What is Australian football?
It depends who you ask.
First of all, Australians call it ‘Footy’. But footy can mean Australian Rules Football, Football/Soccer, Rugby League or Rugby Union.
Footy = Aussie Rules
Australian Rules Football – Aussie Rules – AFL
Australian Rules Football holds the most legitimate claim the to the title of Australian football. ‘Aussie Rules’ is unique to Australia.
Australian Rules Football is apparently a combination of Marngrook and Gaelic Football. Marngrook is a sport played by Indigenous Australians involving a ball, two teams and goal posts, and Gaelic football was brought to Australia by Irish migrants in the early days of the colony. The two were combined and adapted to create Australian Rules Football.
AFL is Australian Football League which is the national first-grade competition with teams in most states and territories, and the entire sport is often called ‘AFL’. The heartland of the game is Victoria, especially Melbourne, and most of the AFL teams still represent suburbs in Melbourne.
AFL is also the most popular spectator sport in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania and is the number 1 sport in the Northern Territory, especially among Indigenous Australians. No matter how remote the Indigenous community, they know all about the AFL.
Aussie Rules does have devoted fans in New South Wales and Queensland, but it is definitely not the most popular code in these states.
Footy = Soccer
Soccer – Football
Aussie Rules may be Australia’s national sport, but the most popular participation sport in the country is soccer.
Australians have long called the sport Soccer, but the rest of the world calls it football, so Aussies recently started calling it Football until we realised that footy refers to three other codes in the land Down Under. So, what name do they use? It depends who you ask.
Soccer is played in every state and territory from junior to senior level, and is producing strong national teams. AFC Asian Cup victories went to the men’s Socceroos in 2015, and the women’s Matildas in 2010. Soccer will also enjoy a rise in popularity after Australia and New Zealand won the rights to co-host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023.
The success of the national teams and the sport itself is due largely to the country’s migrant population. The British colonisers brought the sport to the country, but migrants built it. Club teams from the Italian, Greek and other European communities drove the early national league and The World Game is the most truly multi-cultural code in the country. The A-League and the W-League are the current national competitions for men and women and feature teams from throughout Australia.
Rugby is Australia’s national sport.
Many foreigners think rugby is Australian football, but this is not true. AFL and Soccer are more popular, and ‘rugby’ actually refers to two separate codes.
Footy = Rugby Union
Rugby Union – Rugby – Union
Rugby Union is footy for students at expensive private schools in New South Wales and Queensland. The Game They Play in Heaven was the domain of the wealthy from school, to club to representative level, and this kept it contained to a very select demographic.
Rugby Sevens has broadened its appeal and another factor has attracted a different demographic to the sport – Pacific Islanders. Every club, school or representative team now actively recruits players of Pacific Islander origin. They are built to play rugby. They are big, strong, fast, agile, skilful and very hard to tackle.
Club teams fill their rosters with Pasifika players and private schools offer scholarships to talented young Pasifika boys. Representative teams at Super Rugby and national level rely very heavily on players from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand and almost half of the players in the men’s national team, the Wallabies, have pacific island heritage. Rugby Union also competes for Pasifika talent with Rugby League, as the players are just as dominant in this sport.
The arrival of many South African migrants in Western Australia has increased the appeal of the code in this state, especially in Perth.
A threat to the dominance of Rugby Union in Australian private schools is Aussie Rules. The sport pursues a very pro-active and effective junior development program and is now being played at private schools, and Aussie Rules posts have replaced rugby posts on many school ovals.
Another threat to the future of the sport is the risk of injury. Many Australian parents are concerned for the safety of their children after seeing the injuries suffered at junior and senior level among players in rugby (and league). Both of these sports have gone to great lengths to protect players, especially from head injuries, but injuries, some of which are very serious, are hard to avoid in such brutally physical sports.
The concern over serious injury has led many parents to sign their children up for soccer.
Footy = Rugby League
If you say footy in NSW and Queensland, most people will think of Rugby League. League is the most popular sport in these states. It was played only in these two states until recently. Ironically, though, the most dominant team in the National Rugby League competition in recent years, and the 2020 premiers, is the Storm – from Melbourne.
League is the working man’s game and this distinguishes it from Union, and explains its broad appeal.
So, what is Australian football? That’s a complex question. Geography and social class determine how most people answer, and even the time of year. League, Union and Aussie rules are all winter sports, but the A-League (Soccer) is played during summer. The ambiguity causes debate among some Australians, while most just enjoy the chance to watch so many sports at a high level in one country.