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Life After the Party


The ball is nestled somewhere between an admin building and a palm tree. Charlie Austin - we all know Charlie Austin; it's the same one - has just sliced a dream chance high and wide, with just a few minutes left to rescue the game.

'Just hit the target, you...' someone starts, trailing off as though the end of that sentence was just too much to say in public. But this is Australia. 'It's ok mate, just let it out,' another says reassuringly. We don't mind, we're all suffering this shit together.

Australian football crowds were never really thought about in the past, but over the previous few weeks that changed. Viral videos of pyro-charged crowds thronging Melbourne's Federation Square illustrated the Socceroos' journey through the World Cup and swept the internet. Suddenly people all round the world were seeing a country in the nascent phases of developing an authentic football culture, one where 'scenes' and 'limbs' were happening in a real, meaningful way.

But then the party ended. The Socceroos put up a good fight but went down to Lionel Messi and his soon-to-be-champions in blue and white, and there was no more World Cup, no more 5am parties in Fed Square. So what is left behind? Austin's slice has come deep in the second half of the domestic A-League's opening game after the World Cup break, but who are the people watching him? Is there really a football culture here, in the day to day where it truly matters?


Go back less than two months before the World Cup and Australian football supporters were also making news. At the final of the Australian Cup, fans of Sydney 58 made Nazi salutes and displayed far right symbols. The story went around the world - Australian football was tarnished.

There are a lot of questions as club football returns, and it all begins with Brisbane Roar v Adelaide United. The A-League's first game back.

This is not a football-obsessed city like Dortmund or Barcelona. Wandering around Brisbane on the day of the game there is not the slightest indication of a football match happening. The sun reflects of the shiny forest of glass skyscrapers lining the river, people shop, work and lie out on the city beach. But no one is saying anything about football.

It doesn't help that the match itself is nearly 40km from the city centre at the Kayo Stadium, the home they borrow from the Dolphins rugby league team. By public transport it takes an hour and a half, but getting off the train at Kippa Ring station, I do at least finally find some people going to the match. At the bus stop is a small handful of people in orange shirts. I join them, but what none of us realise is we are on the wrong side of the road.

It seems weird that they wouldn't know this, but it's only after about ten minutes on the bus that a group of kids in Roar shirts realise that we're going the wrong way round the route. I wonder if maybe they're new to all this, maybe they are FIFA-jargon made flesh and have been inspired by the World Cup to come out and love the game? No, they're season ticket holders. They're just lost.

The World Cup effect seems just as absent in the stadium itself. There are swathes of empty in seats in every stand. My ticket is for 'The Den' behind the goal, the block where the most dedicated of Brisbane's fans sit, but in truth I could take my pick of pretty much anywhere in the ground. The players come out, some cheers drift up into the evening air and I walk round the ground feeling like I've travelled an hour and half for a non-event.

But then something unexpected happens. The players get ready for kick off, and at the front of The Den a load of smoke bombs go off. 'You wouldn't even get them in the fucking ground at home,' says someone in a small group of English supporters as orange smoke billows upwards. Maybe there's something here after all.

And then, something else. The game kicks off, and suddenly someone starts drumming. With that, someone starts singing into a megaphone. And on his cue, The Den sparks into life. There is probably under two hundred people in this block, but they are singing loudly, passionately. Black and orange flags start waving through the air. Honestly, I was not expecting this. Not in Brisbane.

The football is decent enough, if unspectacular, but the fans here are making their own fun. 'We're just a shit Brisbane Roar,' they sing as a chance goes wide. Some start spraying silly string into the air. In the quieter moments they talk about the game and they are not people who have just turned up to see what the World Cup fuss was about. They discuss the tactics of pushing their wingers higher, the things they should be doing to create more space, playing 'low-percentage passes'. I keep forgetting I'm in Australia.

Getting Brisbane Roar tickets

Are there any fans brought in by World Cup? 'It's a good turnout for a Friday evening,' I'm told by one fan, as he scans the half empty stands at half time. I ask about the impact of the Socceroos. 'Well hopefully between this and the women's World Cup [held in Australia and New Zealand in 2023] we'll see some growth,' another suggests, but the overall sense is not one of great optimism. 'We hoped 2006 [when Australia last progressed beyond the group stage of a World Cup] would kick start it, but that plateaued.'

Talking to supporters I find myself almost trying to push them towards being hopeful in their face of their very noticeable caution. I mention the statistics that point out that football is the most played sport in Australia. They reluctantly agree that, with luck, that might one day translate to it being the most watched.

It certainly isn't yet, though. There are under five thousand people watching tonight as the second half begins. During the break, one of the younger lads in The Den has found a toilet roll and throws it joyfully into the air. A steward soon confiscates it. No sooner has he gone than the young fan turns to the rest of the block and, with a mischievous grin, pulls another out of his top, holding it aloft like a trophy as everyone cheers. More are produced, streaming through the air across the heads of The Den.

The drummer is pounding a rhythm, his long hair falling about his face. He later tells me his name is Alex and he's been doing this at every game for the last couple of years. 'My arms are knackered by the end. I won't be doing anything tomorrow,' he says, grinning.

The man with the megaphone is his younger brother, Stan. His hair is closely shaved and he seems to be smiling almost the entire time he is singing. 'There used to be someone else doing it but he can't be arsed to come out any more, so he took over,' Alex explains. 'He loves it, he gets on TV every week.

Their dad is from South London and so both also support Crystal Palace. It's easy to see parallels between what they do and the work of fan groups at Selhurst Park, both borrowing ideas from ultras around the world and doing it in their own way.

Between them they are carrying a crowd which is getting rowdier and rowdier. As they break into Allez allez allez they are bouncing everywhere. Food and drinks are thrown into the air, along with the toilet rolls. From elsewhere in the stands, a small groups of younger kids – no more than about 13 years old – are drawn over towards the pandemonium.

Their eyes are wide and glinting, their mouths hanging slightly open in awe. They gaze at what the older boys are doing, the power of being away from mum and dad's supervision revealing itself to them in the opportunities of the terrace. They move tentatively into the melee, looking like they can't believe their luck to even be on the fringes of such joy.

And it's in this that the true wonders of this burgeoning football culture lie. In Europe, ultra culture has become political and messy, wrapped in nationalism and other ideologies. It is often violent and even deadly. But it didn't begin that way. It began as just a bunch of mates in their teens and early twenties wanting to have fun and support their team.

That's where Brisbane's culture is right now. It's new, it's youthful, it's harmless. Kids pushing the boundaries but without malice. Above all it's just fun.

The steward from earlier walks across the front of the block and the ringleaders shush the entire crowd. Everyone falls still and silent, gazing attentively out towards the pitch. 'How about that soccer, eh?' someone says loudly at the front and his friend nods in sage agreement. As soon as the steward passes, the drumming and singing begin again.

A man then begins darting round the block with an empty beer can, like a gameshow host running through the audience. He puts the can gently on someone's head and the entire block bursts into song. 'On his head's a mango,' they sing, before the man takes the can back and heads off to choose his next focus.

The singing and jumping continues. Having finally had enough, a security guard returns and starts collecting up all the remaining toilet rolls, roaming through the block to make sure nothing is missed. 'Seccie needs a shit, needs shit, seccie needs a shit,' sings the entire block as he picks his way through the crowd with armfuls of paper. The steward is trying to look serious but can't stop himself smiling along with them.

So consumed are the fans in the fun they're having that they barely notice when Adelaide swing over a corner and it's headed in from close range. The goal does dampen the mood slightly, and reminds the fans that they're actually trying to win a game.

With a few minutes to go Austin misses his big chance and is soon subbed off. Most are surprised he even came back after the World Cup – sure enough, within a few weeks he'll have found a transfer back to England. But for now he's theirs, being sworn at in ways that only Aussies can.

The energy levels are soon back to their wildest as The Den urges their team on for an equaliser. 'Come on Brisbane score a goal, it's really fucking simple. Put the ball into the net and we'll go fucking mental,' they sing, and you know they mean it.

With a couple of minutes to go, Brisbane's Carlo Amiento pushes the ball past Isaias Sanchez Cortes and is clotheslined by the defender as he runs after it. As red cards go, it's a pretty straightforward one.

Brisbane keep pushing. The young fans in The Den get more and more boisterous. More food, more drinks are thrown in the air as they jump and sing and shout. We're three minutes into stoppage time when Amiento is fouled again, this time in the area.

The fans rush down to the walkway at the front of the block, Brisbane's keeper can't even look as James O'Shea places the ball on the spot, facing the fans behind his goal. It's the 94th minute. 1-0 down. O'Shea steps forward and drills it low.

The cheer rips through the night. Bodies tear across each other. Arms fly, grabbing at strangers and friends alike, faces taught with the release of joy. Somehow there's still more food to throw. Stan is waving his megaphone in the air, jumping on the back of the person next to him.

It's near enough the last kick of the match. At full time everyone rushes down to the front to clap the players. Captain Tom Aldred comes over with a flag, waving it in front of the crowd. 'How did he get my flag?' Alex cries, looking delighted that it has found its way to the skipper.

After a few minutes I leave them planning next week's away game at Newcastle Jets, nearly 800km away. 'Have you got a place to crash because I'm skint as fuck?' someone asks. Young lads on an adventure.

Australian football has its problems. In the days after this match, the a-League would go on to announce that the next three grand finals would all be played in Sydney, causing unanimous outrage among fans across the league. The protests then turned nasty at the Melbourne derby as Victory fans stormed the pitch and attacked the City keeper.

But if they can get beyond the shameless administrators and the worst elements among the fans, there really is something here. Something fragile, for sure, but something authentic. Australia has a genuine football culture and it deserves to be supported.

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