A change has come over the Australian football codes this year.
It’s not the attacking play or the higher scoring — although that’s unquestionably wonderful.
It’s the sound.
As much as NRL and AFL games have been played with renewed pace and spirit this year, the sound and presence of the roaring crowd can’t be overestimated.
That bizarre period during the worst of COVID-19 last year when hollow sounds reverberated around empty stadiums — or perhaps worse, the made-for-TV fake crowd noise — only highlighted the importance of loud and passionate supporters.
Today, it’s hoped around 85,000 spectators will turn up to the traditional Anzac Day game between Collingwood and Essendon – the biggest game on the AFL calendar, bar the Grand Final.
If that happens it will be the largest crowd in world sport since the pandemic began.
The roar before the first bounce will be deafening.
Sport has become a multi-billion dollar industry, a corporate behemoth of the entertainment industry.
But no matter how much money is in the game, how slick the product, it is nothing without the fans.
Those fans had a major win for sport this week.
The proposal to start a European Super League comprising 12 of football’s richest and most famous teams lasted a mere two days before people power made sure it fell apart.
Sure, the pundits like the former England international and Manchester United defender Gary Neville led the charge on TV, but that was quickly followed by old-fashioned protests on the streets.
And it was the supporters of the six English Premier League breakaway clubs that yelled the loudest.
Chelsea’s fans protested outside their club’s spiritual home, Stamford Bridge, against the idea that their beloved team would be part of a league for a select few.
The idea that you earn your place is fundamental to English and European football — fighting to avoid relegation is as much a part of the sport as challenging for a championship.
Earning your spot in the Champions League each year is seen as a mark of success, not a right.
As one Arsenal fan said to me this week, “what’s the point of being part of a competition where you can lose every year and it doesn’t matter?”
Chelsea, Manchester United, City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham along with Italian sides, AC Milan, Inter and Juventus , and Spanish giants, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are unquestionably among the 12 biggest sides in football, and the richest.
Premier League side Chelsea is owned by a Russian oligarch; Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal are bankrolled by Americans; Manchester City is majority owned by a group based in Abu Dhabi, while of the breakaway six EPL clubs, only Tottenham Hotspur is owned locally — billionaire businessman, Joe Lewis, holds the majority of shares.
But the protests this week showed that while those billionaires own the clubs, they don’t own the game – the people do.
This week, the fans who turn up to watch their team week in, week out, spoke out passionately about the 100 year history of their football clubs. It’s a history that can’t be bought and sold.
It’s a culture we’re more familiar with in Australia, where the majority of AFL and NRL clubs are owned by members.
Now there are calls from the Football Supporters Association in the UK to give fans greater control over their clubs.
The group issued a statement saying: “The past 72 hours of white hot action and anger has killed domestic involvement in the Super League but that doesn’t mean fans can take their foot off the accelerator – a return to the status quo is unacceptable and will only allow these unscrupulous owners to regroup.”
The group is calling for the implantation of the so-called 50+1 rule from Germany, which gives fans majority voting rights and caps private ownership of clubs at 49 per cent.
It may be no accident that the glaring omission from the Super League was German powerhouse Bayern Munich, the Champions League title holder.
The irony of the protests in England is that while those Chelsea supporters were yelling outside Stamford Bridge, their team was playing inside to empty stands.
The COVID-19 pandemic has kept fans out of grounds all season – which says so much about the passion of those demonstrating fans outside.
So, for those of us lucky enough to live in a country, where we can view live sport, take a moment this weekend to close your eyes and just listen to the crowd.
That raw, guttural sound rising and falling in unison is as much as what makes a sporting contest great as the feats of the players on the field.
Patti Smith sang it: People have the power.