The Football Federation of Australia have banned two prominent Sydney FC fans for two years following an investigation into spectators spilling onto the pitch during the most recent Sydney Derby. Joey Ratcliffe questions the hard-line stance taken by the game’s Australian governing body, and how they risk ruining the unique atmosphere at Australian football matches.
It was a moment of undoubted passion and celebration rarely seen in Australian sport. Nothing like it had ever been seen before at that stadium and, because of the specific and rare circumstances, it was unlikely to ever be repeated again.
However, it was frowned upon by security and the stadium’s management – the SCG Trust. A moment worthy of the welled-up eyes in future decades was, in fact, an infringement on the rules of the stadium.
A moment that we’ve been seeing in football for years around the world, as fans celebrate promotions, final-day survival, or – like in this instance – a dramatic derby win.
That moment, of course, was when Sydney FC scored the winning goal against crosstown rivals, the Western Sydney Wanderers, in October 2014’s Sydney Derby at Sydney FC’s Allianz Stadium.
Dozens of ecstatic and overjoyed Sydney fans and their official home end – The Cove, full of positive energy that should be embraced in sport – leapt the fence and took to the sidelines to express their elation behind the goal and with the players at the corner flag. The same Sydney FC players who were experiencing similar emotions by the advertising hoardings of the eastern grandstand.
The worst part, and perhaps only negative, was that one of the ‘pitch invaders’ took to the actual field and slapped Wanderers captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley on the rump.
In the aftermath of the pitch invasion – which ended as quickly as it started as the fans returned to the stands and the match resumed – the FFA announced that they would be investigating the incident.
At the end of October, Sydney FC CEO Tony Pignata emailed all club members congratulating The Cove for the support they had showed in the early stages of the 2014/15 A-League season.
Ominously, Pignata also warned that NSW Police and the SCG Trust had adjudged the matter, “as a SERIOUS safety issue.”
Pignata also outlined that the SCG Trust had grown frustrated with Sydney fans and what they saw as continual unfavorable behaviour. The pitch invasion would be the club’s last warning before official action was taken.
“The club can and will continue to assist The Cove in their efforts to generate the best atmosphere in the Hyundai A-League,” wrote Pignata in the members-only email.
“But in order to do that all Members and Fans must abide by the Laws and Spectator Code of Behaviour.
“The Trust considers this as their final warning, so in the interest of all The Cove and Sydney FC members and fans, and to preserve our excellent game day atmosphere, we ask everyone to act responsibly when supporting the best team in the country, Sydney FC.”
But it was not a last warning. This month, the Cove’s capo, along with another key member of The Cove, were officially banned from attending matches for two years. Neither of them were the lone fan who invaded the actual field of play.
In the seconds that the rare crowd celebration took place, many were heartened by a sight that proved how besotted this country is with football and the A-League; and how a derby barely years old could create such spontaneous emotion.
But, as it stands, it was an act and offense that the crowd is continually warned not to commit.
But what were the key moments that led to the joyous pitch invasion that made it such a rare event? So rare that the SCG Trust needn’t be worried that it occurs again?
First of all, it was the winning goal in a derby that has, in its short history, become one of the pinnacle events in Australian sport – if not the cairn organized at the top of a mountain of sport that this country so prides itself on.
Not only was it a winning goal, but it was also the goal that gave the home side the lead for the first time in a match that had them down 2-0 with minutes to go before the half-time break.
The player who scored the goal was also the club’s captain playing in his first derby. That goalscorer, Alex Brosque, is a club hero and 2010 Championship player who had just returned to the team after a big-money overseas sojourn.
The fourth key instance that led to the pitch invasion was two years of heartache Sydney FC had endured watching their upstart city rivals grow into a bona fide club with fervent fans that commentators had always stated were the best in the league. The best in a league that had showed passion in the Sky Blues’ Cove and Melbourne Victory’s terraces years before the Wanderers were even conceived.
The Wanderers and their fans deserve respect and admiration for what they have brought to the league and to Sydney FC.
But for the fans of the Sky Blue, a time had to come when they could show their red-and-black sporting adversaries what it meant to them to, once again, be the best team in the city.
“That just shows you how much it means to our fans to beat Western Sydney,” said Graham Arnold of the incident.
And it did.
There was no malice or violence.
It was football zealous and sincerity.
As for the two Cove members who were officially banned, they took to Facebook to break the news and express their dismay at being banned from attending games that they had contributed to so positively for years.
“We have attempted to work privately with the FFA to reach any sort of compromise [and to] get the ban overturned due to the ridiculousness of it,” wrote The Cove’s capo.
“But since no others could be properly identified by the FFA, they decided to simply target the two most easily recognizable people from The Cove.”
The Cove wrote that they had provided video footage to the FFA that proved the two now-banned members were pushed on to the field by the rush of supporters and not by choice.
“FFA have dealt with this in a completely unreasonable and spineless manner when we tried to open a dialogue with them,” the capo wrote.
“I want to thank Tony Pignata and the club for his efforts in trying to help get the ban overturned.”
The Cove confirmed that their former capo would resume Allianz Stadium match day duties after he resigned last year following the expulsion of his wife from the stadium. That night, The Cove had written a tifo in Russian demanding the club’s Russian owner sack under-fire coach Frank Farina.
Sydney FC hierarchy is rumored to not have made the decision to evict the former capo’s wife.
As for pitch invasions they are a dangerous scenario, especially when they occur on the field of play or physically threaten players, as was seen in the Nottingham-Derby English Championship game earlier this month.
However, questions must be raised when the stadium’s management chose to ban, what appears to be, only two people in a crowd of over 50.
If I recall correctly, there were no bans handed out when the SCG hosted their own pitch invasion when Tony Lockett kicked his 1300th goal for the Sydney Swans in the 1999 season of the AFL. It was seen as a celebration – a moment where players and fans were one – not one of hooliganism or danger.
Yes, an official warning could have been directed to The Cove and all Sydney FC supporters. An official warning that would have been accepted and applied more effectively than an outright ban of the two most recognizable ‘pitch invaders’.
Instead, the SCG Trust is left with the supporter base of their only summer tenant feeling alienated and unfairly prosecuted over an incident that caused no harm.
The FFA and the A-League are turning their backs on the fans they indeed use to market ‘their’ game. The kind of support that has helped our game flourish and grow beyond the expectations of most. It’s not the first time they’ve damaged the reputation either, with the introduced requirement of memberships to participate in ‘active support areas’; but that’s a separate debate in itself.
The Cove should not and will not invade the Allianz Stadium pitch again, but the main reason that the SCG Trust makes money from their rectangular stadium in the summer months is the distinct support that football brings to Australian sport .
Allianz Stadium is outdated and disliked by many Sydney fans, but at the moment it’s the best option.
If the power of football continues to grow exponentially in Australia, Sydney FC would be better off cutting their losses and moving to a stadium that respects the unique atmosphere of the sport’s fans.
Or, one day, building their own purpose-built stadium like Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.
Hooliganism is a myth that unfairly continues to be a stigma on the beautiful game.