FROM its origins as a Saturday afternoon hobby to keep cricketers fit, football has become a game that dominates Australian winters. More than 6.5 million people attended AFL games last year. Thomas Connell tells us why the game has captured the hearts and minds of Australians, and how you can get in on a piece of the action.
SUGGESTIVE notes with phone numbers left on your car windscreen. Being approached by a complete stranger who claims she is your wife. Walking out your front door to a scrum of journalists pointing cameras and yelling questions.
This might sound like the life of a Hollywood celebrity; in fact, this is the lot of an Australian Football League player.
So says Chris Newman, captain of the Richmond Football Club, a club famous for its army of passionate supporters who often turn on their own players.
“I’m not as high profile as some of the players, but the stories you hear of what some players have had happen to them – people take their football very seriously,” Newman said.
Indeed, the phrase “it’s just a game” has never seemed so inappropriate.
While church attendances have trended downwards for decades, football attendances have soared, up more than 15 per cent in the last decade alone.
According to AFL statistician Cameron Sinclair, more than 6.5 million people attended AFL games in 2008 – more than a quarter of the population. Football, it seems, is the new religion.
However, in contrast to much of white-settled Australia, the game itself is steeped in history.
It dates at least as far back as 1858, when the first recorded game was played between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College.
The Melbourne Football Club, still competing in the AFL, was founded in 1859, and is purported to be the oldest football club of any code in the world.
Today, there are 16 teams in the national competition that is the AFL, with nine in Melbourne, two in Perth, two in Adelaide and one in Sydney, Queensland and Geelong.
From its origins as a Saturday afternoon hobby to keep cricketers fit, football has become a game that dominates Australian winters, the players worshipped for their feats on the field.
Accordingly, it’s the dream of countless thousands of young boys to one day play in the big league.
The stuff of dreams
From a young age, Chris Newman went to watch his (then) beloved Carlton Blues play every weekend. A late developer, it wasn’t until he was 17 that it dawned on him he might be able to play at the elite level.
As per the system for aspiring players, Newman nominated himself for the AFL national draft. Each year the 16 clubs pluck talented youngsters from across the land, selections being made in reverse order of where the teams finished on the ladder the previous season. Players have no say in which club will select them, many having to relocate thousands of kilometres.
After a nervous wait, Newman’s name was called out by the Tigers at pick no. 55. A few weeks later, he was sharing a locker room with players who had been plastered on his bedroom wall.
“I was star-struck. The captain, Wayne Campbell, showed me around and introduced me to a few of the boys, but of course I already knew their names,” Newman said.
“I remember my first training run – I was paired-up for kick-to-kick with Richo (club champion Matthew Richardson). I kicked one a bit short to him and he bent forward to mark it and managed to strain his hamstring and miss most of the pre-season.”
From that inauspicious beginning Newman has risen to be captain, and knows better than most the pressure this carries in football-mad Melbourne. Having started the season as finals contenders, Richmond has won just three of 12 games, resulting in the resignation of coach Terry Wallace. It’s a cutthroat game.
The finals, colloquially known as “September” (the month in which they are played), are contested by the top eight of the 16 teams. Unlike soccer, there is no glory in finishing on top in the regular season – the premier is the team that wins the grand final, for the other 15 teams there is always next year.
How it’s played
The game is played on a cricket-ground sized oval with a rugby-shaped ball. It is a mix of strength, speed and skill, and even at the elite level all body types can excel. Currently, the tallest player is Fremantle’s Aaron Sandilands at 211cm, while North Melbourne champion Brent Harvey suffers no disadvantage running around with his 172 cm frame.
Eighteen players take the field for each side, kicking, hand-balling and tackling their way around the ground with only one goal in mind – kicking a goal through the tallest set of posts at their end of the ground, to register six points. Missing to either side within the other posts gets one point.
Scores average around the 100 mark for the winning team, and contests can often see-saw – a team 30 or 40 points in arrears is still in the contest.
Over four quarters of 20 minutes plus time-on, the lead can change many times, with the emotions of the fans often toyed with right up until the final siren – if a player has taken a mark and the siren goes, he still gets his kick, meaning games are won and lost after the siren.
What really sets Aussie rules apart, however, is that it is truly an indigenous game. While sports such as rugby and cricket also enjoy a large local following, they were directly imported from English settlers. There is only one indigenous game.
After decades of racial discrimination, indigenous players are flourishing in the game. Aboriginal players now make up 11 per cent of the AFL playing ranks, more than four times the 2.5 per cent of the total population they represent.
Irish players are also recruited, with their Gaelic football being close enough to Australian rules for the players to adapt. The success of Irish recruits, such as Jim Stynes, who won the Brownlow Medal (best and fairest player as voted by the umpires each year), has led AFL clubs to look for other fertile recruiting grounds, such as Africa.
Further to this, the AFL is increasingly using the game to spread tolerance and cohesion among a broad range of groups in society. They have developed specific policies for previous scourges of the game such as racial vilification, and players regularly promote the game through appearances in under-privileged communities.
The Essendon Football Club’s (EFC) multicultural program is an example of the manner in which the game has become socially responsible. The program’s stated purpose is “to develop opportunities to engage people from diverse cultural backgrounds in the game of Australian football with the view to broaden both the participation and supporter base in the game”.
There is no doubting the widening of the net will benefit the game, but to have footballers actively working to give back through things such as EFC’s “Walk in Harmony” and multicultural schools program is a welcome change from the self-centred nature of many elite sporting competitions.
While the AFL has been able to spread the game to all parts of Australia, the game has not gone international, and attempts to spread it to countries such as South Africa and America appear ill-fated.
And in making the game fully professional, the AFL has managed to translate the passion of the fans into an overwhelmingly successful business. Revenue surpassed $300 million in 2008, up threefold from 1999.
Despite the passion the game invokes, crowd violence is almost unheard of; indeed, opposition supporters sit side-by-side, and while decisions can be hotly disputed, vitriol seems to unite in a common hatred of umpires.
Curious as to why this game has so captured the minds of Australians? Buy a beer and meat pie and sit in the stands on a winter’s afternoon. The large purpose-built stadia in every state in Australia mean very few games are sold out. Call or go online to purchase tickets and see what you make of it.
You might find yourself hooked by the high marks, brutal collisions and freak goals. You might be utterly confused by the umpires’ adjudications of holding the ball, deliberate out of bounds and chopping the arms. Or you might spend large parts of the game looking around as the supporters whip themselves up into a frenzy bordering on psychosis.
But you will certainly experience what has become a cornerstone of the Australian identity.
It’s considered a must to “have” a team – whether you support that team fanatically, or could scarcely name two of their players.
Pick a team by a player that catches your eye, by their colours, or the absurdity of their nickname (the Essendon Bombers or the Fremantle Dockers would be front-runners in this respect). As long as you have an answer for the inevitable Australian ice-breaker – “so who do you go for in the footy?”
From his time as a young boy in the stands to being captain of Richmond, Chris Newman understands better than most that, to Australians, football is not merely a game.
“Supporters think about it all week and build themselves up to go to the MCG to watch their team. If the result doesn’t go their way they really take it to heart – you see how devastated they are.”
Pulling a hood over yourself on the long march to the MCG. Battling through the crowds at the turnstiles. Relaxing in the stands with your mates before the bounce. Two hours of warfare, bodies colliding, imposing men cut down by injury, while the rain falls. The glimpse of surviving the day with a victory, only for the cruelest of losses – one point after the siren.
For a nation whose identity was founded on the brave but ultimately tragic campaign that was Gallipoli, such days are strangely appropriate.
When to go
The season proper runs from March to August, with the finals series in September. There are 22 rounds, with eight games each weekend from Friday night through to Sunday twilight. To get a good atmosphere, get along to a derby in Perth, Adelaide or Melbourne, or in other states any game with Collingwood or Essendon – the clubs with the biggest nation-wide supporter base.
Where to go
Melbourne – Docklands or M.C.G. (Melbourne Cricket Ground)
Sydney – ANZ Stadium or S.C.G. (Sydney Cricket Ground)
Brisbane – ‘Gabba
Adelaide – Football Park
Perth – Subiaco Oval
Gold Coast – Gold Coast Stadium
Canberra – Manuka Oval
Launceston – Aurora Stadium
Darwin – TIO Oval
You can purchase tickets to all games through Ticket at Ticketek.com.au or through the AFL site, afl.com.au. Student concession tickets are available.