“I know there is strength in the difference between us. I know there is comfort where we overlap” -Ani DiFranco
Side by side
I was born in Box Hill, Melbourne. I grew up in Blackburn. At school we played cricket in the summer and football in the winter. Australian football. This is what my father did, what his father did, and so on. This game was the centre of my life. I had no comprehension of it’s limits outside of my own little bubble. I never twigged that Australian football was, on a world scale, nothing but a quirky, little-known game played in a Colonial backwater. To me it was everything. All the people I knew followed a team that their sisters, brothers, fathers and mothers all followed.
Of course I could have grown up in Aberdeen, Scotland. My great grandmother hails from that part of the globe. Then my world would have revolved around what we in Australia refer to as soccer, but is better know world wide simply as football. There’s that word, football.
What comes to mind when I say the word cheese? Plastic cheese? Cheddar cheese? Swiss, camembert or mozzarella? Blue vein? Perhaps shaved parmesan? I guess it would depend on your experiences, on your preferences, heck, it might even depend on where you come from. But are they all not cheese? Similarly, I consider football to be a collective noun. Australian Football is my main expression of football, whilst I very much enjoy other expressions and acknowledge that each expression has very similar roots and beginnings.
In a criminally simplified history lesson for those not aware, ‘folk football’ has been played in countless forms world wide for thousands of years. Some kept score, some included beheading and most had rudimentary rules at best. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, games of football slowly became more formalised. At the Rugby School in England, the game morphed into a physical, ball carrying sport, while at Eton, also in England, the use of hands was gradually eradicated. After much confusion, trial and debate, we ended up with rugby and soccer.
Folk football from around the world
Gridiron is what rugby morphed into once introduced to the United Sates, and Australian Rules football is again what rugby morphed into once introduced to Melbourne, Australia. As history show us, New South Wales and Queensland stuck with the British game, perhaps a sign of the rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney. Intriguingly Gaelic football still evokes that feeling of folk football, a game remarkably similar in movement and ball skills to Australian football.
Australian football began differentiating itself from rugby due to the rock-hard nature of the Melbourne earth. Many injuries occurred which wouldn’t have on the lush playing fields of England. So the game prevented hacking and tripping, but to even things up a little, it was decided that a player had to touch the ball to the ground every 15 yards or so. And from there she kept on evolving. I celebrate the game’s origins. Without rugby, Australian football wouldn’t be. I also love that the game was tailored to suit local conditions. It is these nuances which make the different codes wonderful. It actually all happened rather organically, something we’ll never see again in our overly-managed world.
Face it. If you grew up in the Melbourne suburbs then chances are that you’re an Australian rules devotee. I’ve grown up understanding the intricacies and beauty in footy; the high mark, the perfect bump, a well timed torpedo punt. Kids who grew up in Redfern understand the beauty in a well timed sidestep, a well placed dribble kick, a well executed fend off, a beautifully timed pass which finds a hole in the opposition’s defence.
Those who grew up in Dublin have a deep appreciation of a player running at full speed while executing a solo. My friend Gareth who grew up in Scotland appreciates the beauty in a nil-nil draw, the courage in going up for a header in a pack. Someone who grew up in Chicago understands the skill involved in the perfect block and the quarterback who holds his nerve and hits his teammate with a beautifully weighted pass.
The last time I checked, no one gets to choose where they’re born. If you think ‘soccer’ is purely a game for wusses then be thankful you didn’t grow up in Inverness! If you think rugby players are nothing more than brain dead bum-sniffers then be thankful you weren’t born in Capetown. If you hate ‘AFL’ or ‘aerial ping-pong’ then just thank your lucky stars you weren’t born in Ballarat. And PLEASE can we put an end to the term Gay FL? Or perhaps the AFL should turn what is meant to be a derogatory term into a positive GLBT awareness campaign? I’m thinking aloud now.
I understand Australian football’s limitations. It’s never going to be major football code outside of Australia. But that’s what makes it special. While world football has the magic of truly bringing people together the world over, Australian football is a quirky and rather eccentric game. Now I love finding a hidden gem be it a tiny coffee shop hidden in a back street, a great tiny op-shop or record store. This is how I view Australian football on the world stage, a hidden gem.
Now I’m completely sick of the fighting between the codes here in the melting pot that is Australia, and whist I recognise it is a competitive marketplace, it’s time that we leave that jostling for those in charge of our leagues or codes. The arguments between supporters are that of the school yard. Basically “my opinion is right, your football is shit, and get stuffed.” Now I understand that we are each very passionate about our own code and there’s no wrong in that. But why the derision of other codes? The sneering remarks, the belittling? It saddens, angers and frustrates me. Am I allowed to enjoy more than one code?
I grew up in a Melbourne full of propaganda and fear-mongering that soccer is an evil that will come and ruin ‘our game.’ That was my starting point as a young one. The fear demonstrated by Australian Rules Football, in particular the AFL, highlights nothing more than it’s insecurity. The AFL uniquely operates with conflicting inferiority and superiority complexes. How foolish not to partner with other codes under the banner of football.
Come on Ron, a bit harder and it might magically turn into a Sherrin!
But it’s not just the AFL or Australian Football. Equally ignorant comments are made by rugby league, world football and rugby union fans, and all are based on grand generalisations and the summation that one’s opinion is right. Can we please put and end to this moronic and, quite frankly, childish behaviour? I’m not asking people to fall in love with codes they’re not familiar with, but at least stop and think that even though you can’t see what it is, that each code has it’s own beauty and charm.
Let’s focus on the fact that we all have more in common than we’d like to admit. The joy of winning, the pain of losing, the ritual of going to the ground to support your team. Wearing your team colours and your favourite player’s number on your back. Using football matches from the past as a reference to help remember life’s key dates and moments. The heroes and villains. Do not all football’s serve the same purpose, providing a sense of community and of place? Of the team representing you, the fan?
Sometimes there are more similarities than differences
I talk often with my dear friend Gareth who hails from Scotland but has lived in Australia for more than 10 years now, adopting local side Footscray as his own. His first love however is Aberdeen; the Dons! As we talk about our love of football (collective) I often forget the shape of ball or field we are talking about such is the common thread of our conversation. It’s the ritual, the passion, unique old grounds, the disappointments, the involvement of family and love of statistics which provides more crossover between ‘our codes’ than difference. Don’t get me wrong-football in Footscray and Aberdeen are vastly different experiences, but there is much that ties both together.
The culture of each game is something which should be celebrated, or at the very least tolerated. Don’t criticise that which you do not fully understand. I’m not asking you to like all codes, but let’s stop this nonsense fighting and realise we’ve all actually got a fair bit in common, but thankfully not too much.
I’ll leave you with this quote, or call to arms if you will.
“It is never too late to give up your prejudices” -Henry David Thoreau
My 8 year old daughter Molly had her first outdoor match last weekend, while her first Richmond membership came in the mail later in the week. She loves both games.