For 80 minutes I sat baffled trying to understand what the heck was going on. Out of the 85 thousand in attendance at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), I was assuredly the most confused. A couple Carlton Draughts certainly didn’t help my cause; I was helpless. If I could summarise it in two words, I would say AFL is unorganized chaos. Thirty-six men run up and down an ovular field assaulting each other while trying to kick a football-like-ball through the uprights, located at either end of the field. AFL players have an NBA player’s height, a soccer star’s stamina, and NHL toughness. Not only is it legal to jump onto an opponent, but it’s actually mandatory that you knee them in the back while going up to get the ball! It’s a completely absurd sport—but in the land down under, they love it. The game I went to, the annual ANZAC Day Clash, commemorating the Australian and New Zealand Army Core, the Collingwood Magpies absolutely obliterated the Essendon Bombers 142-73.
Footy in Melbourne is like hockey in Montreal—it’s a religion. With nine teams located within a stone’s throw of each other in Melbourne, the city’s Footy fans are divided. While I couldn’t get into the fanaticism, rooting for Collingwood was not an option. The Magpies are like the Yankees—they’re the biggest AFL franchise, and the fans love them or loathe them. Essendon, too, has a storied past and a massive fan base, but with 12 players suspended for performance enhancing drugs, they were more like lovable losers.
I’ve been to some pretty spectacular sports games, in unbelievable venues, and the ANZAC game at the MCG ranks up there with the best of them. Built in 1853, the “G” is the oldest stadium in the world. It was the centrepiece for the 1956 Summer Olympics and has a capacity over 100,000. Even with a first quarter score of 52-7, the stadium’s atmosphere was electric. Sure, some Essendon fans decided to end the misery and leave early, but the Collingwood section never quieted. Vuvuzela horns blared out while massive black and white Magpie flags flew throughout the game. The stadium was only quiet when fans mumbled their way through the pre-game national anthem.
I learned quickly that if you aren’t a supporter of a footy team in Melbourne, you’re a social pariah. Therefore, when I arrived in Melbourne I settled on my local team—the North Melbourne Kangaroos. I understood them as an upper-middle-of-the-pack team with a few aging veterans who have never been able to get over the hump. This season wasn’t supposed to muster up to anything special. But since I arrived in Melbourne, the Kangaroos have been near the top of the AFL ladder over half way through the season!
Fast forward a bit, and I’ve too started watching a few games. I’ve learned a little bit more since the ANZAC game, but not much. I’m still bewildered by it all. But that doesn’t really matter because I’m part of the community now. To me the AFL is another opportunity to go and have a few drinks while enjoying the beautiful weather in Melbourne with a couple of ‘mates.’