The Hyundai A-League (HAL) was founded in 2005 following the 2002 Crawford Report, which found Australian soccer (“football”) required a systematic overhaul to reach professional status and stay afloat financially. The league catalysed the growth of football in Australia, both financially and in terms of participation, as seen in the 2015 report by Outside90. Such growth has helped the HAL negotiate what is expected to be its most fruitful broadcasting rights deal in history. Yet, this growing popularity has also resulted in a spike in unduly biased media scrutiny — namely from News Limited publications — and a consequent code war between other Australian sports. These publications have attempted to sully the reputation of Australian football by hyperbolising the ostensible ‘hooligan problem’ that pervades the sport. On the contrary, they have neglected issues involving the sports they invest in. For example, News Limited owned the National Rugby League until 2012, while the AFL’s six-year, $2.5 billion broadcast deal with Fox Sports highlights News Limited’s vested interests.
— Sportsbet.com.au (@sportsbetcomau) October 24, 2015
With this in mind, my paper will discuss 1) the contrasting perspectives of football fans in Australia, and 2) how these portrayals are used to propagate — particularly right-wing — agendas. My first article is It’s Time To Stop the Football Louts by the late Rebecca Wilson, which was published in The Daily Telegraph November 22, 2015. The article brought conflicting responses — support and ignominy — from all divides of the code war. Mike Cockerill’s A-League: Idiotic fans don’t just attend games, other sports shouldn’t throw stones from glasshouses is a response in The Sydney Morning Herald to Wilson’s article. In short, Wilson’s article portrays football fans in a negative light in her opinion-laden piece, while Cockerill defends’ fans behaviour and argues they are pawns used as a pretext to denigrate football’s growing status in Australia. Before I continue, it is pertinent to preface my analysis with my perspective (not unlike Alia Imtoual did with her paper): I am an avid football fan and the Sydney Correspondent for a football website. I believe this does not make me deliberately biased, rather an informed individual that is able to consider historical contexts in analysing the two articles.
Wilson’s article was published during the HAL’s 10-year anniversary celebrations. This context, coupled with the provocative title – “It’s Time To Stop the Football Louts” – shows her intentions to sully the reputation of football by referencing past eras where the sport was saturated by gang-related firms. It is no surprise that Wilson has portrayed football fans in this light; in her 2016 article, It’s time for the FFA to get tough and ban RBB thugs, she uses a plethora of negative connoting words to label the fans as “bad boys” that “[cannot] behave for 12 months”, “criminals” and “perpetrators.” Such language is unduly biased, as statistics show it is a significant minority of football fans that commit miscreant behaviour. Furthermore, this language — which implies fans attending football games are vagabonds with the sole intention of committing crimes under the pretext of passion — mirrors her lexicon used in the main article I have chosen. Epithets such as “football louts” and “rats in the ranks of clubs” supports her primary framing of football fans. These are aided by her elected image which depicts a security guard chasing a flare that has wondered onto the field of play, as well as the 198 mugshots of fans banned from the games. The photos of the fans are not flattering — rather, they add to Wilson’s insinuations that football is inundated with criminals.
Wilson compares football fans to fans of other codes to highlight the apparent contrasts in behaviour. By referring to other fans as “a few drunk cricket yobbos” and “a small base of Bulldogs fans” instantly relegates their behaviour to actions society should expect as a result of inebriation. These innocent behaviours, she argues, “belies the savagery of hundreds of A-League fans.” One can infer that, according to Wilson’s portrayal, violence at football games mirrors organised crimes, while the misbehaviour at other sports is incidental. Such a portrayal is dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, football in Australia has historically had a negative image because 1) it was first played in Australia when the post-WWII European migrants brought it to Australia, and 2) the violence that arose in the 1980s and 1990s due to the ethnic-based clubs, pre-dating the HAL. Secondly, The Daily Telegraph’s predominantly right-wing, conservative viewership may have a propensity to supporting other sports which have traditionally been dominated by athletes with Anglo-Saxon roots. Therefore, Wilson links hooliganism with ethnicity to add racial undertones to the code war. If journalists are supposed to be the fourth estate, I would argue Wilson is acting irresponsibly and envenoming relationships that already exist in society by portraying football fans as hooligans.
On the other side of the divide lays Cockerill’s piece. Cockerill, one of football’s most respected journalists, responds to Wilson’s portrayal by labelling fans as “supporters” and the “hooligan…idiotic fringe” to separate authentic fans from the miscreants. Furthermore, Cockerill refers to the football community as “tribes in football” to engage with the negative labels and subvert them to portray football fans as united against hooligans. This is supported by his title, where “idiotic fans” again distinguishes the good from the bad and also positions himself as someone who is against belligerent fans. His analogy of “throw[ing] stones from glass houses” implies the apparent hypocrisy of other codes criticising football, thus simultaneously defending football and attacking other codes. This subversion is further evident when he applauds the FFA for banning miscreant fans — “might actually suggest the game doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour and is trying to do something about it” — before even suggesting that perhaps the governing body has been too heavy-handed in dealing with hooligans. He also cites the Western Sydney Wanderers offering convicted fans the opportunity to appeal their fans, which he labels as a way of correcting “unfair…bans”. In doing this, Cockerill establishes two things, 1) football fans’ misbehaviour that the code is dealing with, and 2) said issue is being pounced upon by journalists such as Wilson from publications such as The Daily Telegraph.
Besiktas & Napoli fans tonight over in Turkey 👊🏼 pic.twitter.com/yI7aBoIyOn
— Football Fooligans (@Footy_Fooligans) November 1, 2016
As I did with Wilson’s article, it is important to cross reference this piece with other works by Cockerill to highlight his perspective on the wider issue. Most telling is in his 2016 piece, Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou wants fan to embrace the ‘fire which burns endlessly’, where he summaries the fan-driven football culture with “passion, excitement, obsession”. Contrary to Wilson’s denigrating descriptors, Cockerill chooses these words to portray football fans as victims of innate feelings and Murdoch media’s false characterisations. He elaborates on passionate behaviour as “the size of the fight of the crowd,” distinguishing it from “bad behaviour”. This passion can be seen in his use of the Red and Black Bloc (RBB) — the Western Sydney Wanderers active support group — that are regarded as the benchmark of the league. Furthermore, he has elected the RBB because they were at the centre of Wilson’s criticism, whereby he is attempting to put a positive spin on their negative portrayal. It seems Wilson and Cockerill’s agree that all fans have a right to be passionate. Furthermore, both writers denounce hooligans in sports — albeit to varying degrees. Therefore, I explore a second aspect of my paper: that the apparent pandemic of football hooliganism is exaggerated in the media as a pawn to push right-wing agendas.
In having portrayed football fans as violent hooligans, Wilson attempts to inflate the issue into something synonymous with the code. She uses medical adjectives such as “endemic and acute” to position herself as an intelligent writer, while simultaneously hyperbolising football hooliganism to compare it to a terminal illness that is crippling football and wider society. This continues with her apparent sympathy for the police who are “hamstrung” by the hooligan who have created a “cultural problem within the sport that worsens each season”. This last quote is particularly important as it builds on her earlier portrayal of fans by framing it as a growing issue, and it is here that context and agendas must be considered. This article was published following the 2015 AFL season which was marred by Adam Goodes, an indigenous Australian player, being booed at games after he called out a fan’s racist remarks. Eddy McGuire, the chairman of Collingwood and a radio host, exacerbated the issue by suggesting on national radio that Goodes should be used to promote King Kong.
As well as this public relations nightmare, the News Limited publications also have an investment in the AFL as seen in their latest aforementioned broadcasting rights deal. It is further apparent when, in 2008, then editor-in-chief of The Gold Coast Bulletin – a News Limited publication – was appointed as a board member of the The Gold Coast Suns in their foundational year. This is a clear example of a conflict of interest, thus further highlighting the bias that pervades Australian sport in favour of Australian Rules Football and Rugby League. Regarding the latter, News Limited owned a 50% stake in the National Rugby League until 2012, and the Melbourne Storm were owned by News Limited until the end of the 2013 season. Contrarily, HAL franchise, Gold Coast United, were owned independently by mining magnate, Clive Palmer and no club in the league has had ownerships affiliated with the media. While this does not relate to Wilson, per se, it shows how News Limited are invested in other sports that rival football, therefore highlighting their agendas that perchance Wilson would either have to adhere to or happily comply with.
Conversely, Cockerill frames Wilson’s article as another biased attack on the football fraternity, dismissing her article as having “the familiar whiff of discrimination” and implying the article’s “raison d’etre…[was] clickbait”. By challenging Wilson’s journalistic integrity — “florid language and the aggressively myopic undertones of the article in question — Cockerill discredits not only her portrayal of football fans, but also those done by her colleagues. For example, he calls out Alan Jones’ “odious comparison to the terrorism in Paris” to show the blatant absurdity and partisanship employed by Murdoch-owned media. Another example is his interjection in “Right, of course” to respond to Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione’s criticism of football’s culture. By doing this, he has deflected criticism that belied the code not only from right-wing media, but also Subordinate Authorities.
With this in mind, I come to the next part of Cockerill’s piece: attacking the media bias against football in Australia. Cockerill does this by asking readers a question — “Why was the list leaked? — before answering it, in short, by attacking “the establishment…[that] has never understood, accepted, or liked [football]”. This “establishment” is further evident when he questions the violence statistics at other sports. “We don’t know,” he concludes, “because nobody has leaked that information yet. That’s no surprise.” Not only has Cockerill positioned himself as a pro-football writer than is championing the virtues of the game, he is also raising the fact that perhaps there is a conspiracy against the sport. In citing these conspiracies — which include Wilson’s article, Alan Jones on radio, NSW Police — Cockerill has portrayed fans as victims in a wider code and racial war:
“These people…like Jones…[a]re united in their distrust, and dislike, of a game which represents the world beyond our shores”.
This links to my earlier analysis of Wilson’s article which addressed the Anglo-Saxon readership of The Daily Telegraph as well as the lack of Balkan and Mediterranean players in Rugby League and Australian Rules Football.
In conclusion, it is clear that football fans are being portrayed in two contrasting ways depending on the media organisation. My analysis of Wilson’s right-wing article shows how News Limited criticises fans of others codes to protect the sports they are invested in. On the other hand, Cockerill’s article seeks to defend football fans and the sport, arguing that perchance there exists a conspiracy that seeks to thwart the growth and influence of football.
Cockerill, M. (2015). A-League: Idiotic fans don’t just attend games, other sports shouldn’t throw stones from glasshouses. [online] The Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/sport/soccer/aleague-idiotic-fans-dont-just-attend-games-other-sports-shouldnt-throw-stones-from-glasshouses-20151126-gl8j3a.html [Accessed 15 Oct. 2016].
Cockerill, M. (2016). Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou wants fans to embrace the ‘fire which burns endlessly’. [online] The Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/sport/soccer/socceroos-coach-ange-postecoglou-wants-to-fans-to-embrace-the-fire-which-burns-endlessly-20160325-gnqyob.html [Accessed 26 Oct. 2016].
Imtoual, A. (2005). Religious Racism and the Media: Representations of Muslim Women in the Australian Print Media. Outskirts Online Journal, 13(1).
May, B. (2016). Analysing the growth of the A-League | Outside90. [online] Outside90.com. Available at: http://outside90.com/analysing-the-growth-of-the-a-league-123/ [Accessed 28 Oct. 2016].
The World Game. (2016). A-League seeking bumper TV deal. [online] Available at: http://theworldgame.sbs.com.au/article/2016/10/17/league-seeking-bumper-tv-deal [Accessed 21 Oct. 2016].
Wilson, R. (2015). Time for denials is over: stop the louts. [online] Dailytelegraph.com.au. Available at: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/opinion/rebecca-wilson-its-time-to-stop-the-football-thugs/news-story/ec7ca08fa3bbcb206a30eb714b8a8be6 [Accessed 13 Oct. 2016].
Wilson, R. (2015). It’s time for the FFA to get tough and ban RRB thugs. [online] Available at: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/sport/football/a-league/teams/western-sydney/how-long-can-western-sydney-wanderers-fans-survive-lame-penalties/news-story/471a1c1d8e7a4c04e732ae4638911dd2 [Accessed 25 Oct. 2016].