Last season A-League memberships soared by 18 per cent. Despite efforts to batter the emerging beast into something resembling NRL, AFL or rugby crowds, Australian football fans have retained their singular identity and unmatched passion.
But the unauthorised use of flares remains a flashpoint threatening to destabilise the already uneasy relationship between some supporters and law enforcement.
The latest issue of Australian FourFourTwo looks at the sometimes powder keg relationship between A-League fans, clubs and police.
As Football Federation Australia ramps up its zero policy on flares at football, elsewhere the situation is more fluid.
From their HQ in Hamburg, Football Supporters Europe is dealing with an issue that continues to polarise fans of the world game.
The largest democratic supporter network in Europe, FSE has members from 48 countries across the continent.
Coordinator Daniela Wurbs says: “There are examples in Norway and Austria in particular where the use of flares is allowed in restricted zones inside the stadia.
“There’s a close co-operation between the fans, police, fire brigades, the clubs and that allows very nice displays of fireworks in a very safe way.
“The statistics also illustrate that in these countries the use of pyrotechnics is far less of a problem… than it is in countries where there’s a harsh and restrictive (way) of dealing with it.”
Back in Australia, on the eve of the new A-League season, the FFA is preparing to launch a new anti-flare initiative, co-opting players to highlight the dangers of pyrotechnics.
The FFA is working closely with police and government to restrict the sale of flares. Pyro amnesty bins at the entrance of stadiums have been considered but are unlikely.
“At the end of the day if we’re to achieve our vision of football being Australia’s largest and most popular sport, we need to make sure that football is a family friendly environment,” A-League boss Damien De Bohun says.
He has the support from the highest levels of the police force.
NSW Assistant Commissioner Alan Clarke says while active supporters “engage a little bit more enthusiastically than the average fan” in other sports there a very few problems across the A-League.
“We had less flares last year and we did have a reduction of incidents overall – the majority of the season went quite well,” Clarke said.
But back in Europe and Sweden could well be the next cab off the rank in the controlled use of pyrotechnics by supporter groups.
“Proceedings take a long time,” Wurbs says. “There are so many different parties involved.
“In Sweden it’s probably as close as anywhere else at this moment, in a country where it’s still forbidden. But it could well take another year at the very least, if we get there.
“There have been tests run inside stadia in order to evaluate together with the fans. The national police went behind it and said we need to have a different debate about the issue.
“So they organised tests inside the stadia in order to evaluate the medical threats of the use of smoke bombs and torches.
“Then they went further in order to evaluate how a gradual introduction could potentially work. So that would be the starting point at introducing a controlled legal use of pyrotechnics.
“There’s constant debate going on. Parties don’t necessarily agree with each other all the time but there is debate and that’s the most important thing.”
In Switzerland that debate is ongoing although there is resistance among police and security.
Australia has made it clear there will be no softening of the hardline.
Last season two teenagers were charged when a 13-year-old boy was hit on the leg with a flare at a Perth Glory game.
Two weeks later another 13-year-old boy was hospitalised after police used capsicum spray on a crowd at a Western Sydney Wanderers match in response to a flare.
Wurbs adds: “(FSE) would never defend the dangerous use of flares. So if people throw flares at opposition fans and they throw them onto the pitch potentially hitting players we would obviously never defend that.
“But the majority of fans that use pyrotechnics, use it because they strongly believe it’s part of their culture and it enhances the atmosphere. And they wouldn’t do it in a dangerous way unless they’re prevented from doing so (safely).
“They’re driven into illegality and criminality and they will still do it. So one has to ask oneself the question why a 17-year-old or 20-year-old would feel so strongly about holding up such a torch. And it cannot be just that you really desire to be a criminal.”
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