Maybe you’ve seen this already on ESPN or some other starved-for-programming 24-hour sports network. The game is called Australian Rules Football, or colloquially “Aussie Rules”, or even more colloquially “Footy”, or is it “Footie?” (I’ve never seen it written.)
Anyway, the version I remember involved guys wearing short pants that looked like they were left over from the ‘60s hurtling toward each other at closing speeds approximating runaway locomotives then leaping high in the air and crashing together as a ball the size and shape of a healthy Casaba melon bounced harmlessly along the turf. This collision seemed to be the point of the match as it encouraged far more lusty shouting from the fans than when someone actually picked up the melon and ran with it.
A Footy Pilgrimage
Armed with this indelible impression, we could not pass up the opportunity to witness footy (my preference) in the flesh (literally) whilst (British affectation) in Melbourne recently. So off we hiked to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, that venerable temple of Australian sport, for the two o’clock kickoff. Once there, we quickly discovered the kickoff was scheduled for six o’clock. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the game was being held at the far more modern (and by definition less venerable) Telstra Dome. Oh, blast!
We arrived really early at the T.D., so early in fact that the beer wasn’t even cold yet and they hadn’t even put the teakettle on the boil! The good news was we were able to witness what footy players consider “warm-ups”. This consisted of the entire team jogging together—and by this I mean TOGETHER…shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, belly to backside—at an impossibly slow pace using little baby steps. This was an eye-opener if there ever was one. It was probably some sordid vestige of their early days as a prison colony.
While the now clearly exhausted players rested up for the start of the game we were treated to The Team Songs. These were broadcast over the stadium PA, which someone had left on the volume setting selected for an earlier Bruce Springsteen concert. The songs themselves sounded as if they’d both been recorded by the State of Victoria Senior Men’s Chorus backed by the winner of the All-Australia Marching Band Competition and had lyrics that went, “men, men, men, men, manly men, manly men, pulverizing girly men…” or words to that effect.
About this time we made friends with the family sitting in front of us who were turned out in colors clearly indicating their support for the Collingwood Magpies. Their team featured black and white vertical stripes resembling prison uniforms, which in the end seemed somehow appropriate. Father, mother, and two daughters—who both looked like they played the sport—each wore the uniform number of their favorite Magpie set against a palette of solid black. Since the other team, the Hawthorne Hawks, sported uniforms of brown and yellow that looked like something from the original McDonalds franchise, this was a canny fashion choice. After some quiet condemnation of our ignorance, they took pity on us and attempted to explain the rudiments of what we were about to watch. It didn’t help.
They also introduced us to the meat pie, which did.
But before I describe the actual game, perhaps a bit of history will lend perspective. We are led to believe that Footy began as a sport designed to keep cricketers in shape during the winter off-season. Now, if you’ve ever watched cricket, which involves about nineteen guys standing around while one player does all the running and throwing, you’ll be forgiven if this seems an unlikely origin. Nevertheless it is needed factoid to explain the field which, it seems, used to be approximately the size of Utah, but has since been reduced to something on the order of a Home Depot parking lot in order to fit inside a domed stadium. The field is neither geometrically round, nor aerodynamically oval. Like the ball they play with, it’s just sort of…fat.
The size of the field turned out to be important after all as there is an almost incomprehensible number of people on it… throughout the entire game! To start with, each team seems to have about forty players. They are nearly all have thighs the size of municipal sewer pipes, and are all exactly five foot ten except for one player on each team who is seven foot six. Also on the field are about ten referees. They look exactly like the players, so they probably were once, but they can now be distinguished by uniforms of a color no team would ever willingly choose. Four of the referees wear white hats like Greg Norman and stand between the goalposts. When points are scored, they point with a pistol motion toward the center of the field. Sometimes they wave a white flag in a particularly provocative way.
Then, since the game clock never stops so there are no opportunities for those important strategic huddles with the coaches, each team has a couple of “runners.” These guys wear neon green outfits to separate them from the teams and the referees and are allowed to run out on the field at any time during the game to carry messages from the coach to the players. You can see them running alongside a guy who is being dragged down by six other guys probably saying something like, “coach says if you don’t suck it up, you’ll be on the first train to Adelaide.” But wait! There’s more. No time-outs means no Gatorade, so some other guys wait in pairs, spaced more or less evenly around the edge of the field holding water bottles. Whenever there’s a free kick, which everyone uses as a breather while the clock runs, the Gatorade guys run out to replenish precious bodily fluids. Given the size of the field, I think they actually cover more ground than anyone.
Footy, The Game Itself
Shockingly, the game doesn’t start with a kickoff after all. It starts with a bounce-off. I kid you not. One of the referees lifts the ball high over his head then slams it into the ground so that it bounces about twelve feet in the air. At this point the two seven-foot-six guys, in what looks like the ritual mating dance of flamingoes, run into each other and try to tip the ball to a teammate. What follows is pretty much what you’d expect.
A guy picks up the ball and starts running. If he doesn’t bounce it on the ground once in a while, it’s a foul and the other team gets a free kick. If he’s tackled he has to give up the ball or it’s a free kick. So instead he can punch, not pass, the ball to a teammate, or he can kick the ball to a teammate who, if he catches it, gets a free kick. Eventually someone gets a free kick from somewhere close enough to the goal to score either one, six, or nine points depending on who the referee in the hat is pointing at. After about five minutes, all the players are exhausted from having to run around such a large field and the ball begins to spend a lot of time on the ground. All of this ultimately results in two guys hurtling toward each other at closing speeds approximating runaway locomotives, leaping high in the air and crashing together.
So we weren’t disappointed after all.