The dark cloud of despair that has hung over our sport since the appalling incidents that marred the first final of the National Soccer League Finals series, should not cause us to lose sight of the major achievements our sport has made over the last few years. However, it should serve to remind us of the need to focus on some fundamental venue issues that have not been addressed in recent years and in the current debate.
The exposure that our sport has received in the media and in the public forums of newspaper columns and radio talk back programs, has highlighted the outrage over the attack on the players and coach of Perth Glory and the behaviour of spectators throughout the match.
Public hysteria and media frenzy over the incidents in Melbourne, have focused on a supposed cause and effect relationship of community rivalry. What we need to address is venue suitability and risk management strategies Australia wide, that can provide the match day environment needed to deter potential troublemakers and encourage families to attend NSL games.
It would be very easy to lay the blame at the feet of the home club, Melbourne Knights, however this is the approach that soccer has traditionally taken, which fails to address the fundamental issue of venue suitability. The crowd trouble on the terraces and the senseless attack on the players, was caused by a small number of cowardly youths, who were hitting out at society under the cover of a sporting event and the pretence of cultural rivalry. This has highlighted a significant venue issue that has been at the heart of soccer's problem with crowd control.
The events at the NSL final two years ago and again on the night of this final, have shown that a small minority of cowards can remain anonymous and undetected in the terraces. Police and security are powerless and not surprisingly, reluctant to move in to identify and apprehend the troublemakers in this environment.
Other codes, including the AFL, have acknowledged the reality that there will always be the potential for a small minority of idiots to ruin it for the rest and have ensured that matches are played in all seated stadiums. FIFA has also outlawed the practice of selling standing room tickets for internationals and has given directives to national associations, encouraging the adoption of a similar practice.
The success of the AFL strategy in attracting female spectators and the family market to AFL games, highlights a strong marketing reason to pursue this approach, irrespective of the desire to prevent a repeat of last weekend's appalling behaviour, which has damaged our sport yet again.
The flares that are produced these days are tiny and can be cleverly concealed to avoid the most rigorous of bag searches. Whilst there are some who naively see flares as harmless, the risk of severe injury is present. The mindless and juvenile practice of lighting flares at soccer games is almost inevitable in our current stadiums.
Ironically on the same night that the Knights Stadium was lit up with flares, coupled with trouble in the crowd and after match violence, Olympic Park sat vacant. This stadium which boasts an outstanding playing surface also has a seating capacity to cover Victorian NSL fixtures and adequate player access pathways that do not present the same challenges to security staff that occurred at the Knights Stadium.
A policy of selling seat only tickets for big NSL games, at a venue such as Olympic Park, where crowd monitoring by way of cameras is also available to ensure easy detection, apprehension and conviction, is a practical and sensible solution.
The Melbourne Knights have been an outstanding performer in the NSL, with championship success and a production line of players who have gone on to become superstars on the world stage, including Mark Viduka. Their effort in developing and financing their own ground, without any support or funding, has been an amazing achievement. However, a match venue that cannot provide seating for more than a few thousand spectators, draws a line on the potential of the club to attract new spectators, especially from the families who are involved in the current junior participation boom in Victoria. This is not just a Victorian issue, as crowd trouble has been a resurfacing problem in NSW as well.
The use of Olympic Park or upgrades of Bob Jane Stadium and the Knights stadium to provide a full seating capacity, must be taken up and it is interesting to note that South Melbourne have almost completed full seating of their stadium. This club which also has a great record in the NSL, has suffered in recent years due to poor crowd behaviour, even though this year's experience has been much improved.
The costs of either stadium upgrades, or rental at a venue such as Olympic Park, reinforces the urgent need for Soccer Australia and the Australian Professional Footballers Association to address the issue of the cost structures of clubs and the level of player salaries sustainable in the current commercial market in the NSL. What is the value of paying significant salaries to our top national soccer league players, when we can't even protect them?
Reappraisal of the role of the National Soccer League in the development of our sport, must be part of Soccer Australia's proposed restructure discussions. It should be tempered with a realistic expectation of our National Soccer League and a plan for sustainable growth.
When this issue has been addressed, we can create a different future for our sport and the National Soccer League, with the confidence that appropriate venue comfort and security for the spectators and players, can perhaps attract the many thousands of families that are involved in our great sport through the participation of their boys and girls.
At the grass roots, Soccer is the sport that is played by more children than any other in Australia. Victoria has experienced 30% growth in junior participation over the last three years and Australia continues to produce superstars on the world stage, with over one hundred players playing professionally in International leagues. We all should be proud of the role that we have played in the success of our sport and look to the future with a great deal of optimism.
Since 1999, there have been fourteen soccer internationals played at the MCG, including the Olympic Games tournaments for men and women. During these games, there has not been one arrest and MCC officials and police have noted that the crowds have been the best behaved of any crowds at the venue for all sports. There is a clear message in this - soccer fans in this country are not all bad, or irresponsible.
An appropriate venue and risk management strategy in the National Soccer League throughout Australia, can make all the difference to ensure that the small minority do not ruin it for the rest. Melbourne Knights should not be the target of soccer's reaction to the incidents of last week. Good luck to both our Victorian teams this weekend.