By now, you've almost certainly seen it. Indeed, you really can't have missed it, emblazoned as it has been across news reports both in Australia and around the world. It's the image of Melbourne City's Tom Glover, blood dripping from a laceration on his head with concussion already setting in, being dragged off the field by backup keeper Matt Sutton as teammates and coaches attempt to get between him and the hooligans that have invaded the field of play in Saturday's Melbourne Derby.
A player and referee being hospitalised will always be newsworthy, regardless of jurisdiction, and the violent pitch invasion by Melbourne Victory fans that led to the match being abandoned was inevitably going to be beamed rapidly across the globe. Even with a World Cup final looming, people can't help but watch a car crash.
Yet such was the power of the image of Glover's evacuation, this spread was magnified by the presence of a singularly powerful, defining depiction. A picture is often said to be worth 1000 words, but Getty Images photographer Darrian Traynor's work feels like it counts for much more than that. In one still moment, the snapper not only perfectly captures the sense of chaos, violence, and panic that engulfed Saturday evening's contest but also, if you have a deep enough grounding in the game, the forever curse of Australian football.
It's a scene that not only speaks to a moment that will be remembered in infamy, but of the ongoing theme of woe in Australian football that it will -- for all the good intentions that exist within its soul -- always be held hostage by the malevolence, selfishness, stupidity, and other deadly sins harboured within its own ranks.
Because it's inaccurate to say that those that invaded the pitch weren't real football fans. They self-identify as such and absolutely are. To try to claim otherwise prevents the type of introspection that responding to such heinous events requires. No matter how small a minority, those fans that entered the pitch on Saturday are a part of the game -- a part that Australian football needs to come to terms with and understand if it wants to salvage anything from what has been a dumpster fire of a week.
Well, the professional game will need to come to terms with it. The game at a grassroots level -- community clubs where boys and girls across the nation come to play with their friends every weekend -- will inevitably be fine regardless. It's important in moments such as these to make that differentiation. Football as an entity is impossible to kill and, regardless of what those that are supposed to know better do at the top of the pyramid, those below will continue onward, paying little heed to whatever nonsense the supposed professionals are up to.
Often, this group is pointed at as the sleeping giant that, if their attention and passion could be harnessed for the game's higher tiers, would turn Australian football into a powerhouse of the local sporting scene; the legendary participation base that is spruiked in every sales pitch, press release, and rallying cry from those on high. Right now, though, it's probably kinder and better for their sanity to have them alone because who, at present, could in good conscience recommend that anyone invest any of their emotional well-being in the A-Leagues?
Less than two weeks. That's how long it took for the local game to go from the Socceroos threatening to take Argentina to extra time in the World Cup's round of 16 -- a moment where it felt like Australian football was riding as high as it has in years -- to what feels like a new low for the local competition. It goes without saying that those that stormed the pitch and attacked Glover, injured referee Alex King, and struck a Network Ten cameraman with a flare represent the worst of the game in Australia. They can be unequivocally condemned. Attempts to state otherwise or minimise it are shallow whataboutism or intellectually dishonest. As those that had entered the field of play on Saturday attempted to return to the stands, unironically breaking into a chant of "Melbourne boys are still No. 1" as if they hadn't just done significant damage to the club they ostensibly support, Central Coast Mariners and Socceroos goalkeeper Danny Vukovic sent out a tweet.
Our game is in tatters. An absolute disgrace what happened tonight. Cannot believe we are here after such an amazing WC and so much potential to see our game grow. Irreparable damage done. Darkest day for football in Australia.— Danny Vukovic (@vuka20) December 17, 2022
"Irreparable damage done. Darkest day for football in Australia," it read and, as one of the last still active players that were going around when the NSL collapsed, Vukovic is pretty highly qualified to talk about nadirs in the local game.
At this point, however, perhaps it's worth asking the question: Does Australian football exist in a perpetual state of twilight? Lurching from one existential crisis to the next?
The violence that erupted at AAMI Park put a proverbial crown of excrement on an already divisive week, one in which the top level of the game had threatened to tear itself apart at the seams over the Australian Professional Leagues' (APL) move to sell hosting rights to its next three men's and women's Grand Finals to Sydney. That decision by club owners, as well as the constantly shifting and disastrous attempts at messaging that followed, had quickly snowballed into something that was about much more than Grand Finals; A-League fan were uniting in solidarity against a ruling class that they believed saw their passion and their support as expendable when the price was right. The trust had been broken and, though it's been pushed into the background after Saturday's events, that remains largely true.
Games across both the A-League Men's and A-League Women's over the weekend outside of the derby were marked by peaceful protests and demonstrations against the sale, although to what extent this mass mobilisation of people power can sustain itself is highly uncertain. In one fell swoop -- or perhaps more accurately a throw of a bucket -- fans' claim to the moral high ground suffered a devastating blow. Is it fair to tar them all with the same brush? Absolutely not. But the court of public opinion has never been one that cared too much for nuance and rightly or wrongly, Glover's bloody visage is now the public face of the movement for the broader Australian public.
For now, the vexation over the Grand Final decision remains but, inevitably, that too will begin to fade. Even the hottest of fires will eventually burn themselves out and even before the events of Saturday you could see that, imprecise a metric as it may be, with every social media post put out by the leagues the number of angry comments and responses was declining. Now, the deflating effects of the derby fiasco have dealt this a further blow. Even if one believes the cause is just, who wants to stand alongside those who stormed the field and injured three people?
What comes next, though, could prove far worse for the A-Leagues than people demonstrating their anger: Apathy.
As rage over the Grand Finals fades, disillusionment sets in over what transpired at AAMI Park, and fatigue over the constant tragicomedy that is Australian football grows, perhaps the greatest risk for the sport is that the relatively few people that remain as true believers just give up. It won't be every fan, of course, but it doesn't need to be a lot before a real difference is felt.
The A-Leagues' point of difference was always its atmosphere and the sense of connection it provided. It was Australia's conduit to the global game. Mileage varied in reality given its closed status, but it was supposed to provide fans with their own tribe and collective identity. If it can no longer maintain that spirit, if people stop caring, there's nothing left.
There will always be a population that loves and cares deeply for football in Australia. But the A-Leagues cannot take it for granted. Fans are hurting right now. They feel betrayed by their league and now, by some within their own ranks. If the fire inside them dies, the light in the leagues goes out with it.