When I talk about “football”, I’m referring to Australian rules football. The most prominent competition playing this sport is the AFL (formerly the VFL), which has come to dwarf all others to the point that some people incorrectly use the name of the league as the name of the sport.1 Historically there were Aussie rules leagues in three states – Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia – as well as a second league in Victoria, the VFA (now confusingly called the VFL!). These leagues still exist but have become subordinated to the VFL/AFL, with plenty of AFL reserves sides in their competitions.
The AFL team that I support – and that both my parents support, and that generations of my dad’s family supported before us – is the Sydney Swans, formerly the South Melbourne Swans. My partner Vivian goes for Essendon, so we try to go watch any Swans-Bombers match that we can (at least, you know, in pre-COVID times).
Other codes of football, like soccer and rugby, ultimately have their roots in the schoolyard games of elite English public schools. Australian rules football shares this origin in part, but it emerged as a hybrid of those kinds of games with the Aboriginal game of marngrook.2 One feature in particular that is said to derive from marngrook is the mark, which is where a player basically gets a protected kick (no opponents being allowed to tackle them) if they catch a ball which has been kicked at least 15 metres. This results in players making some pretty spectacular leaps into the air to claim the ball, and is probably one of the most distinctive features of the sport.
The laws of Australian rules football were first codified in 1859, making it one of the oldest football codes in the world.
What outsiders should know about football…
When I’ve travelled overseas, I’ve found a lot of people who are quite interested in other forms of football (soccer, rugby, etc.) and the histories of them still don’t know anything much about Aussie rules, except perhaps that it exists. I’m not a “sports educator” or anything, but here are some of the features that I highlight to people, if I’m trying to give them a crash course on the sport.
- Matches are played on oval-shaped grounds, generally the same grounds that are used for cricket in the summer.
- At each end of the ground you’ll find four posts: two tall ones in the middle, and two shorter ones at either side. If a ball is kicked between the two tall posts, that’s a goal worth six points; if kicked between a tall one and a short one, that’s a behind worth one point. There are also “rushed behinds”, where a defender scores a behind against their own team; this can be situationally useful because after a behind the defending team gets possession of the ball, so basically you sacrifice one point for possession.
- The game is fast-paced and free-flowing. Players can run with the ball; they just have to bounce it every 15m. There are no restrictions on where they can pass it. Passes can take the form of kicks or handballs, but you can’t just throw it. (A handball is where you like, hold the ball in one hand and punch it out of your hand with the other.) If tackled, a player has to dispose of the ball ASAP, or else the tackling team gets a free kick against them for “holding the ball”.
I need to go re-find where I learned this, but: Some historians dispute that the game was a hybrid, because the guy who’s generally considered to have come up with the rules never wrote down anywhere that he drew inspiration from marngrook. However, that guy’s own descendents have said he told them he drew inspiration from it, and just never put it in writing because he thought it would discredit the game in the eyes of racist Australia. ↩︎