I go down under to investigate what makes Australian Rules football so wildly popular.
Special report from the MCG, Melbourne.
I landed in Australia four weeks ago but only truly arrived this Saturday.
The first weekend I was here it was suggested that I go see a game of ‘footy’ at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The game I was meant to see was the season opener between Richmond and Carlton but it fell through for one reason or another. I would have to wait another 3 weeks before I finally got my first taste.
So on Saturday the 21st of April I was going to see Carlton, who I was told had made a blistering start to the season and were expected to challenge for the title, play Essendon: a mid-table team who would be lucky to escape without suffering an embarrassing defeat. This as you can imagine meant nothing to me because since missing that first game a few weeks earlier I hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to the AFL, the game was nothing but a curiosity to me and if I’m honest I just wanted to see inside the MCG.
As a kid my only memories of ‘footy’ were seeing a bit of Aussie Rules on Channel 4’s Trans World Sport early on a Saturday morning before Going Live came on the other channel. This weird game played out on a gigantic, circular pitch befuddled me. Why were they allowed to use their hands? Why were there no nets in the goals? Why did they not have sleeves?
In the pub (a strip bar naturally) before the game I looked around and saw (besides the topless barmaids) Carlton fans mixing with Essendon fans. No sign of aggro, no sign of any kind of tension. Two sets of fans relaxing, drinking, talking. Nothing weird about that is there? Except for an English football fan there is a bit. Around Old Trafford there are ‘home pubs’ and ‘away pubs’. It’s not quite like Glasgow where a Celtic fan would be lucky to escape from a Rangers pub with his nose still attached to his face and vice-versa but still, you won’t see many away fans, garbed fully in their team’s colours mind, mingling jovially with the home support. I asked my Aussie friend who the home side were; it doesn’t really work that way with footy, he told me.
Almost everything that came up in our discussions leading up to the game was related back to the Premier League in some way, partly to make the alien subject matter clearer to me and partly to manage my expectations of the game. ‘It’s not like in the Premier League’ was quickly established as the phrase of the day. How many can we expect there to be in the MCG today then? I asked. There’ll be a big crowd, maybe 80 000, he said, but the atmosphere won’t be anything like in the Premier League. It’s a big pitch for the players to cover, is the game all stop-start like rugby? I asked. Oh no the game is quick, but it’s not like what you’re used to in the Premier League.
So we approached the stadium, brushing past whole families wearing Carlton shirts, Essendon shirts and even a few Liverpool and Manchester United shirts thrown in for good measure too, with my expectation level well and truly managed. We shuffled past a load of statues of Australian sports luminaries, the majority of which I hadn’t heard of save for Don Bradman, and finally got to our gate which is when I got my first sight of the stadium.
I’ve been to some giant stadia before: the old Wembley in London, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and of course Old Trafford in Manchester but I have to say that the Melbourne Cricket Ground is the biggest, grandest most dramatic stadium I have ever seen. The sounds were equally impressive, both sets of fans (seated together) were getting warmed up and in terrific voice creating not so much a wall of sound but thanks to the stadium’s bowl shape, more of an enormous ball of sound that seemed to swell and linger on the pitch and could find no means of escape. Never mind ‘not like the Premier League’ this was better.
Immediately I knew that this game, this strange hybrid of football and rugby, would compel me. And I was right.
From the first siren I was impressed by the athleticism of these players. They sprint and leap and twist and turn with such ferocity and under such immense pressure. You think it’s impressive how Xavi engineers space, giving himself time to play his pass perfectly? Then you ought to see for yourself how quickly these men can receive the ball (more often than not at terribly awkward heights), find a teammate and offload it (in the legal manner: ‘knocking’ the ball with the fist) before two or three hulking men come crashing down on him. And have you ever tried sprinting whilst bouncing a rugby ball on the ground every 15 metres like you’re playing basketball? Not easy.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a huge fan of rugby. I’ve been to a few Premiership games before, but the game just never grabbed me. I find the reliance on brute strength and physical attributes disheartening and prefer my winners to be the ones who were more wily, more creative on the day not just simply faster, stronger or fitter (Hence why I prefer the technique of a Federer to prevail over the brawn of a Nadal, the guile of a Barcelona to the dull, if determined, discipline of a Chelsea). I appreciate there are nuances to the game that in my ignorance I do not understand, and intricacies in skill that I just cannot see, but I will never be a fan.
I expected ‘footy’ to be more like rugby then, than like football. I expected the physical attributes of the players to have more of a bearing on the outcome than their wit and skill. What I actually found was that ‘footy’ is almost the exact half way point between rugby and football. It is required for the players to be on the whole tall, muscular, quick on their feet and tough but at the same time I can not imagine, having seen this game first hand, a player succeeding at the top level without being able to marry these attributes to nimble hands and an exceedingly quick mind. It can appear at times as if they are merely playing hot potato but when you take a look at the wider picture and see the intricately set out patterns of the players and the almost telepathic knowledge of where their teammates should be positioned, it’s pretty obvious that there’s more to it than that.
Even the referees are athletic in this game. They need to be. The way they throw the ball back into the pitch when it has gone out of touch is amazing. They stand on the touchline with their back to the pitch, swing the ball low between their legs and fling it as hard and high as they can over their head, a sort of backwards tossing the caber motion. Most of the refs in the Premier League would put their backs out trying it.
I needed no more comparisons with the Premier League to be made once the game got under way. There were passages of play remarkably similar to those you might see on a football match with intricate one-twos being played, play being switched from one flank to the other, through balls being kicked in behind defences. At one point I even noticed how high the Carlton defence were up the pitch and remarked to my friend how dangerous that was given the pace Essendon’s forwards had displayed. My prophecy instantly came true and Carlton were hit on the counter attack on more than one occasion and trailed at half time. I felt right at home.
I expected the game, due to the size of the pitch (2.8 times the size of a regulation association football pitch), to be played out at a relatively sedate pace. It was not. It was fast, intense, frenzied action for each of the four 30 minute quarters. Towards the end of the last quarter, some of the players were visibly tiring but only indulged in putting their hands on their knees or behind their heads during breaks in play. It was astounding stuff really. The fitness levels of these players is nothing short of freakish. Carlos Tevez would have needed more than a few run outs with the reserves to get up to speed in this game.
There was a moment where the referee felt it necessary to refer to a video. The footage required was shown on the big screen high up in the stadium’s massive third tier and within quite literally three seconds he’d blown his whistle, made the call and the game was gotten on with. Another lesson to be learnt for the Premier League?
The game finished in a sound defeat for Carlton. Essendon’s supporters were delirious. The stadium rocked with noise. I was hooked.
This game which began largely as a regional passion for Victorians, quickly outgrew it’s native state to encompass the whole of Australia, evolving from the Victorian Football League (VFL) into it’s current guise as the Australian Football League (AFL) in 1990. With the right backing, perhaps similar to that which saw the Football League morph into the behemoth that became the Premier League in 1992, who is to say that this hugely entertaining game couldn’t one day prove every bit as popular?
I’ve already asked my friend for tickets to the next Carlton match.