and could easily be reversed with another statement, but illuminative of supporter groups seeking to move into a new phase of their protests. And that's important for both parties, for progress towards an end goal to be visible and realistic lest apathy, a far bigger threat than anger to the leagues' long-term viability, set in.
Ultimately, this evolution into a philosophical confrontation in which fans demand a greater say in the way the game is run is largely reflective of showdowns increasingly happening around the world, across all sports. How much of a sport can be for sale? How much voice do fans, who provide its intangible lifeblood, deserve in these discussions?
In the A-Leagues, however, these discussions will now take place against a backdrop altered with one throw of a bucket.