Don’t let violence detract from Australia’s soccer glory

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Some Australian soccer fans have a self-destructive habit of violence that can turn their football code from moments of golden promise able to lift the nation into an ugly, shameful thing that risks the goal of national acceptance.

It surfaced again on Friday evening when an alleged brutal attack on a referee at a suburban soccer match was a symptom of the issues below the surface of a code that has long struggled to overcome its image problem.

The Padstow Hornets had defeated Greenacre Eagles 5-1 in a match in south-west Sydney when a male spectator, reportedly a suspended player, allegedly attacked referee Khodr Yaghi, repeatedly punching him to the ground and breaking his jaw. A widely broadcast video of the incident shows the referee bleeding from the mouth.

In other incidents, disgraceful scenes erupted at the A-League men’s Melbourne Derby game between Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park last December when fans staged a walkout to protest at the Australian Professional Leagues’ decision to sell hosting rights to the league men’s and women’s grand finals to Sydney for the next three years. Fans from both clubs began throwing flares onto the field, but when City goalkeeper Tom Glover tried to remove a flare that landed on the playing surface and threw it back into the stands where a group of Victory supporters were sitting, a group stormed the pitch and the player was hit on the head with a metal bucket. A referee, Alex King, and a cameraman were also injured.

Last August, the riot squad was called to break up a brawl in Sydney’s inner west in which spectators shouted and threw flares and road signs at each other outside Leichhardt Oval.

The latest incident comes as Australia eagerly anticipates the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023, when the popular women’s national team, the Matildas, will take on Ireland at Sydney’s Accor Stadium in the opening round in 12 weeks. The team has become such a mainstream attraction that the clash with Ireland is already sold out and the Matildas’ captain, Sam Kerr, has been chosen as Australia’s flag-bearer for King Charles’ coronation next weekend.

Linesman Khodr Yaghi had his jaw broken in Friday night’s incident.

Meanwhile, the Australian men’s national team shared the stage at last year’s Qatar FIFA World Cup with the game’s greatest stars and proved that they deserved their place: the Socceroos advanced to the round of 16 for only the second time in Australian soccer history with a 1-0 triumph over Denmark at Al Janoub Stadium before going down to Argentina 2-1.

Such shining moments keep alive the golden hope that Australian soccer’s best days are ahead. But too often the spectre of violence returns to shatter the dream. It would be a shame and a waste should Friday’s incident erode goodwill the Matildas have garnered.

For decades, Australian soccer has struggled for wider acceptance. Class, sectarian and ethnic rivalries are not unknown in Australian rules and the rugby codes, but these other brands of football have overcome much of the violent tribalism that goes beyond humour. The abandonment of the National Soccer League with its many ethnically based clubs to the A-League is an attempt to increase the code’s popularity and to leave in the past a reputation for violence. But clearly some fans are unable to read the winds of change.

It is a shame that the actions of a few cast such a long shadow over the thousands of people who participate in soccer games around the country each week without incident.

The alleged attack on the referee in south-west Sydney comes as parents across Australia are re-evaluating their children’s involvement in football codes following concerns about concussion. While the cumulative effect of heading the ball is surprisingly bad for the brain, it can be minimised with changes at junior levels. The threat of violence is harder to deal with. But unless soccer authorities urgently address the issue and stamp it out, their game will have little future among younger generations.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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