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Culture collisions and active support in women’s football

Danielle Warby spoke with Bonny Boles, co-founder of the Melbourne Victory Vikings and Brodie Wales, president of Matildas Active Support about active support in football.

Image is of a photo of Matildas Active Support group wearing the Australian guernseys. The football pitch is in front of them. The Matildas Active Support logo is overlayed on the image, with the words community, inclusivity, positivity.

Last month, a W-League Melbourne Derby was marred by a group of Melbourne Victory supporters hurling abuse, and a glass bottle, at Melbourne City’s Teagan Micah. So, what does it mean to be a part of an active support group in football and how is the W-League doing things differently?

This is an edited transcript of a Siren Sport podcast.

Danielle Warby: We’ll start with some introductions. I’ll go first. I’m Danielle Warby. I’m a co-founder of Siren and a huge football fan. My favorite team is the Matildas. After 12 years and a bit of seasons of the W League, I’m still to pick a team. I support them all. Football is the winner. 

Bonny Boles: My name is Bonny Boles. I go for Melbourne Victory in case the navy blue wasn’t a giveaway as well as the Matildas. I don’t have an official job in football, but I’m like one of the co-founding members of Victory Vikings as well as… being on the committee for Matildas Active

Brodie Wales: So I’m Brodie Wales. I am currently president of Matildas Active Support which grew out of a fan community that I kind of led on Facebook in the lead up to and at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. We organised a range of venues so that Australian fans had a home base in every city that the Matildas played in. And that really kind of led to a good strong sense of community amongst the women’s football fans. In the W-League, I support Sydney FC, stark raving mad Sydney FC fan and very proud foundation member of my club.

Danielle Warby: Excellent. Thanks, folks. We’ll jump right in and talk a little bit about the Victory Vikings first up. This is from your website:

“We are a supporters group for the Melbourne Victory W League side and we are here to support our team and the players. Although we formed as an active supporters group, everyone is welcome to participate however they want provided it is in a supportive manner. We create a safe environment at matches that is reflective of the women’s football community where all fans are welcome, especially members of the LGBTIQ+ community.”

Bonny, there’s a lot to unpack there. How did you come up with that?

Bonny Boles: It was probably over at the, would have been at the start of last season, roughly, even though the website only was like newly formed. We sort of got together as a group, or basically we invited anyone from our, from our Facebook group that we started. And we sort of wanted to work out what kind of, I guess like atmosphere, we wanted to portray at games, but also the kind of supporters and just the people in general that we wanted to attract. And so it was sort of like a really general chat. And we tried to sort of keep it it broad in the sense that that’s why the the blurb on the website is so broad, to sort of make sure that we included everybody and made sure that it was clear that it wasn’t like this is a W league supporter group so it’s like only women, no men, or just because you’re not part of like the founding group where we organise everything doesn’t mean that you’re not welcome, either. We sort of just wanted to try and keep it, keep it general and make sure that everyone felt included.

Danielle Warby: And so why do you think it was important to stress that it’s not just about active support, and I think it might be helpful here to describe active support and talk about other ways to show support.

Bonny Boles: Yeah, in terms of active support, I’m probably not great at explaining but for me, it’s sort of being, being like that louder voice and for lack of a better word, like we’ve got the drum so being, so being super loud and super passionate at games and sort of not necessarily like trying to get attention, but having the attention sort of come to you, like to you a little bit more, and sort of just promoting it more and being more, more active and more physical in terms of like, the lead up to games, at games, after games and just being able to interact with like the players, the staff, other fans. That’s what active is, essentially, for me. And what we were trying to promote is that just because you don’t necessarily want to be one of the people with us banging a drum, getting on the megaphone, doing a heap of chants, it doesn’t mean you’re not supporting the team. And so we didn’t want people to feel left out and feel like they couldn’t approach us to say, ‘Hey, we want to get on board, or we want to join you guys for like the, the pre-match pub meet-up. We just don’t want to, you know, be that loud at the games, we just want to be able to sit and enjoy’. And that’s what we were really trying to stress. So that everybody felt included.

Danielle Warby: So I’ll bring in you here, Brodie, because this is something that we’ve talked about previously, between active and other kinds of ways of showing support. So, you know, can you expand a little bit on what Bonny has said there, and, you know, other ways that you know, to build community around football that doesn’t involve banging the drum, if that’s not, if that’s not your vibe.

Brodie Wales: Yeah, I’m nodding quite vigorously here because one of the experiences that I’ve had as a Sydney FC fan and trying to build community around Sydney FC, is that there are a lot of incredibly passionate fans of the women’s game, who will join in on active support, if they feel connected and supported, but it’s not their natural way to be at a game. And I feel that in terms of building community around the women’s game, and one of the reasons I started that group of people traveling to France is because I was attending W League games on my own. I was traveling to France on my own. And I noticed that there were a lot of other people doing the same, like doing the same. And I thought it was really important that if the women’s game was to grow, and this kind of relates to some experience I have in a past life of managing musicians, that it takes a lot of courage to turn up to something you love on your own. And you do it because it’s something you love. But if you have to continue doing it and continue being on your own, and you don’t start to get a stronger connection to other people in that scene, then I think it becomes incredibly difficult to continue doing it.

So for me, it was about, you know, recognising that person I’ve seen on their own here a few times, I’m going to go and you know, I’m a bit kind of ballsy I guess, like that, I will go and chat to someone. So you know, connecting with that person and then providing a space for all of those kind of, you know, to really put it very simply introverts versus extroverts, you know, you tend to get your extroverts and your active and your introverts a little less active. So providing a space for people to connect that way, I felt was really important. And so, you know, I often say to you, Dan, I’m very heavily involved with Matildas Active Support. But active support is not the thing that I’m passionate about in that regard. It’s that building that place and that community, the space for people to connect with other people in what is at the moment, a fairly niche part of the football community.

Danielle Warby: And I guess leads me to my next question for you, Bonny, when you mentioned a safe environment, what does that actually mean to you? And why did you explicitly mentioned the LGBTIQ+ community in the

Bonny Boles: So firstly, with the, I guess, the safe environment for, I feel like for me, that’s being able to go to a game and like there’s the physical safety element, and then there’s this like being being comfortable being safe, like like Brody said, you’ve got introverts and extroverts and I’m sort of like on the plane in the middle a bit. So being able to like go to a game and physically feel safe, not having to worry about like, say like ultra fans, like you sometimes see overseas, where it can get, you know, quite aggressive, quite rowdy. And then there’s also the whole being able to just go to the game and feel comfortable to sort of express yourself whether you’re a passionate supporter, or a little bit more, more grounded or more reserved, being comfortable in that environment and not having to feel embarrassed or worried that people might judge you. So that’s the kind of safe thing we wanted to promote.

And in terms of the LGBTIQ+ community, it’s well known that they have a huge presence in women’s football. And, you know, other sports have given bad stigmas and just, you know, the general community there have been bad stigmas in the past. And so we wanted to make sure that as we were forming our group, that a core community aspect of the game felt safe and, you know, we’re accepting of pretty much everyone, we want everyone to attend. So we wanted to make sure that some of the lesser known, the lesser represented and maybe even sometimes feeling like the minority group, we wanted to make sure that they felt comfortable whether it’s approaching us about a game or just something completely irrelevant, as long as they felt like they could speak to us about anything really. 

Danielle Warby: Awesome. Brodie, what have you learned about building safe and inclusive communities?

Brodie Wales: Oh, gosh, what have I learnt about building safe and inclusive communities. Feel like I’m at a job interview Dan!

Danielle Warby: What can you add to what Bonny said, I guess, may be a better question.

Brodie Wales: Like really can’t fake… principles to it and that is that every individual, you know, is accepted and kind of embraced for who they are initially, you know. And that doesn’t mean that you’re going to get along with everybody, and that everything’s going to be rosy the whole time. But what it does mean is that there’s an entry point for everybody into a community. And, you know, I reflect on what we achieved in France, you know, and I often say to Majella, who was really quite heavily involved with me in the lead up to that, like, when we turned up to the pub in Valenciennes after the game, and we were feeling crap, you know, we’d had an outcome that, you know, many people thought could happen, but it still didn’t feel nice, it was awful. And to turn up to a crowded pub, where everybody was just getting along, you know, like, it didn’t matter if you were male, or female, or if you were straight, or, you know, in what now TikTok is calling the alphabet mafia, and I’m sticking with that, you know, it didn’t matter. Like, we were all just there together.

And I think that, that is kind of the principle that needs to kind of continue throughout things. And this is one of the things that I think is challenging in the active space and, you know, which we did see, unfortunately, with with the Melbourne Victory game on the weekend, is that active can often, you know, chants can often go down sexist lines, they can often go down homophobic lines, you know, identity is used as a slur. And, you know, often the retaliation is, well, we don’t mean it in a homophobic way. And it’s like, well it’s not how you intend something, it’s that you’re using something that is integral to who somebody is and you’re using it to rile up your opposition. So you do mean it to be offensive, even if intellectually, you haven’t got to that point yet. You know, so, for us at, you know, Matildas Active and I know the Vikings are… providing an environment where people are turning up and knowing that if something does happen, because you can’t always create a safe environment, you can’t control individuals behaviour, but you can set the tone of the group and of what is expected. And, you know, we’ve done that at Matildas, with a manifesto that’s quite similar to what Melbourne Victory have produced. And, you know, I’m a bit of a bulldog defending that, you know, I will step in and defend people, people know I have their back. I think Bonnie is laughing because she can attest to that, you know, I will, I will show up and I will fight for the culture that we’re trying to build. And that we had in France. We did have it in France, it was a beautiful experience, and I will fight to protect that.

Danielle Warby: It’s beautiful. I have a tear. I was in France, too. And it was one of the best experiences of my life. And a lot of that was due to the hard work that you put in there, Brody. Absolutely. Now the purpose of our chat today isn’t to focus too much on what happened at the last Melbourne Derby. But you did bring it up. So I do want to give you the opportunity to say something about that, if you want to. Is there anything that you would like to say about it, Bonny?

Bonny Boles: It’s hard, like we do, we do appreciate the guys coming. And we have nothing against it. And when they first sort of showed up and interacted with us a little bit last year, we were quite positive about it. Because we thought this was going to be awesome. We’ll get some noise going. But yeah, like Brodie touched on on, like, they’ve been getting a lot of attention for the atmosphere and the noise they created, which is fine. Except that when you’re standing next to them, and you can actually hear the chants and hear the words and you aren’t like, the references they’re not, it’s not hard to read between the lines, you know exactly what they’re inferring. It’s not exactly, it completely goes against the safe environment. So I’m not exactly keen on that. And then yeah, the end of the game. The less said about that, the better I guess, but also, the more said. I don’t really know what to say to that that’s not going to get me emotional and angry cause that’s not acceptable anywhere, just just anywhere.

Danielle Warby: Fair enough. And to sort of back up what you, you’re saying there, I will just read out a couple of tweets that I received from men on Twitter, Twitter and Facebook. And I, you know, I think it’s important to include their voices here, if only remotely because, you know, often it’s women that stand up and seem to complain about this, but it’s not just affecting us, it affects everybody. So Julian on Twitter says to me, ‘I was there on the halfway line, I could hear you blokes singing a few songs, I heard the racist chants. I never heard a single chant for one of our players’. And then Simon on Facebook says, ‘The bulk of those man’s chanting contained all sorts of abuse’. So just to back up what you said there, because I think, you know, it is that, that content that is problematic, and you know, I was on the broadcast, listening on the broadcast, and there was only positive things to say, and I’m just remembering the times that I’ve been in the middle of a men’s active group, and I’ve had to say to people, please don’t say that, that’s homophobic or etc.

So, just following on from that, Sam Lewis published an article in The Guardian, asking the men’s active support groups to respect the culture of the W League. How do you think they might do that? Do you have any advice for them, Bonny?

Bonny Boles: I think the first thing they need to do is, they need to, like, it’s pretty simple, but they need to realise that the men’s and the women’s game, it’s the same sport, but it’s the, it’s a different, it’s a completely different game. It’s a different demographic. And I think they just need to understand that just because you’re moving from the men’s game into the women’s game doesn’t mean you can just take over. Like, we, like I said, we’re all for them showing up and making noise, that’s great, especially when you, you know, you’re doing it for a team I support, I love it. But like, we’ve tried to interact with them and try to sort of get some form of communication, and they weren’t have a bar. So I think just coming in, and just being a bit respectful of your surroundings, and being open to the advice of people who have been in the women’s game, I’m just going to assume, but I’m gonna say it longer than what these men would have been aware of. 

Danielle Warby: Brodie. 

Brodie Wales: I think, you know, we have a fairly active group chat at the moment with the, you know, 14 or so of us that kind of form the organising part of the Matildas Active and one of the really good points that was made there, you know, I think women and, and the women’s game exists in a really difficult spot, because we’ve built a beautiful culture, mostly, well not mostly, but to a large degree because we’ve been in a place of, we’ve been niche, and we’ve almost, like we’ve been in a vulnerable kind of hostile place. So, you know, I haven’t come into the women’s game, just as the women’s game, I’m a foundation member of Sydney FC, I was incredibly active in the cove, in my very, you know, in those very early years, and I’m still a member of that. I’m still a fan of the A League, I’m still a fan of men’s football. But there is something unique and special about women’s football, and it has been built for years, you know, you can’t just walk into something because you’ve suddenly gained an interest in it and monopolise that space for yourself. And one of the points that was made and you know, I think made by one of the Victory Vikings group is, they haven’t made it yet. They’re building something. It’s in its early stages, but they’ve worked hard on it. And you know, they’ve been around for a long time and Victory Vikings is relatively new, but it’s because they’ve come together as a group.  

Imagine if the women’s football community came together and said, right, we’re now going to run active at our club’s A League and you’re going to do active the way that we want it done. Like it’s a really simple principle, but it’s about empathy, you know, and empathy—this is a space, this is a community, it has a culture, you are welcome. But you must embrace that culture. And you know, the positivity of it and the neutrality of it. Like I’m a Sydney FC fan, and Bonny’s a Melbourne Victory fan in the men’s world we’re enemies. But as soon as that happened on Sunday, the first thing I did was check in to see how Bonny was going. And I’ve checked in with her a few days since you know. Like, that’s not who we are in the women’s space. And yeah, I think it’s really important to remember that whilst you are incredibly welcome, and your contribution is incredibly welcome. There is a culture that exists and you need to respect that culture and it sounds like, you know, I think we’re in a hard space… which is what I was going to say earlier. We’re in a hard space because we want our game to grow. We want our women to get the attention and the respect and the money and the broadcasting coverage that they deserve. We want all of that. But why does it have to be which, you know, seems to be what a lot of the mainstream media is pushing at the moment that all of that only comes, if men’s active turns up as the active support, or if men’s bums are on seats, you know, if we grab the A League crowd and convert them to the W League. I’m sorry, but that’s really stupid logic. And it’s really frustrating. And it essentially means that we lose the beautiful culture of the women’s game. And I don’t think that that’s a trade off that I’m prepared to accept. And I know from Sam’s article that, you know, it’s great to have that voice out there. Because that voice needed to be heard, because it’s not being heard amongst the exodus of people from the men’s game into the women’s because oh guess what, we’ve got a World Cup coming up.

Danielle Warby: Very well put. Bonny, is there any more that you’d like to add to that?

Bonny Boles:  No, I think, I think Brodie summed it up beautifully. And she’s like, and I, sort of while she’s here, I want to touch on the fact that not just her, but like, all the Matildas Active people have reached out to us Victory fans, it’s, it’s been super appreciated, because Sunday really sucked.

Danielle Warby: Yeah, and I mean, that is the, that is the women’s football community, you know, we support each other. Full stop.

Brodie Wales: And I guess that’s another little message that I would like to get out, while we can Dan, is that if you are interested in trying to get an active supporter, or even just a fan community, like an organised community at your W League club, then please connect with Matildas Active because it is not an easy road. It’s something you do because you love it, and you’re passionate, but it is not always easy. And we’re here to support you. And we do already support each other. So we’ve got pretty much every group that is organised at the moment, we have a member on our committee, and we would love to continue to support anybody that’s trying to get the same thing happening at a W League team.

Danielle Warby: Fantastic. Well, I was gonna ask you that at the end for a plug but you’ve just done that already. So how can people get in touch with Matildas Active?

Brodie Wales: We have Facebook, we have Twitter, we have Instagram. So basically all of those are @matildasactive, but we also have email info@matildasactive.com. And I think I mentioned to you earlier Dan, we are working very slowly on a podcast, kind of, you know, asking a lot of these questions about active support. What does active support look like in the women’s game? So, you know, if anybody’s keen to get that going at their club, there’s an opportunity to be involved in the discussion.

Danielle Warby: Great. And Bonny back to the Vikings. How can folks join up with you? How do they get in touch?

Bonny Boles: We have, obviously our little website, but that’s not really well known. It’s kind of hard for us to promote. Best way to honestly get in touch with us if you can at games in person is really great. Otherwise, we’re pretty active on Twitter, we have, we do have a Facebook group. But Twitter’s probably the best way to interact with us. And we’ve got two people that are pretty much regularly checking it because I don’t think they’ve work to do or something. But um, yeah, that’s the easiest way at the moment until we work out the finer details.

Danielle Warby: Sensational. Well, thank you so much. That was amazing. I’ve really enjoyed listening to both of you, you know, you’re so passionate and smart and you’re what I love about women’s football. So thanks again Brodie and Bonny. Until next time.

Brodie Wales: Thanks for having us, Dan. Appreciate it.

Bonny Boles: Thank you so much.

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