The sport that transcends race, class…and humility
This is the second instalment of Penbo’s series of columns for the Herald-Sun on what Australia really thinks of Victoria.
In his first year as prime minister the rugby league-loving St George Dragons fan John Howard was the unlikely winner of the 1996 parliamentary press gallery AFL footy tipping competition.
The rules required the winner to put a sizeable amount of cash on the parliamentary bar. Before a boozy throng of journos, Howard gave a terrific off-the-cuff speech which belied his league pedigree and offered some thoughtful and charitable insights into the place of Aussie Rules in our national identity.
Even though Howard doesn’t care for the game – he refused to barrack for the Swans in that year’s grand final because he didn’t want to seem a bandwagon-jumper – the PM said Aussie Rules was the only football code in Australia which transcended class and ethnicity.
He said league was traditionally a working man’s sport played by people in public housing, union was the preserve of the private schools and unis, soccer often split along ethnic lines, but Aussie Rules attracted players and fans from across the divides of income and ancestry.
Howard stopped short of calling Aussie Rules the national code, much to the annoyance of the assembled reporters from The Herald-Sun who with typical Victorian boosterism wanted the PM to recognise the unmatchable greatness of the game. Howard argued that Australia comprised many codes, that there was no dominant version of football, that they all combined to give us our sporting character.
Not in Victoria they don’t. If Aussie Rules is central to the character of Victoria, it is also central to the perception the rest of Australia has of Victoria.
Speaking as a South Australian, it was Victoria’s dominance of the game and its parasitic draw on talent from SA, WA and Tassie which underscored our generalised hostility towards Victoria and Victorians.
I remember cramming into a squalid Adelaide sharehouse with about 20 mates madly cheering the West Coast Eagles against Geelong in their successful 1992 and 1994 grand final wins. We were Sandgropers for the day, such was our enthusiasm to see Victoria denied the flag. This parochialism was epitomised in the souvenir T-shirt the Coopers brewery made the week before the Crows beat St Kilda in the 1997 GF: “This Saturday we’re making Victoria Bitter.”
When John Howard made his speech about Aussie Rules in 1996, the AFL wasn’t truly national. Port still hadn’t entered the comp, premierships were yet to be won by the (Sydney) Swans, the Crows and the Power, and the plans for second teams in Queensland and NSW were years away.
With all these subsequent milestones the AFL has become more national and the antipathy towards Victoria in states such as SA and WA has lessened, in no small part because every week of the season is now a de facto state of origin week.
In the non-AFL states of NSW and Queensland – their correct description, as despite the inroads made by the Swans and Lions, league is still supreme – Aussie Rules is still seen as ponsey and self-important. League purists deride the game as aerial ping pong and refer to it as GayFL.
Next year will see the biggest sporting franchise battle in years with the inception of the 18th AFL club, Greater Western Sydney. As someone who lived in Sydney for 12 years, and who edited the league bible The Daily Telegraph for almost four, I’m sceptical as to whether the club will be a success. It will win sponsors, it has already driven up the value of the TV rights, but whether it meets the ultimate test of winning fans is the great unknown.
It’s a bit like the war in Iraq, with the AFL cast in the role of the US – big, cashed-up, all powerful, but deeply hated by the nuggety local resistance in the form of rugby league, which might often be disorganised but knows how to fight dirty on the ground.
In Sydney, there are plenty of people who aren’t league fanatics but are still death-riding the AFL as it seeks to establish a foothold in the city’s western heartland. A lot of people in Sydney regard the AFL as smug and arrogant and hate the way its fans deride rugby league as being the code for working-class deviants and drunks, versus the apparent moral superiority of Aussie Rules. It’s a sentiment I share as in recent years AFL has often been every bit as scandalous as NRL in terms of player behaviour, racial problems, attitudes towards women.
The difference between the scandals in the AFL and NRL often reflects the difference in style between Melbourne and Sydney. In Victoria scandals are downplayed, in Sydney they are amplified. Victorians rally around the AFL for the good of the game, and argue that player scandals shouldn’t detract from what’s happening on the park. In Sydney the games can often seem secondary to the scandals as the media and public throw themselves into discussion over whether league can ever recover from the latest player drama or administrative cock-up.
But the one thing which defines AFL – and defines Victoria – is a quality which every other code in the land would kill for.
Footy in Victoria is the great unifying force. In all my years in Sydney, even while editing its rugby league bible, I was struck by how little general chat there was with mates and colleagues about the weekend’s league games. With the exception of State of Origin, there was little water cooler conversation about the Eels-Sharks clash, or Benji Marshall’s amazing try at Leichhardt Oval.
Come to Melbourne and walk into a Collins St boardroom, a boutique in Toorak, a kebab shop in Brunswick or a feminist bookstore in Fitzroy, and everyone will be talking about whether after their win against the Cats the Bombers are the real deal.
This endearing and quirky characteristic is more than anything the definition of what it means to be Victorian. It’s a galvanising community force, and it contributes to Melbourne’s superiority as a city over Sydney, the subject of my column next Monday.
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