What is Australian football?

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.

No.

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.

Images: http://www.gettyimages.com.au, http://www.sherrin.com.au

Wogs vs. Aussies.

“Righto boys, it’s a bit wet outside, so do you wanna play basketball or indoor soccer?”

“Basketball, soccer, basketball…” the sporting options were parried back and forth until Cameron, the captain of the A-grade Rugby team and thus favourite for future school captain, muttered his decree.

“Soccer”

“Ok boys, Grella and Kalac, can you get the goals?” directed Mr Brosnan, as he went to collect the ball.

“Oi, it’s Wogs vs Aussies boys,” declared Cameron, and the students dutifully arranged themselves into a team of Caucasian students and a team of ‘ethnic’ students, as they had done so many times before. Mr Brosnan pursed his lips around the whistle before deciding that Yr.10 boys could referee themselves, and as long as no one broke any bones he could enjoy a coffee on the side line.

“Blakey, go up front,”

“Yeah, you’re our White Wog,” joked Woods, “at least someone on our team knows how to play soccer.”

With that, I took up my customary position at centre forward and hoped that my fellow Aussies would this time secure enough possession and open space to provide me with a realistic chance of slotting that ball past Kalac in the goals.

We’d never beaten the wogs in soccer, indoor or outdoor, and even though I was pleased with my exalted status among the cool white kids and rugby heroes of the school, I still felt the pressure to earn this status by scoring goals.

The fact that a lot of my friends were on the ‘other’ team didn’t really occur to me – in Sydney in the early 1990s this kind of casual racial division was just a bit of fun – or a quicker way of picking teams. To be honest, I never questioned it. The casual racism was buried underneath the testosterone fuelled atmosphere of a PE lesson at a school whose reputation was built firmly on sporting prowess.

Just then, I caught a glimpse of Eldridge and for the first time ever, I felt a morsel of his inner conflict. The product of a white father and Thai mother, he seemed to hesitate in assigning himself to the Wogs or the Aussies, as he had never done before. I was forced to consider whether his increasing maturity and self-awareness, which descends upon every teenager, had prompted him to examine his own identity more deeply. I mulled this over in my mind until Maxwell screamed,

“Ello, go to fullback, hurry up” and Eldridge’s search for identity was put on hold.

At that, Mr Brosnan glanced up from his coffee cup and blew the whistle, we were off.

Bresciano fed the ball to Postecolglou who nutmegged Johnson before skirting around the burly prop and flicking the ball across to Vidmar. The little magician weaved his way past Woods, Maxwell and O’Sullivan before stepping over the ball and completely bamboozling Stevens in goal.

1-0

“Orale pues joven, que golazo!!!!!,” exclaimed Ortega, as Vidmar thrust his shirt over his head and celebrated his goal with arms outstretched.

Ortega himself had dabbled in Rugby, which apparently made him less of a wog, but he still had an ‘ethnic’ surname and spoke in tongues when feeling excited or cheeky. He hadn’t quite reached the status of Aussie – a wog who was so Australianised they cease to be a wog.

Perhaps it was his father’s single silent protest which set back Ortega’s entry into the mainstream. At an official school function, Ortega Senior refused to stand for the toast to the Queen, because the memories of the Falklands War were still far too real. We didn’t realise this of course, and only learned once young Ortega gave us a short history lesson.

I remember thinking, at least he has a reason for remaining seated. I only stood up because the teachers told me to, and I know my classmates didn’t truly know or care why we toasted the British royal family. We also didn’t know or care why we called wogs wogs.

“Come on boys, what’s goin’ on?”, admonished Johnson, “let’s smash ‘em, they’re not that good.”

Bresciano this time fed the ball to Popovic who directed a lovely through ball past two awestruck Aussies and towards Santos. Santos plodded toward the ball and took a massive air swing before falling on his back side. The debating champion attempted to shrug off the failure with self-deprecating laughter, before Fallon asked,

“How are you so bad at soccer Santos, you’re a wog?” and the Aussies enjoyed a chuckle.

Should I laugh? Is Santos truly shrugging this off as friendly banter?  Did these ‘harmless jokes’ seep beneath the skin when the boys got home? When Wogs vs. Aussies was transferred to the Rugby field, my incompetence, and that of Cleary and Stevens, was not linked to our skin colour or racial background.

Cleary was teased that he was hopeless despite being built like a prop, and everyone accepted that Stevens was allowed to ‘suck at Rugby’ because he was an academic genius and computer whiz. That’s also why he was always forced to play keeper.

Me, I was just ‘too skinny for Rugby’. So skinny in fact that my Aussie teammates told me how they wished I could be a wog for a day because they’d love to tackle me and drive me into the turf.

“He is a wog, he’s good at soccer,” they’d say, but their jokes didn’t cut through me like they did the real wogs. Even if I was a wog for a day, it was only a day. I could still return to the White Side and survive the school playground in relative anonymity.

In the meantime, the little master had stepped and swerved his way past the Aussie defenders for another easy goal.

2-0

Mr Brosnan sipped his coffee contentedly while the teenage boys battled for football supremacy. My blustering teammates took advantage of the game’s self-regulation and ‘tackled’ some of the wogs so fiercely that they took possession and managed to feed me the ball. I dodged Rossi and swivelled past Zelic before placing it into the back of the net.

7- 1

My teammates went wild and hurled insults at the wogs with such passion that you’d think they’d won the World Cup. Guys, it’s only one goal. But apparently a goal for the Aussies was worth more than a goal for a wog.

A few more stern challenges and violent toe pokes succeeded in advancing the ball towards Kalac in goal, and a blind thundering kick from Taylor smashed into the hands of Kalac and out the other end.

7 – 2

“Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole,” sang my teammates and I joined them heartily. We were mounting the greatest comeback in the history of world sport and it deserved extravagant celebration. Then the tone of the chanting changed. The universal football chant was distorted with derision and mockery and was peppered with random ‘foreign’ words the Aussies had learned from their multi-cultural classmates. It was as if my teammates had appropriated this ‘ethnic’ chant and were ridiculing it to put the wogs back in their place despite the scoreboard.

Maybe this silently enraged the wogs, and they responded with an all-out assault on our goal. Poor old Stevens was sent diving and gaping for thin air as Vidmar, Bresciano, Arzani et al scored goal after goal.

“Righto boys,” called Mr Brosnan, “time to get changed.”

The massacre had ended.

12 – 2

Yet again, the wogs won, on the field at least.

Image: Pascal Swier