How A Sport Becomes An Institution

Maybe it’s because I am in Melbourne that it’s such a big deal. After all, while there is much debate about the cultural merits of Victoria versus other states, (particularly New South Wales, which is not an argument I am going to get into here), Victoria is the undisputed spiritual home of Aussie Rules. The game originated and thrived here while states such as NSW and Queensland traditionally favoured Rugby League. Indeed, it is such an institution that the Victorian state government has recently declared the Friday before Grand Final Day as a public holiday. And thus there has been much enquiry for several weeks among my circle friends about what everybody’s plans are for Grand Final Day. And it is Schmotty who has offered to host a party.

My brother has always been amused at my general lack of interest in sport. And I must confess, as I was growing up, to being turned off by the UK domestic soccer of the 1980s which was littered with fan violence and where the Rupert Murdoch owned Sun newspaper would whip up its readers with jingoistic chants of the England team waging war with the Argies, or defeating the Huns or Frogs in international competitions. I even subsequently despise the way the Sky-led endorsement of the Premier League has created vastly overpaid superstars with massive egos who have become the new celebrities and seem to hover somewhere above us all, beyond reproach.

So it might be something of a surprise for my brother to learn that I planned my arrival in Australia to coincide with the end of the Rio Olympics and the beginning of the Footy Finals in Australia.

It’s a family affair at Schmotty’s house. Wives and husbands and kids. They have all got a team that they usually support and although nobody’s team has made it to the Grand Final, they all have a team that they are going to be cheering. Each household has brought a dish.

There is lamb souvlaki cooked on a camp oven, steak and chicken cooked on the barbie. There are salads and cheeses and desserts and of course, people bring along the alcohol they wish to drink.

For those of you who are equally unenlightened, “Football” in Australia is not soccer which is still a relatively minor (though growing) sport but Australian Rules Football which they have been playing as long as the English have been playing soccer. I don’t pretend to know all the intricacies of the game, but the main differences are:-

  1. The game is played in four quarters of 20 minutes each of open play.
  2. Teams are comprised of 18 players each
  3. The pitch is played on an oval and is therefore a winter sport that utilises the same space used for cricket in summer.
  4. The ball is similar to a rugby ball and can be kicked or handballed (punched).
  5. Six points (a goal) are scored by kicking the ball through the two central (of four) posts. One point is scored if the ball goes between one of the central and one of the outer posts (this is called a behind) or if a player deflects the ball with their hand or another part of their body.

When I first arrived in Australia in 1990, I was surprised that everybody (male and female) had a team and I was encouraged to choose a team to “barrack” for (support). Although now a national sport, back then it was mostly played in the state of Victoria. As my friends barracked for a range of different teams, I opted for a team that nobody supported — the first match I watched on TV — North Melbourne.

As my friends all gather, there is genuine anticipation in the air.

The AFL currently consists of 18 teams, ten of which are based in Victoria, with two each emanating from South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. Though we get little coverage of Aussie rules in UK, I had been following the progress of North Melbourne (nickname the Kangaroos) this year and was pleased to see that they had made the Finals.

The Finals are a series of complicated elimination matches that the top eight placed teams after 23 rounds compete in, in order to reach the Grand Final. Those that finish in the top four can conceivably lose matches in the Finals and still make the Grand Final. Those that finish in 5th-8th positions need to win all their remaining matches to make it through. Unfortunately, North Melbourne who were placed 8th at the start of the Finals, were dispatched in the first knockout round.

The two teams that have made it to the Grand Final are the Sydney Swans and the Western Bulldogs. Most of our party are going for the Bulldogs, not so much because they are a Melbourne team but because they haven’t won a Grand Final in decades and are firm under-dogs.

We have gathered around 12.30pm, exchanged pleasantries, eaten so that by 2.30pm kick-off, all the adults have a beer or wine in their hands and the kids a Coke Zero. As Schmotty’s husband, Lockie, has been nervous that he will miss the action through the chatter, two rooms have been set up — the main room for the general hoi polloi and the annexe for the hardened fans where only concentrated footie talk is permitted. As a mere novice, I don’t even attempt to set foot in there.

First blood to the Swans as they score the first goal but it’s early days and by quarter time, the Bulldogs have pulled in front — the score is 12 points to 8. The match is close though and the lead switches to and fro so that by the end of the next quarter, the Swans are ahead by two points.

At half time, the kids take to the yard with a football and Lockie chucks some kangaroo meat on the barbie for the curious amongst us to taste.

By the siren sounds, which signals the start of the second half, drinks are refilled and seats reclaimed. This is Sydney’s third Grand Final appearance in 5 years, having last won in 2012 and they were expected to be thrashing their opposition at this stage but thus far, the Western Bulldogs (formerly known as Footscray) have held their own. They last appeared in a Grand Final in 1961 and last won it in 1954. They have made it through the knockout rounds from 7th place and it will be unprecedented if they go through to win it from this position as it’s never been done. The third quarter is again back and forth and there are times when the Bulldogs seem outclassed but they pull out some magical moves and end the quarter eight points in front.

If a team keeps possession and the necessary momentum, then a few goals can be scored in a short time, and a clear lead can open up, so nothing is certain until the final few minutes of a game. With just over five minutes to go, the Bulldogs are winning by 9 points but Sydney fans are still hopeful until the Bulldogs manage to get two goals in quick succession. Now the people in the room, the supporters in the stadium and the millions watching around Australia begin to realise that the Bulldogs are “doing a Leicester.”

The siren goes and everyone that’s gathered, erupts. The score in the end is 89:67 — a 22 point margin and the Bulldogs’ first win in 64 years.

The governing body that runs the Australian Football League have introduced various initiatives that try to level the playing field for competing teams.

  • They introduced new teams into the league from other states and assisted them with recruitment of players.
  • They introduced a salary cap which means that all clubs have a similar wage bill so that super teams can’t develop by snatching all the best players
  • Each year, new players are drafted into the league from the lower leagues. The teams that finished at the bottom of the ladder the previous year, get the first pick of the emerging talent.

This format has produced a game that is exciting to watch and relatively fair. There are still teams that dominate but not because they can lure players by paying obscene amounts of money. And therefore, at the start of the season, every team has a chance and that means that every fan has hope. It is easy to see why the game is loved by old and young, men and women. This just might be the greatest league in the world….? FIFA — take note.