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A Game of Our Own: Celebrating Australian Football Traditions in 2008

  • Sunday, October 16 2005 @ 01:16 am ACST
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The following article was written and sent to us by Associate Professor Stephen Alomes. Stephen is a historian of football and of Australian nationalism at Deakin University in Victoria, and a supporter of the international growth of Australian Football. He was a keen spectator at the 2005 International Cup. His article also appeared in a recent AFL Record in the Last Line column. As time permits Stephen will continue to contribute to WFN and we welcome him on-board.

There is nothing more Australian than the game we know today as Australian Football. Its growth and development virtually parallels that of Australia itself from rather modest beginnings to a position of success and significance. The game began with the first recorded match between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar in August 1858, the beginning we will celebrate 150 years later in 2008. At this time the name of the game was Melbourne Rules but many changes have occurred since this unassuming birth.

Since those first laws of the game, and the first matches in Yarra Park near the MCG, the name of football has changed over the years and we use different ways of describing the game of our own.

The oldest football clubs in the world, Melbourne and Geelong, both formed in 1859, are older than every soccer, rugby union, rugby league or NFL club in the world.

There have been changes. In the 1860s the teams played not for the premiership cup but for the Challenge Cup or the Silver Cup. There were not even any umpires to criticise as the matches were umpired by the two captains. As the game spread to the country and interstate, the game was now called ‘Victorian Rules’, a term which made the going hard in Sydney, although it was for a time Queensland’s major winter sport.

Over time we also began to talk about ‘footy’ and valued the ‘national game’, the Australian game, as it was celebrated at the 50th year carnival of 1908, a national event attended by the Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin. It also featured a New Zealand team, something significant today as the game grows again in New Zealand.

We learned to love ‘footy’ and accepted the term ‘Australian Rules Football’ despite the name sounding like it was some strange, eccentric regional code of sport, rather than the world’s best game of football. As pleasant on the ear as ‘Aussie Rules’ sounds, a few northern critics who call the game ‘aerial ping-pong’ often use the truncated ‘Rules’ with a hint of a sneer.

Over the past 50 years we have come to appreciate ‘Australian Football’ as the formal name of the Australian game (as in the name of the Australian Football Hall of Fame), shortened to ‘AFL’ for the national league, and for media and marketing. Game development in the country and the suburbs, around Australia and overseas, carries on the work of an earlier generation, including Bruce Andrew and the Australian National Football Council and the state leagues.

At the same time as we anticipate the 150th anniversary of the national game in 2008, we need to celebrate the great Australian creation, an original Australian sport, ‘a game of our own’. Part of that perspective is to recognise the continuing traditions of the game and the dual uses of ‘Australian Football’ and ‘AFL’.

National traditions, national heroes and a national game are all part of the Australian Football and AFL story, from footballers in wars to the AFL role leading the nation in the campaign against racial vilification. The word ‘Australian’ matters along with ‘football’ in ‘Australian Football’ as we continue to build national traditions in a global world.

Traditions and change are both important. Traditions are important as the love of the game – and the love and even hatred of different clubs – is handed down from generation to generation. So is change, for our game has changed often since 1858. The converts to the game, the new immigrants who have made Australian Football the multicultural game, are also part of the story of the continued regeneration of footy traditions. So is the indigenous contribution on the field to our indigenous game and a more recent dimension, the international expansion as in the second International Cup, held in Melbourne recently.

‘Australian Football’, ‘AFL’, ‘footy’, those different and complementary names, and the traditions they embody, are something for us to build upon - from the Auskick oval and local senior competition to the great stadiums of Australian Football and the 16 AFL teams of Australia’s premier sporting competition.

There are many tales of tradition and change in the Australian national game to celebrate in 2008, stories which prove that Australian Football is more than a game and more than a brand. In a changing world it is a national passion and the most exciting form of football.