This city is obsessed. “Pick a team” everyone said when we arrived in Melbourne. I’ve dodged it for two years but now it’s time to go to my first Australian Football League (AFL) game.
I deliberate on what to wear- dressy for pre-game drinks – or casual for mud-traipsed stands? Casual wins. As I walk out the door, a light drizzle sprinkles my face and a gunmetal sky closes in on me. The weather has decided to mirror my enthusiasm.
We stroll on the lamp-lit path along the Yarra River towards the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). It’s a pilgrimage. The MCG is well-known in these parts and has hosted the 1956 Olympic Games as well as the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Tonight, it’s the stomping ground for the Essendon Bombers, clashing with the Carlton Blues. Our group of Kiwis and Aussies walk as one, hats, scarves and jumpers hinting at where our loyalty lies. My red infinity scarf and my black trench have me looking like I planned the colours all along. Lucky I didn’t choose the opposition’s trademark blue.
There’s a feeling of camaraderie and a warm glow coming from the MCG as we approach, it’s not just from the super-powered lighting or the seagulls doing laps over the stadium. These Aussies really do love their football and it shows. AFL has the highest spectator attendance of all sports codes in Australia. Patrons have been traipsing in and out of the stadiums during Melbourne’s bitter winter months year after year. This sport is their religion, the stadium: their church.
The MCG gives me and fellow spectators a workout up the steep steps on the way to our seats. I’m not one for spectator sports usually, but my spirits rise as I climb. The stench of well-used toilets is thankfully interrupted by the smell of hot chips as we pass the kitchens. We’re at the top of three tiers and as I glance out for the first time over my plastic wine glass, I am silenced. The huge stadium fits around 100,000 people and is filled tonight with a sea of red and black interspersed with blue and white. Nylon flags flap in the icy breeze. And then I hear it, the hum starts low and deep then elevates to a reverberating roar from all directions. This place is alive.
Looking down at the two-hundred metres of oval field, I quickly lose count of the slender athletes. AFL players cut a very different silhouette to Rugby boys from back home in New Zealand. In AFL you need to do a lot more running and a lot less tackling. Regulations prevent tackling below the knees or above the shoulder. With players eighteen-a-side, up to twenty seagulls and a team of nine umpires – the field is a busy place.
When it comes to the rules, this game is in its own league. It’s the only sport I know of with not two but three goal posts on either side. The outer goals earn one point and the inner goal between the taller posts tallies to six points. I think I’ll rely on the scoreboard.
The seagulls have been unwelcome guests at the MCG for years and Melbourne is wracking their brains to find a way to evict them. It’s such a problem that it has been featured on the news, where experts say the gulls are drawn to the light. Maybe this game is even more religious than I thought.
“Go the Bombers” a kid screams from the stands.
“This is a great game for your first AFL experience” a friend yells over the crowd.
We’re pinned to the edge of our seats while Essendon endures a twenty point gap then they close it before our eyes.
In the last quarter the knife edge tension is felt around the stadium as the ball dashes around the oval at double speed. Essendon wins seventy-seven to seventy-two and celebratory drinks are in order. “Go the Bombers!” I yell into the crowd.
Oh no, they’ve got me. Enthusiasm drips from the passionate fans and its infectious, even to a sceptic like me. The game, the fans and the atmosphere have left a lasting impression on me. I think I might have to convert.
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