As another AFL men’s season begins, Andrew Hunter reflects on how our national game continues to resonate in a changing nation.
The body and mind tingled with excitement as another season peaked over the horizon. As soon as the players ran through their respective banners in that first match, nothing else mattered. Each weekend until the end of September, fans will be taken to another place, their everyday concerns disappearing like steam. The 2019 season is underway.
Too serious to be called a game, too futile to be called a science. So said Gustave Flaubert about chess. The same could be said for modern football. In spite of the propensity to mystify our indigenous sport, it is difficult to see how Australian Rules football does not hold global appeal. Extraordinary athletes compete in front of large crowds. A fast, dynamic, and contested game. We are indeed the lucky country for this to be our national game.
Football is perpetually evolving. It changes faster than society itself. Only a sport played in one country could change the interpretation of its rules – and sometimes the rules themselves – during the season. The game reflects the character of the land on which it has developed: insular, but dynamic. If too futile to be called a science, the strategies deployed are increasingly the product of scientific methods. The structure of modern football was developed to counter its natural chaos – but only chaos will overcome the modern game’s commitment to structure.
It is, therefore, a sport in need of game-breakers, of mavericks, of jokers. Coaches will demand discipline. All actions must comply with their demand for collective effort. But the coach and crowd alike dream of the genius for whom patterns and structures present a code to break, rather than strictures to follow. Enter Robbie Gray!
Football’s weekly contests are spectacles imbued with controversy and drama. Actors and audience alike respond to each turn of event with great emotion, and derive energy one from the other. If the first march of the season is the drop that breaks the drought, the first match at home is the storm for which we have long prayed. Adelaide Oval is a place like no other when the first chords of the fans’ adopted anthem take them to a higher place.
The sport is our most democratic institution. Unlike the stadia of EPL or NFL, AFL matches attract women and men, young and old, rich and poor. Idealists dream of a society in which a doctor lives beside a butcher and banker alongside a factory worker, but in modern Australia, being at an AFL match is as close as one is likely to get. It works.
To walk with a throng of fellow supporters across the bridge to Adelaide Oval is to feel part of our national project; compulsory voting without the compulsion. The crowds at AFL games are large and increasingly diverse. If the newly arrived Australians do not immediately find themselves barracking, their children surely will. More could be done; more will be done.
The AFL itself makes every effort to remove inequalities between its constituent clubs. The draft is designed to ensure equality of opportunity. The workers are represented by a powerful union which demands better pay and better conditions. Utopia or another failed socialist project? Historic disparities in wealth and achievement largely remain. Some clubs thrive, others resemble failed states. But each team starts the season equal first, and each supporter is convinced that good times are ahead.
Only one team will finish the season without regret, and for the rest there will be many moments of despair. At least the despair is not felt alone. Joy and disappointment will be experienced together each weekend, and analysed together in the days that separate games. In many ways, football operates as a strong society should: we’re all in this together, in the belief that nothing will ever tear us apart.
Andrew Hunter works at the Port Adelaide Football Club
Jordan Bianchini / PAFC