Sport

In a week where more than 100 Indonesian soccer fans died senselessly in a pitch invasion and the AFL sank deeper into controversy, there seemed little – save Lauren Jackson’s last hurrah – to be inspired and optimistic about. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

A tragic week in sport

Soccer fans evacuate a child during a clash between fans at Kanjuruhan Stadium in East Java.
Soccer fans evacuate a child during a clash between fans at Kanjuruhan Stadium in East Java.
Credit: EPA / H. Prabowo

In Malang, East Java, at least 125 people – 32 of them children – were fatally crushed or asphyxiated at an Indonesian Premier League match at the Kanjuruhan Stadium. It was the worst stadium disaster since 1964, when 328 people died at Lima’s Estadio Nacional during a match between Peru and Argentina. There are echoes between each. In Malang, aggrieved home fans breached the pitch after a loss, police fired tear gas and a fatal panic ensued. FIFA stipulates that “crowd control gas” not be used at matches, and tickets to the stadium were reportedly oversold. Significantly, many of the exits were locked.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo ordered the suspension of all pro matches until the completion of an investigation, while dozens of police were stood down from duties. FIFA said “this is … a tragedy beyond comprehension”, but it seemed comprehensible to Professor Alison Hutton of Newcastle University, an expert in crowd safety, who wrote, “Like most tragedies of this nature, the events in Malang appear to tie into a common thread … a combination of police actions, poor communication, and poor access and egress for patrons”.

Meanwhile, Football Australia began disciplinary proceedings against Sydney United 58, the first semi-professional club to reach the final of the knockout Australia Cup. It was a romantic achievement, but in Sunday’s final against the A-league club Macarthur, played in Parramatta, United 58 fans booed the welcome to Country, waved fascist flags, made Hitler salutes on camera and sang Ustaše songs – popular with the fascist Croatian organisation that enthusiastically supported the Nazis and was the only collaborationist regime in Europe to run its own death camp. “It was absolutely horrendous,” the New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, said. “Those people who have done that through those salutes should be banned for life.”

Meanwhile, tourism ads for Qatar and their November FIFA World Cup, starring their “ambassador”, David Beckham, swept social media. The Gulf state, which dubiously acquired hosting rights to the world’s largest sporting event in 2010 and has effectively enslaved foreign workers to build its stadiums in treacherous conditions, paid the former England and Manchester United midfielder “tens of millions of pounds”. Last year, The Guardian estimated at least 6500 foreign workers had died since Qatar won its bid.

Qatar’s celebrity ambassadors – or members of the “Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy”, as the country has it – also include the luminaries Cafu, Xavi Hernandez and ex-Socceroo Tim Cahill. “I think they made a big mistake,” Beckham’s former teammate, Eric Cantona, said this week. “A big, big mistake … It’s only about money, and the way they treated the people who built the stadiums, it’s horrible. And thousands of people died. And yet we will celebrate this World Cup. Personally, I will not watch it. I understand football is a business. But I thought it was the only place where everybody could have a chance.”

 

As the ghost of Hitler was praised among flare smoke, a few kilometres away the Penrith Panthers easily beat the Parramatta Eels in the NRL grand final to claim their second consecutive championship, while in the same city the night before, Lauren Jackson was writing her own fairytale. After retiring from international basketball six years ago, Jackson returned at the age of 41 to help the Opals proceed to an excruciatingly narrow loss to China in the semi-finals of FIBA’s World Cup.

Jackson started on the bench in all games. In the bronze medal match against Canada, Jackson scored a game-high 30 points to contribute to Australia’s win, gloriously capping her brief and unlikely comeback. She’s retired again, this time for good. “It just dawned on me that this will be [my] last game ever in the green and gold and how lucky I am to have had this opportunity to represent Australia and also say goodbye; I didn’t get that chance all those years ago,” she said.

Australian Ben Simmons made his debut for the Brooklyn Nets – eight months after signing with them – ending a 470-day absence from NBA basketball. His debut came in a preseason friendly against the Philadelphia 76ers, the team he had so painfully and controversially left, and it confirmed that Simmons retains his signature mix of elite defence, ball handling and dodgy shooting.

In his podcast, Shaquille O’Neal recused himself from discussions about Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka, who was suspended for a year after a “violation of team policies”, which The Athletic later specified was “an intimate relationship with a female member of the organization”. O’Neal, an NBA icon, said he couldn’t talk about infidelity on account of him having been a “serial cheater”. “It would be crazy and blasphemous for me [to comment],” he said, and while “hypocritical” might have been a better word, the restraint was refreshing and the reasons given for it were admirably blunt.

After a messy and destabilising departure of executives, Essendon Football Club announced former National Australia Bank boss Andrew Thorburn as their new chief executive on Monday, only to accept his resignation the next day.

“A man of great integrity and vision,” was how the Essendon board initially described Thorburn, who left NAB in 2019 after the banking royal commission’s report was delivered. It found a multitude of scandals including unlawful and excessive fees that gouged customers – both living and dead – of hundreds of millions of dollars. No major bank escaped condemnation, but NAB was singled out. “I thought it telling that Mr Thorburn treated all issues of fees-for-no-service as nothing more than carelessness combined with system deficiencies,” Commissioner Kenneth Hayne wrote. “Overall, my fear – that there may be a wide gap between the public face NAB seeks to show and what it does in practice – remains.”

Despite this, the footy club that almost destroyed itself through profound “governance failures” less than a decade ago – its former president, Lindsay Tanner, warned it against an “elitist mentality” that instinctively preferred “corporate titans” to helm it – selected Thorburn as its new chief.

But none of this mattered. Rather, it was Thorburn’s chairmanship of the City on a Hill churches that swiftly detonated his appointment at the Bombers. A “non-denominational, evangelical … and historically orthodox” Christian movement, its pastors have likened abortion to concentration camps and emphasise the moral and social corrosiveness of homosexuality. The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, an Essendon fan, said the movement’s views were “absolutely appalling”. “I don’t support those views, that kind of intolerance, that kind of hatred, bigotry.”

On Tuesday, new Essendon president David Barham said: “As soon as the comments relating to a 2013 sermon from a pastor at the City of the Hill [sic] church came to light this morning, we acted immediately to clarify the publicly espoused views on the organisation’s official website, which are in direct contradiction to our values as a club.”

Essendon fans might wonder what those values are. Thorburn’s appointment, and resignation, comes only weeks after the board cannibalised itself while publicly humiliating its now former coach Ben Rutten. A founding member of the VFL, the club hasn’t won a finals game since 2004. But that’s the least of it, really.

Meanwhile, AFL chief Gillon McLachlan was still establishing an independent panel to investigate claims of racism at Hawthorn. On the day the ABC published its story that carried allegations from Indigenous former players and their partners that senior Hawks staff, including coach Alastair Clarkson, had encouraged them to cut ties with family and partners and, in one instance, to terminate a pregnancy, McLachlan said: “These are serious allegations and it is important that we treat them appropriately while also ensuring the formal process provides support to those impacted and also natural justice to those people who are accused.”

Fair enough. He also said: “As such we are appointing an external independent panel … which we will finalise over the next 24 hours.”

It’s difficult to reconcile these two things. The problem is not that he didn’t form a panel within 24 hours, but that he thought that he could – or should. A sober process that’s commensurate with the seriousness of the accusations is what’s required. McLachlan’s impulsive assertion was not merely wishful thinking but a preference for being seen to be doing something. He gave the impression of noble urgency, but what he was proposing was obscene haste – while declaring his arrogant belief that he can part waters. It was more evidence that the AFL is, above all, as former Western Bulldog player Tom Boyd told me recently, a “marketing company”.

Whatever the composition of the board, its independence will offer sweet contrast to the organisation’s long and shameless habit of investigating itself. I wrote a few weeks ago that McLachlan’s legacy – he’s due to step down soon – will be partially defined by the creation of the AFLW. Which is true, but it’s also as he would like it. A deeper legacy, continued from his predecessor, Andrew Demetriou, is how profoundly compromised the AFL’s inquiries have long been.

Meanwhile, as Optus compounded its negligence – in which they effectively published the personal details of millions of their customers online – with a confusing and bitterly evasive PR campaign, there was conspicuous silence from the telco’s chiefs of inspiration and optimism – that is, tennis champ Ash Barty and Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo. And yes, those are their actual titles. 

Chiefs of inspiration! And optimism! And yet… our superheroes were quiet. Perhaps, in this moment of crisis, they’re exclusively directing their powers to comfort their chief executive, Kelly Bayer Rosmarin. And if so, perhaps they can save some effort and inspire her by simply saying that, after all of this is over, there’s a place for her at Essendon or the AFL. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2022 as "Darkness descends".

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