A little gift to close out the year.
In February 2016, Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers fans acted like twats at a game at Docklands, ripping out seats, and letting off flares and fire crackers and such. I was interviewed on the matter for ABC TV in my guise as a soccer academic, by their reporter Ben Lisson. Being my first television interview, I found the experience by turns exciting, nerve wracking, alienating, and bizarre.
I wrote up a piece about the experience, but because it took me a little longer to finish than I otherwise would have liked, I didn't send it to my usual outlet of Shoot Farken, instead sending it to an irregularly produced magazine called Thin White Line; partly because I wanted something in print (even though they didn't have an ISBN), but also because I wanted to share the love around.
For whatever reason, the edition that the piece was meant to be published in never materialised. So here I am publishing it for the first time almost five years after I appeared on television. I don't think it's one of my better pieces by a long shot, but that's not the point,
During an away game in Melbourne early in 2016, members of the Red and Black Bloc, the active supporter group for A-League franchise the Western Sydney Wanderers, lit a barrage of flares, as well as launched detonators which in the context of recent world events sounded not unlike the bombs let off in and around European football stadiums. Cue the expected reactions and outrage from all corners, including but not limited to: tabloid media hysteria; the pettiness of inter-codal rivalries; the self-flagellation of soccer fans; the rejection of any responsibility by members of active support groups; the obligatory conspiracy theories that ‘outsiders’ had caused the incident; and the eventual imposition of a fine and suspended point deduction penalty on the Wanderers themselves.
Now normally in these situations, I couldn't care less. Being what is described in Australian soccer parlance as a ‘bitter’ – that is, someone who displays near abject antipathy to the changes wrought to the game after government reviews and the return to the local soccer scene of billionaire Frank Lowy in 2004, which included the establishment of the franchise based A-League, which excludes clubs such as the one I follow from participating – I was content to just sit back and watch the carnage unfold.
On the following Friday morning though, the day before another potentially volatile fixture – depending on your definition of volatile of course - I received a phone call from a private phone number. It was sports reporter Ben Lisson, of ABC TV news, who said he’d been passed along my details from Dr. Ian Syson, a local soccer academic and my doctoral thesis supervisor. ‘Would I mind having a bit of a chat about the flare situation?’ he asked.
‘Not at all’, I must have said, or words to that effect, as we chatted for a few minutes about the flares and the media reaction to the incident. And so after going over some of the key issues, then came the invitation to speak on camera about these matters. ‘When?’, I asked. ‘Tomorrow’, said Lisson. ‘We’ll also be following a family with children that support Melbourne Victory to see what they think’.
So, with plans made for Lisson and his crew to visit my house in Melbourne’s western suburbs, I was already wondering what I’d got myself into. What did I know about flares? I’d never lit a flare. Apart from proximity to certain former notorious Australian soccer hooligans, I had no hooligan, ultra, or active supporter street cred worth speaking of. And while I am an Australian soccer historian and cultural observer, my main academic specialty is soccer as it appears in Australian literature. What’s more, while I don’t like flares, it’s not necessarily on the grounds of law and order, which seems to be one of the main objections to their use in Australian soccer; no, my dislike for flares is more to do with aesthetics.
Yes, there is the awful smell, and the smoke which stings eyes, nose and throat – and on a windy day, the obscuring of the playing field. But as one friend noted on the matter, they also come across as an attempt at a ‘cheap pop’, to borrow a phrase from professional wrestling. And rather than being a demonstration of a spontaneous emotional release, the premeditated launching of a flare after a goal has been scored comes across as creatively moribund almost from the get-go; rather than losing oneself in the jubilant post-goal moment, the person lighting the flare has taken the time out to perform pre-prepared material; rather than becoming one with the exultant crowd, they set themselves both apart from and outside of it.
Nevertheless, I assumed that that line of inquiry would not be at the top of Lisson’s list of questions. So instead I spent the day wondering about the mechanics of the whole thing. Where in my house would they film? Would I have to do a walking to the camera shot, or better still, pretend to be doing serious academic work on my computer or rifling through the contents of a bookshelf? What should I wear? Who should I tell? How would I be introduced to the world? And as a ‘bitter’ with a moderate online reputation, would whatever I have to say be inevitably consumed along partisan lines?
While still pondering these questions, that evening I found myself with a few hundred other souls at the Kingston Heath Soccer Complex, deep in Melbourne’s middle class south-eastern suburban nightmare, watching my club South Melbourne field no recognisable strikers in a 3-0 Community Shield loss to Bentleigh Greens. The smoke of the lamb gyros billowing across the field from the pavilion – and a short break when the ground’s sprinklers came on - was about as close as such as a game could come to being disrupted.
Despite the wonders of the internet age being able to turn anyone into a self-published viral star, there is still something to be said about being interviewed by the traditional broadcast media. And thus while I had decided to be very low-key about the whole thing, I did relent and tell a smattering of my fellow South fans about my impending interview to be broadcast on state-wide television, perhaps even national television – the common reaction being incredulity and confusion about why I’d be chosen to talk about such an issue. Still, one had to be cautious – the interview could have been cancelled, or I could have been interviewed and the entire segment discarded. Probably best not to get too much into a self-promotional state of mind then.
The next day, as the appointed time for the interview drew closer, I started to run through all the things I’d like to say. That despite claims to the contrary from some Australian soccer fans, there is actually a long-standing culture of lighting flares at Australian soccer matches. That active supporters by and large actually like flares, and can’t come out and claim otherwise when the Facebook accounts of active supporters are littered with photographs of flare shows from both local and overseas soccer matches. That flares are impossible to ban, and that all you can hope to achieve is a sort of containment, which would include the use of social ostracism. That whatever measures you attempt to take, there’ll always be one or two people who will disregard the social norms and do what they please, but the most important thing is that the third, fourth and fifth person don’t join in.
Furthermore, that there is the continuing issue of Australia and soccer having an uneasy relationship with each other, the latter often being tarred with the brush of novelty, foreignness and violence, just three items from a long list of historical criticisms of the sport. That the unsolicited advice regarding soccer’s internal cultural discussions from people with a vested interest in other sports is beyond worthless. That instead of listening to those hostile commentators, Australian soccer needs to acknowledge, understand and address the problem on its own terms and for its own sake, with no regard for the opinions of those who despise the game.
Perhaps I could put forward the idea that Australia still has a problem with multiculturalism, interpreting the word to mean the policy of gentle rather than forced assimilation into an imagined middle, instead of a pluralist model allowing many cultures to exist parallel to each other, with no privileged culture at the centre. That what mainstream Australia sees when they see the kind of active support typical to soccer, is interpreted as both a freak-show and as a vague cultural threat, challenging the notions put forward by other Australian sports that the only way to behave in an Australian sporting crowd is to sit down, shut up, and clap politely; and as an extension of that, active support as it manifests itself in Australia is also perhaps too Continental in style, even too Catholic for a nation with a more than residual Protestant fear of reckless displays of self-expression.
Ten minutes or so after receiving a text message from Lisson telling me he’s on his way, a familiar face from network TV strolled through my front gate, with his cameraman in tow. I was slightly unnerved by the fact that Lisson was wearing shorts and thongs (flip-flops for the international reader), but quickly surmised that since his job is mostly to be filmed from the waist up, that it really didn't matter what he wore below the belt.
While the cameraman went about setting up his equipment, Lisson asked me what I specialised in, and seemed disappointed that my officially designated speciality was in literature; my attempts to add my long-standing interest and credentials in Australian soccer history and culture came across as a lame attempt to prove to him that I was worth having made the journey out to Sunshine West. Having decided to film in my front garden, I was instructed to focus on Lisson and not at the camera.
During the interview, I became aware almost from the start that I was not providing the sought for answers, let alone providing them in the preferred format. Instead of clear, direct and definitive statements, the interview saw me play out all the usual academic tropes – that of the kinds of mumbled complexities which would make sense in a long form discussion, lecture theatre, or published academic paper. I thought that the most erudite thing that I’d said was that there was nothing new to see here, and that the situation as it was playing itself out had only served to repeat the standard tropes of the debate. In its own way a cynical reaction to the affair, but perhaps the most obvious one that too often gets ignored when this issue comes up.
After a few minutes the interview is over, and once the framing shots are done Lisson thanks me for my time, telling me that the segment will be on tomorrow evening. On the evening the segment was due to be played, the two televisions in my household were strategically set to everything but the 7PM ABC News bulletin. My parents, who had rightfully commandeered one of the televisions, were watching probably illegally streamed Greek channels. My brothers and I, on the other television, set about watching the rather mediocre repeat Futurama episode where Bender ends up on an island full of obsolete robots.
At some point during the evening’s syndicated viewing, I received a text message from Pamela, a friend and colleague from university who had seen the segment. There were also a couple of tweets from those who had been implored by others to look out for it, but it seemed that by and large my debut television appearance had gone unnoticed. Mustering my courage the day after the segment went to air, I decided to watch it on the ABC’s online catch up service, enduring the vox pops with the Victory supporting families, waiting for my moment of fame, and finally, there I was: ‘Paul Mavroudis: soccer academic’, complete with ruddy face, blotchy skin, and mumbling something – re-imagined as ‘an aporia in the intercodal discursive relativities’ by one online wit - which seemed to have little connection to the rest of the story.
And that was it - my supposed intellectual expertise and days’ worth of angst reduced to a three-second sound-bite. The truth of course, is that I could have backed out at any time, but chose not to out of the vain sense that I would have something important to say, and something which would be noticed and appreciated by the wider public. In that sense, my actions bore at least some similarity to the person who chooses to light a flare at an Australian soccer match; a chance for self-promotion, and a contribution to an unceasing and largely unchanging discussion about flares and Australian soccer. And thus the discursive tropes around flares and Australian soccer were repeated once more, with me fulfilling my obligation as abstract indirectly involved talking head.