Devised primarily as a sport to keep cricketers fit over winter, footy has grown into one of the biggest industries in Australia
Football is pretty much in our blood here in Melbourne. I started playing as a 6 year old down in Dromana, I wasn’t very good. My 12 year old boy has already played 100 games of footy, and my daughter is enjoying the rise of women’s footy as she has just completed her second season.
Among all this is the rise of multiculturalism in the game, which mirrors our immigration patterns since World War II. Today there are 13 AFL players born overseas. So far, Fred Pringle at Carlton in the 1920s is the only player listed as being born in India, while four others have documented Indian heritage, including Clancee Pearce and Alex Silvagni.
Today we see a list of players with many diverse backgrounds and there is no doubt we will see many more players of Asian and South Asian background at the highest levels of the sport soon.
Footy: The kickoff
The first game of Australian Football was in 1858 between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College on the St Kilda foreshore. Within two months, the rules of this new sport were being codified, the Melbourne Cricket Club had a team and Melbourne Grammar and Scotch were back at it in the park that would eventually house the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
It was devised as a sport to keep cricketers fit over winter, which makes it the perfect sport for modern Indians. The first football club was by formed in 1858 by Tom Wills who was the captain of the Victorian cricket team.
At first we didn’t using the cricket ovals as we do today, it was more like a rugby field but this soon evolved. Rugby was the biggest guiding force at the time, Gaelic football was still 30 years from being created and soccer was still 5 years from its first game.
By 1861 the sport was booming and competitions were forming all over Australia and New Zealand. Rugby eventually took hold in NSW and NZ, and isolated by distance from the footy states, Queensland also became a Rugby state.
The VFA was formed in 1877 by Albert Park, Carlton, Hotham (now North Melbourne), Melbourne and St Kilda and the VFA eventually took charge of the game and running much of its rules—although each state still had its own variations to the rules. By 1892 it had grown to a 13 team competition with Collingwood joining that year.
A few years later, the six strongest teams broke away and formed the VFL—with Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne and South Melbourne inviting Carlton and St Kilda to join them in 1897.
Since that time the sport has grown into one of the biggest industries in Australia.
Up There Cazaly… and the rest of the quirks
Some of the quirks of Australian Football are easily explained as our sport has evolved and continues to evolve where sports like soccer have remained stagnant even when evidence suggest they should change.
We started out with a free kick for the ball going behind the goal line but not through the goals—not unlike soccer—but this turned into a point to the score to reduce the number of drawn games.
Boundary umpires were forced to throw the ball over their heads to stop them throwing the ball to certain teams under the influence of illegal gambling syndicates.
Bouncing the ball while running was done to slow down the player with the ball, and hand passing was introduced by smaller teams to combat the height advantage in marking contests for the taller teams.
The famous cry of Up There Cazaly came about when a smaller South Melbourne player would stand in the middle of ruck contest to help Roy Cazaly who at 180cm was a short ruckman with a big leap. When the ‘screen’ was in place by one of his teammates they would yell up there Cazaly… and up he went.
Cazaly was also an exponent of the high mark, and popular legend today has it that this war cry was for his marks, but it wasn’t.
There are many other variations over time that have been made to keep improving the game as human evolution has changed our size and athleticism.
Sam Newman was a ruckman for Geelong between 1964 and 1980—he was 189cm tall. Polly Farmer, another legendary Geelong ruckman was 191cm. In today’s Geelong side, 13 players are taller than both those men. But they are also faster, can jump higher and are more aerobically capable. The modern ruckman is now more than 200cm and some are up around the 210cm.
There is no game in the world where every player needs to be able to do everything on a field. Our players need to be able to run, jump, mark, kick, handball, bounce, tackle, stand up to tackles and to do it all in a game where they may run up to 20km in 100 minutes of football.
This is not just one of the most complex sports in the world, it is also one of the hardest in terms of skills. And that doesn’t take into account the understanding needed for game play.
… and some Masala from the Indian community
So where does the Indian community come into it. The Indian Tigers have played in the past three International Cups, and from that the Masala Football Club out in Noble Park was formed. Essendon assists a team known as the Bharat Bombers to run in competitions like the Unity Cup every March, and we try to play the Dosti Cup between India and a locally based Pakistan team once a year—it sits at one win each. Last year Sri Lanka and Bangladesh joined in a South Asian contest held at Punt Road, and some Afghani footballers joined in with the Pakistan Shaheens which won Division 2 of the Unity Cup last year.
We are seeing more and more Indians at football games, and we are now getting them as players at the junior ranks. Raj who was featured in the Indian Sun a year or so ago is one such example, but he is no longer alone in his community.
AFL players like Lin Jong and Majak Daw did the same as Raj but at a later age. Lin Jong of East Timorese and Taiwanese ancestry first started playing when he was 15—four years later he was drafted by the Bulldogs and he was near best on ground in a VFL Grand Final while playing with a broken collarbone that kept him out of the AFL Grand Final. Daw was born in Sudan and came to Australia when he was 12 and started playing when he was 14 and also took four years to get drafted by the Kangaroos.He won the AFL’s 2016 Mark of the Year.
Footy…our second language
You cannot ignore that in Melbourne Australian Football is important. At Aitken Partners, we have each person’s team listed on the intranet, we have a wall in the tea room used for ‘friendly’ banter. We also spend a lot of time entertaining clients at football games and football events.
It is our second language just as it is for many Melburnians, and the business opportunities will open up if you embrace the sport and learn to speak that language. Take time to understand, and then start the dialogue.
‘Ball’ is a universal cry when you have no idea what is happening. The umpire is always an idiot or worse. Any time the ball crosses the boundary line it is deliberate.
But above all else the game is exciting. When you see Cyril Rioli on the hunt or climbing a pack, when Buddy Franklin outruns his opponents and goals from 60 metres, when Dangerfield sprints out the centre with the ball under his arm… that is when you can stand a cheer with the rest of Melbourne.