Who needs Joern Utzon when you’ve got the AFL
If anyone else had said it they would have been laughed off the stage – but if you’re Australian football’s philosopher king, you can get away with a bit of bombastic overstatement.
So it was that Kevin Sheedy, coach of the Essendon Football Club for a record 635 games over 27 consecutive years, declared that the AFL’s proposed creation of a new western Sydney team by 2012 was the sporting equivalent of the construction of the Sydney Opera House.
“When you look at the Sydney Opera House people said it would never happen,” Sheedy said. “What we’re about to do out here may come to be regarded in the same way as the Sydney Opera House now is.”
Sheeds made this massive call while speaking on a panel at a lavish AFL launch dinner for the Greater Western Sydney campaign ahead of the Sydney-Geelong match at Olympic Park’s Telstra Stadium on Saturday.
The event would have sent shivers down the spine of the NRL. Smack-bang in the middle of rugby league’s heartland, the AFL invited more than 1000 guests along to attend what felt more like the launch of a political campaign than an ordinary night at the footy, as Andrew Demetriou delivered a tub-thumping address arguing the national code has the money, the people, the patience and determination to win the hearts and minds of Sydney’s league-loving west.
It was the composition of the crowd which would be of most concern to rugby league. There were a number of people, like my wife and I, who are garden-variety expats from the AFL states who have always given much of the ballast to Sydney’s AFL audience and pose no real expansionist threat to rugby league.
But the bulk of the crowd came from two sources which have historically had no significant involvement with Aussie Rules – local government in western Sydney, and local businesses in western Sydney.
The best description for their demeanour on the night was curiosity. They’re people who have grown up with rugby league, but are clearly keen to hear from this cashed-up code that is ignoring the doomsayers and forging ahead with its push into what’s historically been seen as an Aussie Rules dead zone.
Two things were notable in the rhetoric Demetriou used on Saturday night.
The first was the appearance of the word “Greater” before what until now has been simply the “Western Sydney” franchise. This recasting of the club as “Greater Western Sydney” suggests the Vics who run the AFL are starting to get a better understanding of what makes Sydney tick, recognising that the term “Western Sydney” in isolation may be exclusionary to the Hills, to South Western Sydney, the northern beaches and the inner-west.
The second was the extent to which the AFL is tapping into Sydney’s multicultural personality to position itself as a unifying code which can bring communities together. Demetriou’s speech was followed by a slick video profile on a young Australian-Indian kid who plays junior Aussie rules in Parramatta and dreams of playing for the Western Sydney team.
My own personal view, as someone who grew up with Aussie Rules in SA, has been in Sydney for more than a decade, and who still loves AFL but also enjoys League, is that the AFL is a bit like the United States before it went into Iraq – big, rich, and powerful, but at risk of getting stuck into a protracted street-level battle with a nuggety local resistance in the form of the NRL’s heartland Sydney clubs.
But league should be worried that its traditionally rusted-on backers from local government and business are so curious about this exotic new code - a code which, needless to say, has had a much better time of it than league this year in avoiding the frequent and debilitating off-field dramas which turn parents and sponsors off sport.
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