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On the eve of a grand finale of the AFLM unlike any other, can the shadow of the pandemic make us tend towards something better?

By on September 23, 2021 0


On the last Saturday in September of each year, many people in Melbourne, and even in all of Australia and even in foreign countries, are stricken with a strange infirmity.

Thus wrote the Australian historian Manning Clark in 1981. He was talking about the grand final of the Victorian Football League competition (men). Of how about 100,000 people would get to one place

mistakenly known as the Melbourne Cricket Ground [MCG]. There, for two and a half hours, they lose the appearance of human beings and become like beasts of the field. They growl, they roar, they bellow, they howl and they howl.

Forty years later, the grand final of the (today) men’s competition of the Australian Football League (AFLM) continues to generate fervor among millions of fans of the sport.

Again, it takes place on the last Saturday in September. Once again, “a strange infirmity” grips the supporters of the two remaining teams fighting for the post of Prime Minister – the Melbourne Demons and the Western Bulldogs. If Melbourne wins, some of their huts will inevitably find that they can now to die happy – which testifies to the absurdly deep meaning that the game still holds for many.

However, for the second year in a row, the location of the AFLM Grand Final will not be in Melbourne on the cricket ground which remains a spiritual home of football.

Part of the heartbreak over moving the MCG’s AFLM Grand Finals is that COVID has made it impossible for so many lifelong huts of demons and dogs to cheer, bellow and roar from the stands as the game takes place in the middle of a ringing babel. However, another part seems to be dismay at the loss of what was once ‘normal’.

But should we aspire to a return to normalcy or something better?

Football and venue

The place is at the heart of the stories told by the AFL. It is the only major spectacle sport to be so closely linked to the emergence – and growth – of a city. The game was first codified in 1859 at a time when Melbourne was in its infancy as a rapidly developing city fueled by the Victoria Gold Rush. The riches of gold lead to many parks and gardens where one could play football.

The activism of the Melbourne stonemasons in 1856 – and the eight-hour workday that followed – meant that many men, and soon women, had free time to watch football games.

The Western Bulldogs and Melbourne Demons will face off for the 2021 prime ministerial post in Perth, a place the game’s founders might never have imagined.
AAP / Scott Barbour

The game quickly became not only popular, but also a site of common passion. He was supposed to produce good, strong white men. Yet by the 1880s Melbourne was already more famous for its loud and seemingly crazy football spectators, or “barrackers” as they were called. In 1890, “JEB” wrote in a Melbourne suburban newspaper:

For an Englishman to visit Australia, and to return home without having seen an Australian football match, with its multitude of ardent hutmen, would be as incomprehensible as for a Colonial to see London and omit the tower. […]

What an experience it is to be at one of the big games! What a babel of sound! What a magnificent uproar! What a glorious eruption of cloud-breaking blasphemy!

In 1900, Melbourne was already home to two major Australian football competitions for men: the Victorian Football League and the Victorian Football Association. Everyone who lived in the city was expected to barricade themselves for a team.

Migrants like novelist Peter Temple quickly understood that ‘footy talk’ was’lingua franca – it transcended class, transcended gender, we could talk to anyone about football ”. In 1967, some Melbourne residents loathed the incessant “football talk” so much that a rival Anti-football league has been created.

Read more: AFL sells an inclusive image of itself. But when it comes to race and gender, there is still a long way to go.

However, the place in Australia is complex, stratified and inevitably refers to questions of sovereignty and justice. Melbourne was built on a place called Naarm which was never ceded by its original inhabitants. The form of football that developed with the city was shaped by acts of invasion, migration and displacement, survival and resistance of First Nations peoples.

Tom Wills, one of the four white men who wrote the first laws of Australian football, spent much of his childhood among the Djab-wurrungs of the western parts of Victoria, speaking their language and playing their games. How much Wills was influenced by one of those games – Marn Grook’s football game – is a contentious issue. If some have dismissed any possible link, they rely on sources drawn only from the archives which reflect an exclusively colonial memory.

As Barry Judd noted,

It is a colonial past that history is able to reconstruct, a past that says little or nothing about the Aboriginal experience or the Aboriginal memory of this same past transported to the present on the other side of the colonial border.

Wills is a famous figure in Australian football folklore. He is commemorated in a statue outside the MCG. Last week the football world was rocked by the revelation of a retailer account Wills’ involvement in the horrific retaliation which followed the murder of his father and other pastors in Queensland in 1861 (who was herself a response to the murder of Gayiri men by a neighbor of Wills).

Yet even before this news, it was known that Wills was supporting the massacres of Gayiri and other First Nations people. Indeed Wills asked his cousin and co-author of the first Australian Rules Laws – HCA Harrison – to send “good resolute men who will shoot all the blacks they see. ”

Wills was named an inaugural member of the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 1996. Yorta Yorta’s brilliant player, administrator and activist (among other things), Sir Doug Nicholls, has yet to be inducted into this Hall of Fame. , although he has an AFLM ride named after him. There is a statue of Sir Doug (and Lady Gladys Nicholls) outside the Victorian Parliament, but none outside the MCG or other football grounds.

Read more: The land we play on: equality doesn’t mean justice

However, those who attend Saturday’s AFLM Grand Final will walk past a statue of St Kilda legend Nicky Winmar. When the statue was announced, many people in the football world argued he should be in Melbourne, where in 1993 Winmar responded to racial abuse from fans and opposing players by lifting his sweater, showing his skin and repeatedly stating that he was “Black and proud”.

But Winmar is a man of Noongar, and he wanted the statue commemorating his call for justice to be in the land of Noongar.

Those who attend the grand finale in Perth will walk past this statue of Nicky Winmar, Noongar’s man and Saints star, in his famous gesture on the pitch in 1993.
AAP / Richard Wainwright

And then came COVID …

Rather, the pandemic has heightened Australia’s fascination with the game of football which was first known as the Melbourne Rules. Like the Olympics, it provided a train of meaning, joy, angst, relief, and at least a momentary escape. The game brought great comfort in a time of community distress.

But the non-COVID events of the past year of football – the continued racial abuse of Eddie Betts, systemic racism found in Collingwood in his treatment of Héritier Lumumba, the racist defamation by Robbie Young, and the retirement of AFLW players because they are not paid a living wage by Australia’s richest sports body – reveals the need for the AFL to grapple more critically with its colonial past and present.

Thinking more deeply about the game’s relationship to land and justice would be a good place to start.


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