Tuesday, April 24, 2007


I was there when it was shit

My first footballing memory was as a young lad living in Belgium. My Dad got me some Arsenal home programmes and I treasured them for ever and a day. I read them from cover to cover many times, all the while treating them like the sacred text they truly were. The first game I can recall being involved in if you like was the Leeds Cup Final in ’72. My Dad was listening to it while I played cowboys and Indians on that warm day. We lost but I was the cowboy and I killed my brother so there. A year later and I was playing with my cars on the floor of the house as I listened to the radio. We lost to Sunderland but little did I know that a year later I would be on the North Bank.

I returned to England in the middle of the energy crisis. It was the day we played Wolves at Highbury and the score was 2-2. The game is probably most remembered for the attendance though. Despite being played midweek it had an afternoon kick off because there was not a lot of energy around. 3 weeks later I went to my first ever football match, Brighton against Plymouth and all I can remember was it took me years, many many years, to get the programme.

April 6th I went to Highbury for the first time. It was West Ham at home and we drew 0-0. About this time we also played Stoke, I forget the result but I was so disappointed I told my mum, as she took me to the shops, that Arsenal only had 200 supporters in the world! It was a depressing season to be an Arsenal fan as the double side broke up almost over night though I remember Alan Ball writing in Shoot about a talent called Liam Brady and, later, Graham Rix.

Without cable TV or the internet my football was limited to The Big Match. Match of the Day was past my bed time! Brian Moore would come on after Sunday lunch and we’d get highlights of big games in London, even Arsenal occasionally. Nearly every week Brian would provide the background as what seemed like hundreds of lads with really bad dress sense battered the living daylights out of each other on the terraces. Panorama with Michael Barrett kept me fully informed of the Red Army’s adventures as Manchester United that season ran riot in the Second Division. Violence was so common place people would weakly joke they went to a punch up and a football match broke out.

The 70’s wore on and luckily as punk came off the streets and into the mainstream terrace fashion improved just as I was getting aware of this sort of stuff. No pictures exist of me in wing collars and flares with bushy sideburns and praise be to the Pistols for that. I started going to more games and seeing more trouble. I got slapped at Reading coming home from Coventry but I didn’t tell me mum and I kept the programme in mint condition. I used Persil vouchers to go to away games. I watched Liverpool dominate on our trusty old black n white TV and marveled at the quagmires at Derby and Anfield. Football was a mess with no investment, poor facilities and falling attendances.

To say you were a football fan in the early 80’s in England was to invite scorn from your peers. The night Luton trashed Millwall I went to Villa away. At Scratchwood Services we’d seen plenty of grizzlies who we assumed were Arsenal ‘cos they weren’t interested in us. I started going to more and more away games, first with the Travel Club then by car. People at work thought I was weird, going to football, so went the perception, was asking for trouble. Trouble was there if you wanted it, it could be avoided. The worst problems we faced was in Northern outposts like Birmingham and Merseyside where cheeky scallies and future TV presenters would offer to look after our car for a few pence but hey this was Thatcher’s Britain, we felt we were doing something for our impoverished brethren oop north.

I recall games at Luton and Oxford. We were shoehorned into the tiniest most expensive terracing in the country, so tightly packed people’s feet didn’t touch the ground for the whole game. With fences to the front and fences to the side there was little hope of escape should anything happen. One game at Luton we were on the open terrace behind the goal. This was divided into three pens, did I say football fans were the lowest of the low. We had the left hand pen. The middle one was for a couple of ball boys and the right hand one had a few Luton in there. We couldn’t move. When fans tried to climb the fence to tell stewards or police of the conditions they were pushed off and threatened with arrest. If we were cattle on the way to slaughter the RSPCA would have done something but we weren’t. We were football fans and Thatcher hated us. . Overcrowding on the terraces and fences were a recipe for disaster, every terrace lad knew it but who could we talk to? No one listened till April ’89 by which time of course it was too late.

Now of course we like to promote our league as the best in the world. Inspired by the likes of Bergkamp, Cantona and Zola the English game has become trendy at home and abroad. Money has flowed into the game and average foreigners have replaced home grown talent on the team sheets. Aston Villa won the League in 81 and they used 14 players all season on worse pitches and with heavier balls than today. When Saturday Comes is as radical as an English International advertising crisps on TV and one time football hooligans have become 21st Century celebs as they churn out ‘never run, never dun’ books by the dozen. Young wannabees post fawning messages on their web sites as they look for role models and heroes. The likes of Ashley Cole with their Hello lifestyles and celebrity wives are too distant, too remote.

In July ’87 I got out. I moved to Australia and poked around for some football but there the game was as despised by the mainstream as it was in England. Football was definitely a minority sport, overshadowed by Rugby League and Union, Aussie Rules, Cricket, Tag Marbles and any over sport where Australians were successful. I went to see Australia play an International against Gothenburg at Parramatta. Spot the Aussie in the crowd. Same against Hadjuk Split, me and my mates were the only noise when Australia scored after 2 minutes.

Domestically the game sucked. The first Grand Final I went to had less than 8,000. In my 4 or 5 years there I recall only one game I was at where the crowd was more than 10,000. That was a tasty local affair between Preston and Heidleberg. But this was Melbourne, this was not a rivalry of the suburbs. This was Northern Greeks against Makedonians.

Petty imported ethnic rivalries blighted the game as Croats, Serbs, Makedonians and Maltese turned the league into their own little battlefields. Tell an Australian you went to football and they’d look at you like you’d grown a second head. Crap pitches as well. Wentworth Park, a greyhound track, was used by APIA at times. The pitch at St George was so waterlogged one game the frogmen were called out to find a missing ball boy. And among the showers the fights carried on.

Pele came one year. I’d last seen him at Highbury the year Villa won the league and we had 57,000 inside the stadium. This time it was St George at home to Marconi and the crowd as less than 4,000. As he did his unasked for lap of honour the massed ranks of the St George support started roaring ‘We all agree, (Zoran) Illic is better than Pele!’ I guess you had to be there!

I left in ’91. I’d had enough. St George played their last game of the season at Edensor Park and beat Sydney Croatia 3-0. We invaded the pitch after the game. I got top scorer’s Andy Harper’s shirt. Adem Poric wouldn’t talk to us and John Filan was destined for bigger things. So was Australian football of course. Fifteen years later they would finally qualify for the World Cup again and finally have in place a League that had done away with the ethnic backed clubs and started creating their own broad fan base.

And so to Indonesia. The parallels are blinding. Crap pitches, poor officials, bad stadiums. Toilet rolls on the pitch. Badly dressed kids getting involved in anti social behaviour. But great atmosphere at the stadiums. These guys are passionate about their team, kampung kids mostly; football gives them a release and a chance to be someone. And I’m back in the familiar situation of explaining yes, I am quite normal thank you very much. I just like going to football matches!

A few weeks back the UEFA Champions League Trophy passed through Jakarta. Sponsored by a beer company it set up shop in an up scale mall in South Jakarta close to the moneyed. Just a couple of miles down the road is Lebuk Bulus Stadium, home of local football team Persija Jakarta. No one thought to take the trophy there. The demographic in the stadium wouldn’t suit the sponsor. And, as far as I’m aware, no one has thought about sending the Asian Champions League on a similar tour. A perfect opportunity, you might think, to let a new breed know who was competing in this tournament. You might think. Given the lack of awareness of this tournament locally, given the profile of some of the sponsors you might think someone would say, ‘hey, why don’t we take the trophy round Asia?’ You might think it, no one else seems to.

I am asking people whether they are going to see the Asian Cup, some of the games are being hosted in Jakarta, but I’m being greeted by deafening apathy. No one fancies it. They’re scared of trouble. The football is crap. It’s on TV. School kids are prevented from going by parents concerned about their safety amongst all those ‘people’. If anything was crying out for a school trip surely it is Indonesia playing South Korea at Bung Karno in Jakarta. A bit of face paint, merah putihs adorning bus windows but I can’t see it happening. Not among the mall classes at least. And that’s a shame. Here is the perfect opportunity to introduce football to a new type of spectator, something that could act as a catalyst in the manner of Euro ’96 (yeah, I know, maybe not the best example!) and change perceptions but precious little is being done.

England took its product upmarket and now calls fans customers. Australia knocked the ethnic stuff on the head and widened the games appeal. Which road will Indonesia take? Go up market and chase the big bucks or try and find a balance between the kids who provide the colour and the kids who provide the money?

Great post!

Seems whenever you leave places football becomes less "shit" ;)

And if it did get more popular in RI, I imagine all those kampong kids would be forced out, like what's happening now in England.

So it's swings and roundabouts I suppose -- I reckon the Bundesliga is about the best tho, tickets seem quite cheap, stadiums quite friendly and pretty much always packed.
There does seem to be a link doesn't there!

You're spot on and I agree perhaps the Germans have the right balance.
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