Wherever I’ve travelled, the question inevitably arises about Australia’s national sport. As a Melburnian, I can’t answer for the nation, but my response will always be in favour of the Australian Football League (AFL). It’s hardly surprising that few have heard of this sport, but trying to explain it is quite the task.
I watched my first live match from my dad’s shoulders as a four year old at the local Moorabbin Oval. The St Kilda Saints, the family’s (and so my) team of choice, smashed their opponents. Yesterday, I returned to the field, although St Kilda has now upgraded to the grandly corporate Etihad Stadium in the centre of Melbourne.
We climbed the ramps to the third level – General Admission – and seated ourselves in the Moorabbin Wing, the St Kilda fan territory. The pre-game traditions were familiar to me. Brassy beats and bassy tones of each team’s song herald the players, who enter the ground by running through a banner constructed by the supporters (as you’ll see in the video I nabbed from the Saints’ Instagram account below).
We cheered as the Saints entered, dressed in typical AFL uniforms; guernseys, tights shorts, and long socks. That is, fashionably designed to show off the players’ sculpted bodies, even if the description sounds a little ridiculous.
Each team’s eighteen players spread themselves out on the oval field, the teams’ ruckmen (generally the tallest), meeting in the middle. An intrusive siren blares throughout the stadium, signalling a fluoro yellow-clad umpire to bounce the ball on the ground between the ruckmen. As it somersaults into the air, the ruckmen leap to pound it over to their side first.
A bit about AFL
According to the official history, Aussie Rules was devised by three Australian cricketers in the mid-19th century as a winter sport to keep fit.
In 1858, the Melbourne Football Club was the first team formed. The game grew in popularity until the Victorian Football League was established in 1896 (Victoria was then just another British colony since Australia did not exist until five years later).
By 1925, twelve inner-Melbourne football clubs had been formed and these clubs remained unchanged until 1987, the year VFL was nationalised. The year it became AFL. Since then, the game has expanded to include eighteen teams, the newest introduced just this year.
The Game: How AFL works
Yesterday afternoon, after the siren blasted and the bounce-up began the match, the opposing players (Western Bulldogs) smoothly handballed (essentially punched) the elliptical ball between themselves towards their end. There, four posts, the middle two taller than the outer two, marked the goals. After a short scuffle, the ball passed between the outer and inner posts, scoring one point with a ‘behind’.
It took two behinds to the Bulldogs before the ball finally reached the Saints’ end. Here, our golden boy easily marked the ball (caught the ball after it had been kicked and before it touched the ground). He was within kicking range of the goals and having received a free kick for his mark, he booted the ball clearly through the middle goals
The goal umpire raised both hands to elbow height and held them out in front like pistols. Saints fans knew it but confirmation is always nice to see; he had signalled the first goal for the match, giving St Kilda an instant six points.
As we cheered, the umpires at both ends of the ground confirmed the decision with a complicated flag-waving routine. Behind the goals, Saints members pulled out giant St Kilda-coloured pom-poms as chants roared across the grounds.
As the game continued, fans feebly chorused their uninspiring cheers (Don’t forget, this is the country whose national cheer is a rudimentary “Aussie, Aussie Aussie; Oi, Oi, Oi”).
Up in the commoners’ quarters, the crowd was quieter. They crowed abuse at the ‘incompetent’ umpires and jeered at fumbles with the balls or poorly aimed kicks. In the next row down, two misery guts with beer bellies and receding hairlines were yet to learn how to offer praise. It’s most likely they had never touched a football in their forty-odd years, but they didn’t hold back on criticising the professionals below them.
A siren after the second quarter meant one thing for me; the time-honoured tradition of sipping hot chocolate from plastic mugs and grooving to beats played over the sound system as little kiddies attired in the professional Aussie rules uniform – albeit in miniature – enthusiastically participated in their half-time games on the ground.
Another resonant blare and the real game recommenced. The Saints established a clear lead, and cheers and abuse thundered from the crowd in equal measure according to an embarrassing fumble or a worthy tackle. Both sides generously awarded speckies with respectful applause. Speckies are arguably the best part of AFL. The photogenic image of a player rising on the back of another player to reach the ball first looks like a mighty middle finger sticking it to gravity.
(Image: Shiny Things)
One final trumpeting of the siren at about the half-hour mark of the fourth quarter allowed the Saints to triumph in their impressive defeat over the Bulldogs. In true footy fashion, the winning team’s song rumbled across the stadium, fans stood to their feet, and everyone clapped and hooted along to the tunes of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’.
It’s not until I blog about these events that I realise the hidden traditions to this little local footy ritual. Not many people in the world care about this sport, but in our little corner, it can be a religion. It’s these treasures of Australian culture, unable to be replicated elsewhere, that convince me that in the long run, this is where I belong.
More on Melbourne
There’s much more to Melbourne than footy (dare I say it). From Australian Christmas traditions to ghost tours, there’s so much to love about this city. Read up on all my Melbourne stories – and plenty more Australian travel stories – on ARoamerTherapy today.