There are two specific sports in Australia, the culmination of which grind many places to a total halt, in some cases warranting an all out public holiday: the Melbourne Cup (a horse race, yes a horse race), and the recently held AFL Grand Final.
This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
AFL, which stands for Australian (Rules) Football League, is a widely popular sport in Australia. “Footy”, as it is commonly referred to, is the anchor pin in most communities and schools, with teams formulated even in areas where you wouldn’t think there were enough people around to make up a full team, much less an accomplished one.
Although you may have thought that Cricket would be more popular, it is something of a moot point. The two sports are not so much in competition, as cricket is the summer sport of choice, while footie is the winter sport. Similar to North America, where hockey is the winter sport, and baseball is the summer sport. (Sort of. I guess it depends on who you talk to).
And the AFL season each year is bode adieu to at the AFL Grand Final. Think “Superbowl Sunday”, except it happens on a Saturday, the commercials and half-time shows have considerably less focus and money poured into them, and AFL is considerably more interesting to watch.
As somebody who is not exactly accomplished in the world of sports (okay, not at all. Does the game start with a tip off, bounce out, or tee-time? Who knows), I won’t even try to get into the rules of AFL. But here are a few glaring differences between AFL and any other sort of football I’ve seen that make AFL a fun sport to watch:
Playing AFL on a Round Field
Practically every other sport you watch happens in a rectangular playing area. So what do the Australians do? They come up with a sport that can only be played in specialized stadiums! The place is bloody round! This adds a completely different strategic element to the game, and arguably makes it more difficult.
Although playtime isn’t technically constant, it’s a heck of a lot faster in pace than North American Football.
Almost No Padding
Similar to hockey, AFL players are warriors, taking and giving hits that would render many an innocent bystander otherwise unconscious or irreparably wounded. And these guys get right back up and keep on going, all with no padding to speak of. Not even the shoulder pads that North American football players don, and certainly none of the elaborate gear that hockey players wear. During the AFL Grand Final this year, one bloke took a severe hit to the jaw, and tottered off the field for 10 minutes or so, while the medic hurriedly assessed and then bandaged up the player. Then, unbelievably, head swathed and covered in bloody bandages, he returned to the field to finish the game! Another player broke his foot but remained around (on crutches) for the game to finish, and somebody else allegedly made it through the match with broken ribs from a previous game. Warriors, they are.
Australians love their sports, no doubt about it. In schools there is a huge focus on sports, and in news sports overshadows entertainment news; in North America it seems that sports and entertainment more equally share the majority of a news show, whereas in Australia the same allotted majority of the news program focuses much more on sports. (In both cases the focus on anything other than news is sad, but we won’t get into that)!
A testament to how much Australians love footie is the attendance for the most recent AFL Grand Final: over 100,000 people. What the view is like from the nose-bleed section is debatable, but there is no denying how the atmosphere with so many people would be something else to experience.
Punch, Don’t Pass
You can’t just toss the ball to another player while you are going for gold. Instead, you either kick the ball or pass it by essentially punching it to them. I’m sure “punching” is a laughably wrong way of describing it to an Australian, but I think you get the point. Don’t just toss the ball; hit it with your fist (underhand) first.
(This is by no means a comprehensive list of differences or AFL rules; just a few simpleton observations, made by somebody who knows nothing about anything about sports. I’m a dancer; what can I say!)
So to celebrate AFL Grand Final day, we did what most Australians who weren’t actually at the game did: we went over to a friend’s place, drank beer and ate chips, and watched the afternoon game on the telly! At half time, we ventured into the backyard where I realized that I have no business playing footie, but got a few decent kicks in nonetheless. After the game finished, we enjoyed a beautiful bush walk (a perk to living in the country) in the Cathedral mountains, then an amazing barbeque dinner.
Two teams from the state of Victoria (where we live) were playing this year, which made the competition palpable. Most people you talked to had an allegiance of some sort, which made the AFL Grand Final this year even more exciting in this area. “What are you doing for the Grand Final this year” was a great conversation starter with anybody when at a loss for words, and immediately opened doors.
I had no particular allegiance (I simply appreciate a good game). And having experienced the final match for the State of Origin back in Brisbane (a rugby match which pits the Australian states against one another), and now the AFL Grand Final, I can only imagine what excitement the upcoming Melbourne Cup will hold.
However I can’t help but recall the horse race scene in My Fair Lady where everybody is dressed up to the nines and watching disinterestedly – oh yeah and singing (it’s a musical – once a triple threat performer, always one!). I’m guessing that people won’t be wearing white gloves and elaborate hats at the Melbourne Cup – much less singing – so I’m basically starting with a blank slate, and am looking forward to exposure to another Australian sporting – and iconic – event.