The farcical scenes at Saturday’s fiery A-League derby cemented Australian football’s ugly reputation for flare-throwing fans – but it was once the game’s governing body that actually encouraged it.
Melbourne Victory are facing stiff sanctions and police are investigating after fans threw flares onto the pitch, then stormed the pitch after one of the devices was thrown back in their direction.
Melbourne City goalkeeper Tom Glover suffered concussion and had to be taken to hospital to deal with a head injury that required stitches after a fan smashed a metal bucket into his face in scenes described as “Australian football’s darkest day” by Socceroos star Danny Vukovic.
Melbourne Victory supporters hold a protest sign suggesting their behavior will never change as more flares cloud the surroundings of Saturday’s A-League derby
Several flares were released into the stands by both sets of fans on Saturday at AAMI Park
The flare-up situation among football fans in Australia only seems to have gotten worse – and amazingly, the A-League supremos actively wanted to encourage it four years ago.
The then Football Association Australia (FFA, now known as just Football Australia) wanted a better relationship with supporters as fan behaviour, led by Western Sydney’s infamous red and black bloc, sank to a new low.
The lighting of flares inside arenas – as then and is illegal in Australia – was still to be banned, but to improve matters the FFA was keen to help supply supporter groups with legal pyrotechnics.
The idea was to create “safe smoke”, so it was a legal option for fans who wanted to fill the air with color – but the bizarre proposal was never approved by the relevant authorities.
The Western Sydney Wanderers fan group – the infamous red and black block, have faced numerous sanctions over the years for lighting and throwing flares (pictured is flares in the crowd at a 2018 Sydney derby)
Victory and City fans were both set to protest the A-League’s decision to sell the grand final to Sydney for the next three years before the protests turned violent
“Safe smoke is not the panacea, but it will only be part of the picture to enhance the color on match day. Obviously we need to do some relationship building between the clubs, the fans and the FFA and we want to engage on that with some of those fan groups who want to do that,” then A-League boss Greg O’Rourke told Fairfax in 2018 .
“We have to get that atmosphere back again. We’ve lost some of that, and we’ve lost it for many reasons.
“It’s very clear that one of the differences in our game over others is the atmosphere inside the stadiums.”
Fast forward to 2022 and the sport is marred by riot-like scenes, with fans throwing flares at opposition players and people being injured by the devices at World Cup parties.
Monday morning’s World Cup final live viewing site in Sydney saw several flares thrown
The air was thick with orange flare in Melbourne’s Federation Square as Socceroos fans gathered to watch their World Cup 16 round of 16 match against Argentina earlier this month
In a Sunday morning press conference addressing the devilish Melbourne derby the night before, current Football Australia chief executive James Johnson admitted the league had a problem with flares, although he insisted the game was still “very safe”.
“There is an issue with flares coming into stadiums that we need to look at,” he said.
“This does not happen in local football, it does not happen at national team level, it does not happen in the NPL [National Premier Leagues] level what we saw last night, that hasn’t happened in the other A-League games.
“Football is very safe. We saw in all the other A-League games played over the weekend peaceful protests and that’s OK.
It was a brave statement given football’s current reputation in Australia, and the many years of A-League derbies, in particular, being marred by torch incidents.
Add to that the fact that many people have been injured at the Socceroos’ venues in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney and it could be said that this is not just an A-League problem.
Melbourne City goalkeeper Tom Glover holds a flare after it was thrown near him during the match. Glover was later seriously injured when fans stormed the pitch and hit him with a bucket full of sand used to hold torches
Sydney FC fans set off flares in the match against Victory in May
Western Sydney Wanderers fans release flares outside WIN Stadium in Wollongong on December 10
The Red and Black Bloc, the Western Sydney Wanderers supporters’ group, has long been notorious for flare-throwing, and has been sanctioned many times.
Four of their fans were charged by police in 2016 and the club was fined $50,000 when at least 25 flares were set off in a match against Victory at the Etihad Stadium.
Melbourne Victory’s impending punishment will also be just another in a long line of sanctions for crowd misconduct.
The club was fined $5,000 last season for horrific homophobic abuse by fans of gay Adelaide United star Josh Cavallo, while in 2016 they received a suspended three-point deduction and a $50,000 fine for repeated instances of flares and bottles being thrown onto the field. .
Another City goalkeeper, this time A-League Women’s shot-stopper Tegan Micah, endured the wrath of Victory fans when she had glass bottles and vile abuse hurled at her last year.
A security guard carries away a flare during the chaotic Melbourne derby scenes on Saturday night
Fans stormed the pitch at AAMI Park, ran over LED advertising signs and proceeded to throw flares
Dandruff can cause significant injury to people who are struck by them or burn themselves due to the heat they emit.
Possessing or firing a flare without reasonable cause is an offense under Victoria Police’s Dangerous Goods Act and if damage is done the charges can continue to escalate, up to and including conduct endangering persons or causing serious injury.
If these charges arise, those found guilty could face up to five years in prison under Victorian law.
“It (lighting and/or throwing flares) is not the kind of behavior we need in the sport. It’s pulling down the code, Victoria Police Acting Superintendent Jason Goddard said on Sunday.
“It is culturally wrong, its behavior is simply criminal, [and] that kind of behavior is downright dangerous.’
A fan holds up a flare in the Melbourne Victory supporters’ section on Saturday
The veteran officer, who was one of 134 police officers at the match, also revealed those involved would face additional sanctions under the state’s Major Events Act, meaning they could not only be banned from A-League matches but other sports as well such as the NRL, AFL and NBL.
Victorian Premier Dan Andrews joined those condemning the fans involved in the violent scenes at AAMI Park, revealing they would face harsh punishments.
“That kind of violence is not acceptable anywhere, it is not part of our way of life,” he said on Monday morning.
“I know governing bodies, venue operators and Victoria Police, they’re hard to track down these people. They will feel the full force of the law.
“Those who are too weak and too cowardly to surrender, they will be caught and they will be dealt with.”
Police announced on Sunday that they were searching for several men, including the man pictured in the middle, for their role in the violent derby
Fans watching the World Cup final on Sydney’s live viewing site on Monday morning were forced to contend with multiple flares
Those fans who do the same at A-League games in NSW face similar treatment under the state’s Possession of Dangerous Articles Other than Firearms Act.
Letting out a flare can lead to people involved risking up to two years in prison and a fine of $5,500.
Since flares were thrown just a day later at the World Cup final viewing party in Sydney, it’s safe to say the gruesome practice remains deeply rooted in Australian football culture – which is quickly descending into hooliganism.