Last Tuesday, on the day of the friendly between Australia and Greece the Herald Sun published an article titled We know Australian rules is the best so why isn’t it popular overseas? (For some reason in certain instances it is pay walled, so a transcript is available here)
Not sure whether the fact that an international friendly was being played in Melbourne on the same day was a coincidence (these types of articles tend to appear when Association Football increase its profile, such as during World Cups etc.) but a title like that was certain to raise plenty of hackles from the round football tribe.
While the title is a bit daft (and I am sure designed as click bait) and the piece is a bit fluffy, the writer Mitchell Toy does raise some interesting points (despite some cheap barbs at Association Football). Let’s look at some.
AUSTRALIAN rules football is intensely popular in one small pocket of the world and rarely played anywhere else, and that makes many Victorians very insecure. …… But the one rebuttal that is always difficult to get past is this: If Aussie rules is so good, why is it only popular in mostly one state in one country and nowhere else in the world?
I am not sure how many ‘Victorians are insecure’ (what about the other footy states?) but it is true that some of that feeling is there. And this has a deep echo in the Australian psyche of ‘invasion’. While (fortunately) most Victorians are not xenophobic like past days of the White Australia Policy, and the ‘Yellow Peril’, there is still a latent unease about this huge continent being swamped by a larger force. This fear is quite ingrained in the Australian psyche. Both from a conservative perspective as expressed by Geoffrey Blainey, or by people such as Martin Flanagan on the left. Interestingly these articles were published in 2005, around the time Australia qualified for the World Cup for the first time after more than thirty years in a famous match in Sydney that got huge exposure and interest.
While people like Flanagan are light years away from the bogons commenting in the Herald Sun about ‘Soccer Wogs’ and associated anti-refugee sentiment, there is a common thread in these comments that somehow the ‘soccer juggernaut‘ with it’s global power will overtake the native game of Australian Rules football.
Even those who do not fear Association Football like sport journalist such as Rohan Connolly have highlighted it’s global dimension compared to the local nature of the AFL.
So let’s continue with Toy’s article:
Soccer is the real football, they say. It’s the World Game and brings people together in peace (even though Victoria Police might sometimes have a different view), and that’s why it’s a multibillion-dollar global behemoth. And it’s true. Australian rules has not become popular overseas even though there have been plenty of attempts to make it so. High-profile competitions happen between sides from different countries in Rugby League, and Rugby Union has its own World Cup. Cricket has become a monster with first one-dayers, then Twenty20, now Big Bash. Soccer remains a force almost bigger than Jesus (with more and more players actually called that) and its tentacles are reaching deep into Australian suburbs. The closest Australian rules gets to the big Quidditch-style showdown with any foreign power is the International Rules match with Ireland. And even then it’s not really Australian rules because the ball is round and the pitch is rectangular. Our code’s own International Cup features teams from America, Asia and Europe, but is held at such ovals as Royal Park, and are not televised in prime time. A parade of prominent former players and coaches have led delegations overseas to boost engagement, the latest being an announcement that Port might play in China for premiership points in 2017. King among the advocates is Kevin Sheedy, who has pressed for international take-up of the game throughout his lengthy career, and who has suggested playing the opening game of the season on foreign soil. And he doesn’t mean foreign like the WACA. So despite all the diplomacy, why aren’t any kids in London or New York wearing Nick’s number 12 and yelling out “ball” in the schoolyard?
We can start with the comment that soccer ‘and its tentacles are reaching deep into Australian suburbs’. This statement reminds me somewhat of the infamous 1886 the anti Chinese cartoon named ‘The Mongolian Octopus’ in The Bulletin, his tentacles poised to squeeze the life out of ‘white’ Australian men, women and children.
But continuing on, it is said that ‘football is a religion’ and while this is a cliche there is an element of truth in this statement. Some follow a code of football is a bit like Christianity. The object of worship is the same but believe the variations they follow is the best, and fervently believe that once they ‘see the light’ they will abandon their inferior version for the new one. This happens both in Association Football where some believe that football will become the number one code (and an aim of the FFA alas, something I think is silly, but that’s another story) and of course by the Aussie Footy code, like mentioned in this article that can’t believe that such a superior product can’t convert people overseas.
But following a code of football is not simply kicking a different shape of football around. I have personal experience of this, as I count myself fortunate that I follow both Association Football and the AFL. Back in the 90’s I went back to Italy to volunteer for an environmental organisation. During final times I got my parents to send me a tape of one of the finals where Carlton and Essendon were involved. In those days those teams were at the top of their game. Matches between the Blues and the Bombers were legendary, tough, uncompromising and often very close.
I showed a bit of one of these games to my Italian colleagues who were all committed Association Football fans, believing that they would be impressed by the athleticism and ball handling skills of the footy players. They became dis interested after a few minutes “All I can see is bodies clashing against each other” was the comment. And this showed me that following a code of football often is not just following a sport. There are other cultural elements involved with it. Just living in Victoria for a few years you can see how Australian Rules is deeply interwoven in the culture of this state. It is following a team for generations, attachment to places, friends, family. And of course growing up with the sport. My Italian friends saw ‘bodies clashing with each other’ while a footy devotee would have seen a superb tackle or a great hip and shoulder. Same with an AFL follower getting bored with a scoreless draw at an Association Football game while we are at our edge of our seat that a small mistake would mean victory or defeat and impressed by the defensive strategy.
And that is why – despite liking Aussie Rules and defending it amongst some of my Association Football friends – Thinking that Australian Rules will become anymore popular than Lacrosse is here overseas is just wishful thinking. I wrote about a similar thing back in 2012. Something that Toy acknowledges:
To the AFL’s credit, a number of affiliation leagues have been dotted about the globe including the US, Canada, the UK, Japan, South Africa and a bunch of countries in the Pacific. But there’s still no need to book tickets to many of those matches.
Part of the answer might lie in the unique format of the game, that requires a lot of physical space and grit that only Australians can manage. Maybe we could try making the field smaller so you don’t need to clear out three blocks in Shanghai to make a suburban ground. And roll back contact rules to encourage broader participation across all age groups and genders.
Still, there’s nothing wrong in introducing a new sport in new countries. I do know of people overseas that enjoy Australian Rules.
So what is Toy’s conclusion?
There can only be one firm answer.
We are the weird ones. We are the ones unreasonably obsessed with this game for reasons that nobody else can understand. For reasons that we ourselves can barely understand. Our efforts to push this game on other parts of the world will likely be futile and will only make us look crazier.
And, really, why would we want to do it? The game works for us, it has been passed from generation to generation with undiluted passion for more than a century and nowhere else in the world shares our history with this code. It is time to accept that our game, in this form at least, may never be enormously popular overseas and we should be completely OK with the limited progress we’ve made.
We are the unusual ones here. And, God willing, we’ll stay that way.
Here Toy shows a trait that I have discerned in some Aussie Rules fans, and often a major reason why there this irrational ‘fear’. Precisely because it is a game played in some parts of Australia a certain degree of insular vision can occur. Something that I haven’t seen in follower of other codes such as Rugby, which do have an international dimension and perhaps allows them to see beyond the horizon.
There is no ‘unreasonable obsession’ with AFL. Just see how Association Football is followed in Europe and South America. And yes, we can accept that Aussie Rules will never be enormously popular overseas. And while the strength of Association Football lies in its global dimension, for Australian Rules is its unique position in Australian culture.
But we still have major AFL media spokespersons such as Eddie McGuire stating that “FIFA and the PlayStation is as big as a threat to AFL football as the game of soccer itself,” Or Tom Elliot saying “But if Aussie Rules does not succeed in this city, if young kids growing up in Victoria and the southern states don’t want to play Aussie Rules and instead play soccer, then Aussie Rules as a sport is dead.” This irrational fear about the future of the AFL and the ‘soccer threat’ is deleterious on a variety of levels. It drives a unnecessary anti-Association Football dog whistle commentary that Association Football is ‘not Australian’. The popularity of Australian Rules football in the Aussie Rules states in undisputed. And unlike Toy I know why it is. Because as I explained before it is bound by culture, family, and place.
Association Football may not be or become the most popular code but that doesn’t matter. It belongs to Australia like any other sport and it is part and parcel of Australia’s culture – and has been so – for many years. It’s importance in Australia’s culture has to be recognised and respected. Not seen as some foreign alien import. One thing that Toy and some other AFL aficionados may not understand is that fans in the main do not ditch one sport for another. Like adding to the daily diet of meat and three veg, they can now have a variety of different cuisines to add to it. Not to substitute. So those you count attending an AFL match or watching it on TV will also be at an A-League game or at a pub watching it with friends.
I also hope we remain ‘unique’ but not in the way Toy intends. I would like us to be unique where we are comfortable and happy to follow a variety of sport and codes, without being fearful or wanting one of the other to disappear. But be glad that we can all enjoy a plethora of codes and sports in a country which, especially with sport, is truly blessed.