Catriona’s boss very kindly granted us his tickets for an AFL match at the Etihad Stadium last week. He has some sort of season pass but only bothers showing up to the Northern Melbourne games. Seeing as Melbourne – just one city remember – has not one, not two, but NINE of the 18 AFL clubs currently playing (and that doesn’t count Geelong which is less than an hour away) there’s a lot of matches to see. Fortunately, we had the best seats in the house for this one.
Which was handy as we needed a good vantage point from which to try and interpret what on earth was going on.
First up, who was playing? Well that was easy as the team names were on the big screens. The Bull Dogs from the Western Suburbs versus The Saints from St Kilda.
Now who was who?
This was trickier as although AFL in Melbourne is the most tribal of all the sports, the opposing fans still sit amongst each other, so whenever someone scored the cheering or swearing was pretty evenly spread. Calls of “ya bloody idiot!” could have been aimed at any number of vested individuals and they usually were.
It didn’t help that the players were all mixed up on the pitch as well, rather than restrained to their own halves like rugby or football (you know, proper sports).
On top of this, the pitch in question was marginally smaller than the surface area of Holland. No wonder only Australians play this sport! They’re the only country in the world with enough room to play it! A field this size would actually be utilised as an agricultural field in other countries. Huge swathes of the world’s rainforests could be saved from becoming grazing land if the AFL donated a couple of pitches.
Some players were so far away I was sure they must have been on some sort of adjacent training pitch but after a minute or so they’d run close enough to prove that they were in fact, playing the same game as everyone else. Even then, their uniforms were so skimpy it required a sniper’s vision to determine what colours they were sporting.
After a few minutes of detective work, we’d determined who was who – The Bulldogs were in blue, red and white. St Kilda were in black, red and white. Easy.
Now to figure out who was winning. This would’ve been easy if we’d been there for the first goal, but we were 5 minutes late. A vast error.
There were three numbers under each team name on the big screen. It took us almost until half time to understand what these numbers represented. Let me explain.
The first number listed the number of times the ball had been kicked through the middle posts.
The second number was for kicks through the outside posts.
The third number was the total score.
Using trial and error we deduced that the kicks through the outside posts were worth one point, and no-one ever celebrated these kicks. In fact people around us got really agitated if the ball dared to go through these posts, like one measly point was insulting. People were “bloody idiots” if they kicked a goal through these stupid posts. However, a kick through the middle posts was worth an astonishing 6 points, and people were very happy indeed if this happened, approximately six times happier by my estimation. Despite these extra numbers on the big screen, the only one that mattered was the overall score. Why did we need to know how many times the ball had gone through various posts when only the score mattered? I have no idea, but people needed to know.
Aussie sports fans are a bit like American sports fans in that they need stats and facts. And snacks and beers. But less commercials.
On top of the 36 players on the planet-sized pitch there were numerous referees, I think about 6, which is understandable as they each had to police an area larger than an actual police jurisdiction. Every time a player caught a kicked ball one poor ref had to blow his whistle. This is basically all the players do throughout the game so the whistle had to be blown a lot, like every four seconds. The constantly whistling ref had to run the most as well as he had to keep up with the action. He clearly pulled the short straw.
The other refs’ main responsibility seemed to be throwing the ball back into play if it went out. Players weren’t allowed to do this, only the refs.
But you should see these guys throw! They would coil themselves forward like a taut trebuchet then release the ball back over their heads with astonishing force. The players would then compete for this neutrally hurled object after it had re-entered the planet’s atmosphere. Surely these refs missed their vocation as Olympic hammer throwers? Or maybe, in Australia, this is what kids with good throwing arms aspire to.
The final rule involved catching a kick that must be over 15 metres in length within a specially designated 50 metre bubble near the goal posts. A giant stopwatch then appears on the big screen and counts down from 30. I’m not making this up. The player must take his kick before zero or something will happen. We never got to find out. The refs threw hammers at them presumably. Just as I was configuring the tackling laws and the weird non-specific ‘running-with-the ball-in-hand’ rule it was full-time and the stadium was empty.
Really what this demonstrates is that AFL is a very odd sport. But all sports are weird. Religions and manners are weird too. We’re just used to the ones we grew up with. I guess what infuriates me is that huge swathes of Australia obsess over a game that no-one else on the planet plays and yet they still find time to be really good at cricket, rugby league, rugby union, swimming, cycling, rowing, netball, BBQs and swearing. Fair play.
Hopefully, we’ll be catching another match before our visas expire so I can start heckling with confidence.