Melbourne, Australia: Where Footy is King
Melbourne is crazy about its own unique version of football, called Footy
By Max Hartshorne
It has football’s laterals and lots of punts. It has soccer’s precision passing and nonstop action. Add in rugby’s aggressive tackling and wide open field, and you’ve got Australian rules football.
On a recent trip to Melbourne Australia, I decided to find out what this game is all about. The day I staggered off the plane after the 15 ½ hour flight, I found myself in the standing room section of the Melbourne Cricket Ground while the raucous cheers of 72,000 fans roared up from the large circular green below. It was a Sunday match between Richmond and Collingwood, and it seemed like the center of action in the city at that moment.
This game is not played anywhere else on earth, and it combines what I like about many sports in a uniquely Aussie style. It has all of the above-mentioned qualities and it gets fans very excited.
Oh, and the refs throw the ball in from out of bounds by heaving it back over their heads. What’s missing in football down under is the constant stopping, refereeing, and pauses that make the NFL’s game so tedious.
Meat pies and Beer
I got a beer and grabbed a Four and Twenty brand meat pie and stood at the railing watching the action. I felt a little like my girlfriend Cindy probably does when I make her watch the Super Bowl.
“What are they doing?” I wondered, but it was clear that scoring involved the four posts on both ends of the circular field. The scoreboard, though, showed three figures, later I realized they meant goals, kicks and total points.
Goal points are scored by either kicking or passing a red football through the middle two poles. I am still not sure why there are four on each end. Today’s game was between Collingwood and Richmond, two teams based in Melbourne, each with their own mostly uniformed fans one with referee-style black stripes and the other with distinctive orange and black.
Here there are special places to sit for the members of each football club, and strict rules about what you can and cannot wear. “Thongs,” as flip-flops are known, are banned, as are belly shirts and anything with an offensive slogan. Fans here join the clubs, wear the gear and take the whole thing pretty seriously.
General admission meant that if I wanted to sit down, I had to take the escalator way up the fourth level. Up there the view of the round field is much better, and sitting right behind the Collingwood goal gave me a great view of the action.
As I expected, drinking beer is a big part of this experience, and the brews, while much better than anything you can get at Fenway, were nearly as expensive, between $6.80 or $7.20, depending on which brand you choose.
They set the beers down in long holders, pouring them out from the taps six at a time, since the crowds were so deep. The meat pies were a bargain at just four bucks. There was a time when Aussie dollars were cheaper, but sadly, my greenbacks bought me $5 less of their dollars than mine.
There are other things that make this game a little more fun than our football. Despite the blowing of whistles by the red-shirted refs, play continues and rarely stops, except for one of those quick backward tosses back onto the field when the ball goes out of bounds.
To start the action, the ref bounces the ball hard on the grass, and it flies up about 10 feet. This starts a lot of jumping, as in soccer, where the players jostle for the ball while airborne, and then quickly begin long runs toward their goals.
The ball is like a hot potato, and those constant laterals are fun to watch, sort of like keep-away from the opposing players as they advance toward the goal. There is a lot of punting too, since the ball goes a lot farther with a swift kick than a throw.
These professional athletes only stay in the sport a few short years, since all of this jumping and non-stop running takes a quick toll on their legs, as does the tackling without pads. It’s dazzling to watch the players awkwardly punt the ball up to seventy yards and get it right to a guy who’s running full tilt or put it through the uprights from so far down the field. It has soccer’s precision and expert timing, with perfect passes and kicks that seem to find a man out of no where as he runs ahead.
Lots of Scoring
Because it’s pretty easy to score, the games features lots of goals, celebrated with wild cheers and the waving of many banners by the faithful, nearly all of whom are dressed up in team colors.
The fans even wear the same advertising banners on their shirts and hats, so companies like Emirates Airlines and Toyota get lots of extra publicity.
Most of the people in Melbourne’s giant stadium sit in the upper decks; this is where I sat with my $20 ticket. As with our pro sports, there are a luxury boxes and $40 seats a little closer to the action.
But since the players use so much of the big round field, the view from up top in the grandstands is excellent, and the Jumbotron shows replays of every goal and highlight.
I remember growing up with my dad; he’d be watching his beloved Giants and he’d call my mother into the living room, crying out how beautiful a catch was, telling her “you gotta see this!”
I watched a player kick a goal when he was practically parallel to the posts, and yet the ball hooked around, a la Beckham, to score. It was magnificent!
While the sport has tackles and the grabbing of uniforms, they don’t spend nearly as much time beating each other up as NFL players do, and they manage to get out of the pile-ups pretty quickly, making the game more about running, kicking and scoring than sheer brutality.
It was a treat to get to see it live, since the crowd and the size of the field are part of what makes watching this peculiarly Australian game so much fun.