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Australian Rules - from Colonial past-time to World Footy

  • Sunday, December 26 2004 @ 07:05 am ACDT
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General News It could be argued that many Australian football supporters know little of the true history of the game, and perhaps not many ponder its future. Most focus only on their own club, perhaps occasionally looking into its past, but rarely the bigger picture of the sport. There are lessons from the past, and the remarkable spread of the game overseas in some ways parallel its movement across Australia over many decades. Some would have us believe that the game has only ever been seriously played in the south east corner of Australia - they do a great injustice to many other major leagues, but also to their own sport, which has a rich and colourful tradition that spans well over a century across its native land. Similarly we need to recognise the emerging markets for footy in North America, Europe, Asia, the Pacific and other untapped regions. Opportunities should not be missed and left for later. If we seek lessons from the past, we might ensure the game's future, which some would argue is less than secure. The following article explores the historic beginnings of Australian Rules football through to the emergence of the AFL and the sport's growth around the world.

Although the exact origins of Australian Rules football have been lost in the mists of time, the generally accepted start of the game is taken to be 1858, when discussion of forming clubs first appeared in old Melbourne newspapers. Much earlier history speaks of traditional games played all around the world that resembled what would become Australian Rules football, from day long festivals in Orkney (Scotland) to almost gladiatorial contests in Italy. Both involved large groups moving a ball from one location to another. A form of both is still played once a year. But it is in colonial Victoria in the 1850s to which the game of Australian football as we know it today is best traced. Until then, the sport was just one of many versions, evolving in an era when groups of men would play football with various rules, such as playing with/without offside, allowing/not allowing handling of the ball and changing between oblong and spherical balls. From this period emerged the separate sports of Association Football (soccer), Rugby Union, Rugby League, and Australian Rules football. Further influences possibly came from Gaelic football (although the Irish code was largely suppressed in its homeland) and Marn Grook, the Aboriginal sport played in parts of Victoria.

Footy, as it would become known, soon spread to other colonies. Already by 1879 there was a form of national competition, with South Australia and Victoria playing each other. By the time the colonies united under Federation to form the single country of Australia, in 1901, the game had become the dominant sport in most colonies/states. Unfortunately, through the 20th century it faded in NSW and Queensland. What is less well known is that around 1900 there were as many as 100 teams playing in New Zealand, which was a founding member of the Australasian Football Council, and which defeated NSW and Queensland in the 1908 Jubilee of Australasian Football Carnival, held in Melbourne to commemorate 50 years of the sport. Australian Football was even played in South Africa and Scotland (though the amount is highly debatable). There are always two sides to every story, but there are many suggestions that the VFL, the dominant body given Victoria's size and passion for football, did little to support the sport outside of Australia, with an emphasis on club loyalty ahead of a love for the game. Combined with two World Wars and the Great Depression, hostility from other codes, and no major force behind the sport, such as the British Empire provided for soccer, the Australian version of football shrunk back to its homeland, while soccer spread around the planet. Australian football remained strong in the initial states to adopt it, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, but no regular season national competition emerged, due to disagreements on the way forward.

A sketch of Victoria versus South Australia in 1879

Throughout its history, Australian football has had national tournaments and attempts at a national league. Many now only see the AFL and assume there was no forerunner, besides the Victorian Football League. In fact, as late as the 1970s the top sides from all the major leagues played off to be champions of Australia, with the title being won by clubs from Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. There was always pressure to form a true national league, but various powerbrokers ensured this never eventuated. Instead, the VFL, which had generally been the strongest league in Australia, accelerated its rise, increasing the recruitment of top players from around the country. This lead it to be a defacto national competition, but also put enormous strain on the finances of the member clubs (not to mention the damage done to other leagues and the game itself). To improve their finances, through licence fees and television rights, the VFL accepted new teams based on leagues from other states, and re-badged itself as the AFL in 1990. The transformation has continued, with further teams joining, and the changes may continue in future. This renewed national focus has allowed football to make unprecedented inroads into what had become traditional Rugby League states, in Queensland and NSW. If current trends continue for another 20 years, Australian Rules Football will have cemented itself as the dominant sport in Australia.

At the same time as the national competition belatedly took shape, the game was starting to put down roots overseas. Expatriate Australians had always gathered for a "kick and a catch", but in some places these meetings became formalised and fledgling clubs were founded. A great aid to this development was the arrival of the Internet. Suddenly finding people with common interests became much easier, and when the media wasn't interested, people could publish their results and league information themselves. Papua New Guinea and Nauru had long played footy, due to their proximity and relationship with Australia, and New Zealand revived the sport in the 1970s. In 1989 the Canadian Australian Football Association was formed (now called AFL Canada) with just two teams, the Mississauga Mustangs and Toronto Panthers. The same year a Danish league began, the first in a non-English speaking country (if the mixed languages of PNG and Nauru are discounted). From these small beginnings, the game has grown to the point that some countries now have many teams, and seek out international competition. The first major international tournament held was the Arafura Games, named for the sea off the Northern Territory's coast. This biennial event is held in Darwin, and features various sports played by several countries in the region. In 1995 Australian football was included for the first time, with PNG defeating New Zealand in the Grand Final.

Although many leagues started with Australian expats, those with a vision and passion for the game soon began developing the sport amongst locals. In countries such as Denmark and the United States, the majority of players have not grown up with the sport. The US has at least 2000 players active; Denmark's league features sides from all around that country, as well as teams from southern Sweden; Canada has 14 clubs over three provinces; PNG has thousands of juniors involved; New Zealand has four leagues; Japan has just completed a tour of Australia, and the list goes on - Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, Lebanon, Israel, Chile, Argentina, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Spain, South Africa, Zimbabwe - all have Aussie Rules at various levels of development, but the majority are expanding quickly.

The captains assembled for the first International Cup

In 2002, the inaugural International Cup was held in Melbourne. It featured 11 countries competing, strictly featuring no expatriate Australians, with Ireland upsetting PNG in the final. This event was organised by the International Australian Football Council and the AFL. Theirs has been a controversial relationship, with the IAFC members voting to close in favour of the AFL forming an International Development Committee in 2002. However, an administrative member of the IAFC disputed the move and continued to run several small bodies using the same acronym and seeking to establish an independent body to oversee the international development of football, much like FIFA organises soccer. The AFL has made it quite clear that it considers itself the "keeper of the code" and funds around 10 countries to various degrees. The majority of international leagues do not appear to support the body claiming to be the IAFC. Given the fragile status of Australian Football outside its ancestral home, it is a shame it is often blighted by politics. Unfortunately, as has been the case for 150 years, football politics do not ensure what is best for football.

So what does the future hold for Australian Rules? Although we are seeing huge growth into non-traditional markets, supporters must also be wary that other sports continue to eat into what has been the game's traditional heartland states. Globalisation may mean that sports such as footy get access to new regions, and some passionately believe that we are entering an era of alternative sports, which will be a strength of footy internationally. Others are not so optimistic, and suggest that if Australian Football does not quickly establish itself as Australia's dominant sport and a major international player, then it will start to fade away into irrelevance. Fortunately the dramatic growth of the game overseas gives us hope that football does have a world future. An example is South Africa. In 1998 the Sturt Football Club (a South Australian side in the SANFL) offered an overseas scholarship. It was ultimately awarded to Mtutuzeli Hlomela, who mistakenly thought he was signing up for soccer! He travelled to Adelaide and discovered he loved the sport of Australian Rules. Also in the late 1990s an Australian Defence Force squad toured South Africa conducting clinics, while South African sportsmen at the Arafura Games saw and loved footy. Around the same time the AFL staged an exhibition game between Fremantle and Brisbane, and Adelaide toured putting on clinics. All these factors combined, and the South African government decided to embrace Australian Rules as the game for all South Africa's races, just as the sport is loved by so many Australians of all colours and creeds. Mtutuzeli Hlomela, who returned home after a short stint with Sturt, went on to represent his country in the 2002 International Cup, and coach a new Australian Football club, Eldorado Park, in Johannesburg. In a few short years Footy South Africa has grown the game from no players to as many as 1000. This is a positive start, and they have the ambitious plan of reaching 10,000 players by just 2008. If they reach even half this level, it will go a long way to entrenching footy as one of the country's major codes. Many believe we will also see New Zealand and PNG junior players drafted into the AFL within the next few years, with several already playing in Australia on scholarships.

The next ten years should be an exciting time for the game. 2005 will see the second International Cup held, and the standard of play is expected to have improved considerably. Although as many as 30 countries now play the game, we may only see around ten compete, as the travel costs are likely to be prohibitive. Unless the AFL is able to subsidise the countries, many may choose to invest their money in grassroots development. Although disappointing, it does not indicate the true health of the game overseas. 2008 will mark the notional 150 year anniversary of Australian Rules football, and it is hoped the AFL will commemorate it with major events. Is it too much to ask that 2008 will see the inaugural Amateur World Cup of Australian Rules football, with as many as 20 countries competing in two divisions, with an All-Australian Amateur side representing the hosts? Although they may be far too strong for most other sides, some will put up a fair battle, and the interest generated could be tremendous. Of course Australia could wait until everyone has caught up with them, but as an Australian the author would prefer to see us win a few World Cups before that happens. So will Aussie Rules continue to be a big fish in an increasingly crowded small pond, or will the expansion continue, and Melbourne, and indeed Australia, be considered the ancestral home of one of the world's great sports?

The above article was compiled from many sources, including retained knowledge from reading about the history of the game over the years. But one particular site that has an extensive year-by-year review of the sport in Australia is Full Points Footy, under the Chronology section.