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Australian rules football
Australian rules football, officially known as Australian football, or simply called Aussie rules, football or footy, is a contact sport played between two teams of eighteen players on an oval-shaped field, often a modified cricket ground. Points are scored by kicking the oval-shaped ball between goal posts (worth six points) or between behind posts (worth one point).
During general play, players may position themselves anywhere on the field and use any part of their bodies to move the ball. The primary methods are kicking, handballing and running with the ball. There are rules on how the ball can be handled: for example, players running with the ball must intermittently bounce or touch it on the ground. Throwing the ball is not allowed and players must not get caught holding the ball. A distinctive feature of the game is the mark, where players anywhere on the field who catch the ball from a kick (with specific conditions) are awarded possession. Possession of the ball is in dispute at all times except when a free kick or mark is paid. Players can tackle using their hands or use their whole body to obstruct opponents. Dangerous physical contact (such as pushing an opponent in the back), interference when marking and deliberately slowing the play are discouraged with free kicks, distance penalties or suspension for a certain number of matches, depending on the seriousness of the infringement. The game features frequent physical contests, spectacular marking, fast movement of both players and the ball and high scoring.
The sport’s origins can be traced to football matches played in Melbourne, Victoria in 1858, inspired by English public school football games. Seeking to develop a game more suited to adults and Australian conditions, the Melbourne Football Club published the first laws of Australian football in May 1859, making it the oldest of the world’s major football codes.
Australian football has the highest spectator attendance and television viewership of all sports in Australia, while the Australian Football League (AFL), the sport’s only fully professional competition, is the nation’s wealthiest sporting body. The AFL Grand Final, held annually at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, is the highest attended club championship event in the world. The sport is also played at amateur level in many countries and in several variations. Its rules are governed by the AFL Commission with the advice of the AFL’s Laws of the Game Committee.
Etymology and names
There is evidence of football being played sporadically in the Australian colonies in the first half of the 19th century. Compared to cricket and horse racing, football was viewed as a minor “amusement” at the time, and while little is known about these early one-off games, it is clear they share no causal link with Australian football. In 1858, in a move that would help to shape Australian football in its formative years, “public” (ie. private) schools in Melbourne, Victoria began organising football games inspired by precedents at English public schools. The earliest such match, held in St Kilda on 15 June, was between Melbourne Grammar and St Kilda Grammar.
On 10 July 1858, the Melbourne-based Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle published a letter by Tom Wills, captain of the Victoria cricket team, calling for the formation of a “foot-ball club” with a “code of laws” to keep cricketers fit during winter. Born in Australia, Wills played a nascent form of rugby football whilst a pupil at Rugby School in England, and returned to his homeland a star athlete and cricketer. His letter is regarded by many historians as giving impetus for the development of a new code of football today known as Australian football. Two weeks later, Wills’ friend, cricketer Jerry Bryant, posted an advertisement for a scratch match at the Richmond Paddock adjoining the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). This was the first of several “kickabouts” held that year involving members of the Melbourne Cricket Club, including Wills, Bryant, W. J. Hammersley and J. B. Thompson. Trees were used as goalposts and play typically lasted an entire afternoon. Without an agreed upon code of laws, some players were guided by rules they had learned in the British Isles, “others by no rules at all”.
Another significant milestone in 1858 was a match played under experimental rules between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College, held at the Richmond Paddock. This 40-a-side contest, umpired by Wills and Scotch College teacher John Macadam, began on 7 August and continued over two subsequent Saturdays, ending in a draw with each side kicking one goal. It is commemorated with a statue outside the MCG, and the two schools have competed annually ever since in the Cordner-Eggleston Cup, the world’s oldest continuous football competition.
Since the early 20th century, it has been suggested that Australian football was derived from the Irish sport of Gaelic football, which was not codified until 1885. There is no archival evidence in favour of a Gaelic influence, and the style of play shared between the two modern codes was evident in Australia long before the Irish game evolved in a similar direction. Another theory, first proposed in 1983, posits that Wills, having grown up amongst Aborigines in Victoria, may have seen or played the Aboriginal game of Marn Grook, and incorporated some of its features into early Australian football. The evidence for this is only circumstantial, and according to biographer Greg de Moore’s research, Wills was “almost solely influenced by his experience at Rugby School”.
A loosely organised Melbourne side, captained by Wills, played against other football enthusiasts in the winter and spring of 1858. The following year, on 14 May, the Melbourne Football Club officially came into being, making it one of the world’s oldest football clubs. Three days later, Wills, Hammersley, Thompson and teacher Thomas H. Smith met near the MCG at the Parade Hotel, owned by Bryant, and drafted ten rules: “The Rules of the Melbourne Football Club”. These are the laws from which Australian football evolved. The club’s stated aim was to create a simple code that was suited to the hard playing surfaces around Melbourne, and to eliminate the roughest aspects of English school games—such as “hacking” (shin-kicking) in Rugby School football—to lessen the chance of injuries to working men. In another significant departure from English public school football, the Melbourne rules omitted any offside law. “The new code was as much a reaction against the school games as influenced by them”, writes Mark Pennings.
The rules were distributed throughout the colony; Thompson in particular did much to promote the new code in his capacity as a journalist. Australian football’s date of codification predates that of any other major football code, including soccer (codified in 1863) and rugby union (codified in 1871).
Early competition in Victoria
Following Melbourne’s lead, Geelong and Melbourne University also formed football clubs in 1859. While many early Victorian teams participated in one-off matches, most had not yet formed clubs for regular competition. A South Yarra side devised its own rules. To ensure the supremacy of the Melbourne rules, the first-club level competition in Australia, the Caledonian Society’s Challenge Cup (1861–64), stipulated that only the Melbourne rules were to be used. This law was reinforced by the Athletic Sports Committee (ASC), which ran a variation of the Challenge Cup in 1865–66. With input from other clubs, the rules underwent several minor revisions, establishing a uniform code known as “Victorian rules”. In 1866, the “first distinctively Victorian rule”, the running bounce, was formalised at a meeting of club delegates chaired by H. C. A. Harrison, an influential pioneer who took up football in 1859 at the invitation of Wills, his cousin.
The game around this time was defensive and low-scoring, played low to the ground in congested rugby-style scrimmages. The typical match was a 20-per-side affair, played with a ball that was roughly spherical, and lasted until a team scored two goals. The shape of the playing field was not standardised; matches often took place in rough, tree-spotted public parks, most notably the Richmond Paddock (Yarra Park), known colloquially as the Melbourne Football Ground. Wills argued that the turf of cricket fields would benefit from being trampled upon by footballers in winter, and, as early as 1859, football was allowed on the MCG. However, cricket authorities frequently prohibited football on their grounds until the 1870s, when they saw an opportunity to capitalise on the sport’s growing popularity. Football gradually adapted to an oval-shaped field, and most grounds in Victoria expanded to accommodate the dual purpose—a situation that continues to this day.
Spread to other colonies
Football became organised in South Australia in 1860 with the formation of the Adelaide Football Club, the oldest football club in Australia outside Victoria. It devised its own rules, and, along with other Adelaide-based clubs, played a variety of codes until 1876, when they agreed to uniformly adopt most of the Victorian rules, with South Australian football pioneer Charles Kingston noting their similarity to “the old Adelaide rules”. Likewise, Tasmanian clubs quarrelled over different rules until they adopted a slightly modified version of the Victorian game in 1879. The South Australian Football Association (SAFA), the sport’s first governing body, formed on 30 April 1877, firmly establishing Victorian rules as the preferred code in that colony. The Victorian Football Association (VFA) formed the following month.
As clubs began touring the colonies in the late 1870s, the sport spread to New South Wales, and in 1879, the first intercolonial match took place in Melbourne between Victoria and South Australia. In order to standardise the sport across Australia, delegates representing the football associations of South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland met in 1883 and updated the code. New rules such as holding the ball led to a “golden era” of fast, long-kicking and high-marking football in the 1880s, a time which also saw the rise of professionalism, particularly in Victoria and Western Australia (where the code took hold during the colony’s gold rushes), and players such as George Coulthard achieve superstardom. Now known as Australasian rules or Australian rules, it became the first football code to develop mass spectator appeal, attracting world record attendances for sports viewing and gaining a reputation as “the people’s game”.
The sport reached Queensland as early as 1866, and experienced a period of dominance there, but, like in New Zealand and areas of New South Wales north of the Riverina, it struggled to thrive, largely due to the spread of rugby football with British migration, regional rivalries and the lack of strong local governing bodies. In the case of Sydney, denial of access to grounds, the influence of university headmasters from Britain who favoured rugby, and the loss of players to other codes inhibited the game’s growth.
Emergence of the VFL
In 1896, delegates from six of the wealthiest VFA clubs—Carlton, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne and South Melbourne—met to discuss the formation of a breakaway professional competition. Later joined by Collingwood and St Kilda, the clubs formed the Victorian Football League (VFL), which held its inaugural season in 1897. The VFL’s popularity grew rapidly as it made several innovations, such as instituting a finals system, reducing teams from 20 to 18 players, and introducing the behind as a score. Richmond and University joined the VFL in 1908, and by 1925, with the addition of Hawthorn, Footscray and North Melbourne, it had become the preeminent league in the country and would take a leading role in many aspects of the sport.
Effects of the two world wars
Both World War I and World War II had a devastating effect on Australian football and on Australian sport in general. While scratch matches were played by Australian “diggers” in remote locations around the world, the game lost many of its great players to wartime service. Some clubs and competitions never fully recovered. Between 1914 and 1915, a proposed hybrid code of Australian football and rugby league, the predominant code of football in New South Wales and Queensland, was trialed without success. World War I saw the game in New Zealand go into recess for three quarters of a century. In Queensland, the state league went into recess for the duration of the war. VFL club University left the league and went into recess due to severe casualties. The WAFL lost two clubs and the SANFL was suspended for one year in 1916 due to heavy club losses. The ANZAC Day clash, the annual game between Essendon and Collingwood on ANZAC Day, is one example of how the war continues to be remembered in the football community.
Interstate football and the ANFC
The role of the Australian National Football Council (ANFC) was primarily to govern the game at a national level and to facilitate interstate representative and club competition. The ANFC ran the Championship of Australia, the first national club competition, which commenced in 1888 and saw clubs from different states compete on an even playing field. Although clubs from other states were at times invited, the final was almost always between the premiers from the two strongest state competitions of the time—South Australia and Victoria—and the majority of matches were played in Adelaide at the request of the SAFA/SAFL. The last match was played in 1976, with North Adelaide being the last non-Victorian winner in 1972. Between 1976 and 1987, the ANFC, and later the Australian Football Championships (AFC) ran a night series, which invited clubs and representative sides from around the country to participate in a knock-out tournament parallel to the premiership seasons, which Victorian sides still dominated.
With the lack of international competition, state representative matches were regarded with great importance. The Australian Football Council co-ordinated regular interstate carnivals, including the Australasian Football Jubilee, held in Melbourne in 1908 to celebrate the game’s semicentenary. Due in part to the VFL poaching talent from other states, Victoria dominated interstate matches for three quarters of a century. State of Origin rules, introduced in 1977, stipulated that rather than representing the state of their adopted club, players would return to play for the state they were first recruited in. This instantly broke Victoria’s stranglehold over state titles and Western Australia and South Australia began to win more of their games against Victoria. Both New South Wales and Tasmania scored surprise victories at home against Victoria in 1990.
Towards a national competition
The term “Barassi Line“, named after VFL star Ron Barassi, was coined by scholar Ian Turner in 1978 to describe the “fictitious geographical barrier” separating large parts of New South Wales and Queensland which predominately followed the two rugby codes from the rest of the country, where Australian football reigned. It became a reference point for the expansion of Australian football and for establishing a national league.
The way the game was played had changed dramatically due to innovative coaching tactics, with the phasing out of many of the game’s kicking styles and the increasing use of handball; while presentation was influenced by television.
In 1982, in a move that heralded big changes within the sport, one of the original VFL clubs, South Melbourne, relocated to Sydney and became known as the Sydney Swans. In the late 1980s, due to the poor financial standing of many of the Victorian clubs, and a similar situation existing in Western Australia in the sport, the VFL pursued a more national competition. Two more non-Victorian clubs, West Coast and Brisbane, joined the league in 1987. In their early years, the Sydney and Brisbane clubs struggled both on and off-field because the substantial TV revenues they generated by playing on a Sunday went to the VFL. To protect these revenues the VFL granted significant draft concessions and financial aid to keep the expansion clubs competitive. Each club was required to pay a licence fee which allowed the Victorian-based clubs to survive.
The VFL changed its name to the Australian Football League (AFL) for the 1990 season, and over the next decade, three non-Victorian clubs gained entry: Adelaide (1991), Fremantle (1995) and the SANFL’s Port Adelaide (1997), the only pre-existing club outside Victoria to join the league. In 2011 and 2012 respectively, two new non-Victorian clubs were added to the competition: Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney. The AFL, currently with 18 member clubs, is the sport’s elite competition and most powerful body. Following the emergence of the AFL, state leagues were quickly relegated to a second-tier status. The VFA merged with the former VFL reserves competition in 1998, adopting the VFL name. State of Origin also declined in importance, especially after an increasing number of player withdrawals. The AFL turned its focus to the annual International Rules Series against Ireland in 1998 before abolishing State of Origin the following year. State and territorial leagues still contest interstate matches, as do AFL Women players.
Although a Tasmanian AFL bid is ongoing, the AFL’s focus has been on expanding into markets outside Australian football’s traditional heartlands. The AFL regularly schedules pre-season exhibition matches in all Australian states and territories as part of the Regional Challenge. The AFL signalled further attempts at expansion in the 2010s by hosting home-and-away matches in New Zealand, followed by China.
Laws of the game
Australian rules football playing fields have no fixed dimensions but at senior level are typically between 135 and 185 metres long and 110 and 155 metres wide wing-to-wing. The field, like the ball, is oval-shaped, and in Australia, cricket grounds are often used. No more than 18 players of each team (or, in AFL Women’s, 16 players) are permitted to be on the field at any time.
Up to four interchange (reserve) players may be swapped for those on the field at any time during the game. In Australian rules terminology, these players wait for substitution “on the bench”—an area with a row of seats on the sideline. Players must interchange through a designated interchange “gate” with strict penalties for too many players from one team on the field. In addition, some leagues have each team designate one player as a substitute who can be used to make a single permanent exchange of players during a game.
There is no offside rule nor are there set positions in the rules; unlike many other forms of football, players from both teams may disperse across the whole field before the start of play. However, a typical on-field structure consists of six forwards, six defenders or “backmen” and six midfielders, usually two wingmen, one centre and three followers, including a ruckman, ruck-rover and rover. Only four players from each team are allowed within the centre square (50 metres (55 yd)) at every centre bounce, which occurs at the commencement of each quarter, and to restart the game after a goal is scored. There are also other rules pertaining to allowed player positions during set plays (that is, after a mark or free kick) and during kick-ins following the scoring of a behind.
A game consists of four quarters and a timekeeper officiates their duration. At the professional level, each quarter consists of 20 minutes of play, with the clock being stopped for instances such as scores, the ball going out of bounds or at the umpire’s discretion, e.g. for serious injury. Lower grades of competition might employ shorter quarters of play. The umpire signals time-off to stop the clock for various reasons, such as the player in possession being tackled into stagnant play. Time resumes when the umpire signals time-on or when the ball is brought into play. Stoppages cause quarters to extend approximately 5–10 minutes beyond the 20 minutes of play. 6 minutes of rest is allowed before the second and fourth quarters, and 20 minutes of rest is allowed at half-time.
The official game clock is available only to the timekeeper(s), and is not displayed to the players, umpires or spectators. The only public knowledge of game time is when the timekeeper sounds a siren at the start and end of each quarter. Coaching staff may monitor the game time themselves and convey information to players via on-field trainers or substitute players. Broadcasters usually display an approximation of the official game time for television audiences, although some will now show the exact time remaining in a quarter.
Games are officiated by umpires. Before the game, the winner of a coin toss determines which directions the teams will play to begin. Australian football begins after the first siren, when the umpire bounces the ball on the ground (or throws it into the air if the condition of the ground is poor), and the two ruckmen (typically the tallest players from each team) battle for the ball in the air on its way back down. This is known as the ball-up. Certain disputes during play may also be settled with a ball-up from the point of contention. If the ball is kicked or hit from a ball-up or boundary throw-in over the boundary line or into a behind post without the ball bouncing, a free kick is paid for out of bounds on the full. A free kick is also paid if the ball is deemed by the umpire to have been deliberately carried or directed out of bounds. If the ball travels out of bounds in any other circumstances (for example, contested play results in the ball being knocked out of bounds) a boundary umpire will stand with his back to the infield and return the ball into play with a throw-in, a high backwards toss back into the field of play.
The ball can be propelled in any direction by way of a foot, clenched fist (called a handball or handpass) or open-hand tap but it cannot be thrown under any circumstances. Once a player takes possession of the ball he must dispose of it by either kicking or handballing it. Any other method of disposal is illegal and will result in a free kick to the opposing team. This is usually called “incorrect disposal”, “dropping the ball” or “throwing”. If the ball is not in the possession of one player it can be moved on with any part of the body.
A player may run with the ball, but it must be bounced or touched on the ground at least once every 15 metres. Opposition players may bump or tackle the player to obtain the ball and, when tackled, the player must dispose of the ball cleanly or risk being penalised for holding the ball. The ball carrier may only be tackled between the shoulders and knees. If the opposition player forcefully contacts a player in the back while performing a tackle, the opposition player will be penalised for a push in the back. If the opposition tackles the player with possession below the knees (a low tackle or a trip) or above the shoulders (a high tackle), the team with possession of the football gets a free kick.
If a player takes possession of the ball that has travelled more than 15 metres (16 yd) from another player’s kick, by way of a catch, it is claimed as a mark (meaning that the game stops while he prepares to kick from the point at which he marked). Alternatively, he may choose to “play on” forfeiting the set shot in the hope of pressing an advantage for his team (rather than allowing the opposition to reposition while he prepares for the free kick). Once a player has chosen to play on, normal play resumes and the player who took the mark is again able to be tackled.
There are different styles of kicking depending on how the ball is held in the hand. The most common style of kicking seen in today’s game, principally because of its superior accuracy, is the drop punt, where the ball is dropped from the hands down, almost to the ground, to be kicked so that the ball rotates in a reverse end over end motion as it travels through the air. Other commonly used kicks are the torpedo punt (also known as the spiral, barrel, or screw punt), where the ball is held flatter at an angle across the body, which makes the ball spin around its long axis in the air, resulting in extra distance (similar to the traditional motion of an American football punt), and the checkside punt or “banana”, kicked across the ball with the outside of the foot used to curve the ball (towards the right if kicked off the right foot) towards targets that are on an angle. There is also the “snap”, which is almost the same as a checkside punt except that it is kicked off the inside of the foot and curves in the opposite direction. It is also possible to kick the ball so that it bounces along the ground. This is known as a “grubber”. Grubbers can bounce in a straight line, or curve to the left or right.
Apart from free kicks, marks or when the ball is in the possession of an umpire for a ball up or throw in, the ball is always in dispute and any player from either side can take possession of the ball.
A goal, worth 6 points, is scored when the football is propelled through the goal posts at any height (including above the height of the posts) by way of a kick from the attacking team. It may fly through “on the full” (without touching the ground) or bounce through, but must not have been touched, on the way, by any player from either team or a goalpost. A goal cannot be scored from the foot of an opposition (defending) player.
A behind, worth 1 point, is scored when the ball passes between a goal post and a behind post at any height, or if the ball hits a goal post, or if any player sends the ball between the goal posts by touching it with any part of the body other than a foot. A behind is also awarded to the attacking team if the ball touches any part of an opposition player, including a foot, before passing between the goal posts. When an opposition player deliberately scores a behind for the attacking team (generally as a last resort to ensure that a goal is not scored) this is termed a rushed behind. As of the 2009 AFL season, a free kick is awarded against any player who deliberately rushes a behind.
The goal umpire signals a goal with two hands pointed forward at elbow height, or a behind with one hand. The goal umpire then waves flags above their heads to communicate this information to the goal umpire at the opposite end of the ground.
The team that has scored the most points at the end of play wins the game. If the scores are level on points at the end of play, then the game is a draw; extra time applies only during finals matches in some competitions.
As an example of a score report, consider a match between Essendon and Melbourne with the former as the home team. Essendon’s score of 11 goals and 14 behinds equates to 80 points. Melbourne’s score of 10 goals and 7 behinds equates to a 67-point tally. Essendon wins the match by a margin of 13 points. Such a result would be written as:
And spoken as:
- “Essendon, eleven-fourteen, eighty, defeated Melbourne ten-seven, sixty-seven”.
Additionally, it can be said that:
- “Essendon defeated Melbourne by thirteen points”.
The home team is typically listed first and the visiting side is listed second. The scoreline is written with respect to the home side.
For example, Port Adelaide won in successive weeks, once as the home side and once as the visiting side. These would be written out thus:
- “Port Adelaide 23.20 (158) defeated Essendon 8.14 (62).”
- “West Coast 17.13 (115) defeated by Port Adelaide 18.10 (118).”
A draw would be written as:
Structure and competitions
The football season proper is from March to August (early autumn to late winter in Australia) with finals being held in September and October. In the tropics, the game is sometimes played in the wet season (October to March). Pre-season competitions in southern Australia usually begin in late February.
The AFL is recognised by the Australian Sports Commission as being the National Sporting Organisation for Australian Football. There are also seven state/territory-based organisations in Australia, most of which are now either owned by or affiliated to the AFL. Most of these hold annual semi-professional club competitions while the others oversee more than one league. Local semi-professional or amateur organisations and competitions are often affiliated to their state organisations.
For almost all Australian football club competitions the aim is to win the Premiership. The premiership is always decided by a finals series. The teams that occupy the highest positions on the ladder after the home-and-away season play off in a “semi-knockout” finals series, culminating in a single Grand Final match to determine the premiers. Typically between four and eight teams contest the finals series. The team which finishes first on the ladder after the home-and-away season is referred to as a “minor premier“, but this usually holds little stand-alone significance, other than receiving a better draw in the finals.
Many suburban and amateur leagues have a sufficient number of teams to be played across several tiered divisions, with promotion of the lower division premiers and relegation of the upper division’s last placed team at the end of each year. At present, none of the top level national or state level leagues in Australia are large enough to warrant this structure.
Women and Australian football
The high level of interest shown by women in Australian football is considered unique among the world’s football codes. It was the case in the 19th-century, as it is in modern times, that women made up approximately half of total attendances at Australian football matches—a far greater proportion than, for example, the estimated 10 per cent of women that comprise British soccer crowds. This has been attributed in part to the egalitarian character of Australian football’s early years in public parks where women could mingle freely and support the game in various ways.
In terms of participation, there are occasional 19th-century references to women playing the sport, but it was not until the 1910s that the first organised women’s teams and competitions appeared. Women’s state leagues emerged in the 1980s, and in 2013, the AFL announced plans to establish a nationally televised women’s competition. Amidst a surge in viewing interest and participation in women’s football, the AFL pushed the founding date of the competition, named AFL Women’s, to 2017. Eight AFL clubs won licences to field sides in its inaugural season.
Many related games have emerged from Australian football, mainly with variations of contact to encourage greater participation. These include Auskick (played by children aged between 5 and 12), kick-to-kick (and its variants end-to-end footy and marks up), rec footy, 9-a-side footy, masters Australian football, handball and longest-kick competitions. Players outside of Australia sometimes engage in related games adapted to available fields, like metro footy (played on gridiron fields) and Samoa rules (played on rugby fields). One such prominent example in use since 2018 is AFLX, a shortened variation of the game with seven players a side, played on a soccer-sized pitch.
International rules football
The similarities between Australian football and the Irish sport of Gaelic football have allowed for the creation of a hybrid code known as international rules football. The first international rules matches were contested in Ireland during the 1967 Australian Football World Tour. Since then, various sets of compromise rules have been trialed, and in 1984 the International Rules Series commenced with national representative sides selected by Australia’s state leagues (later by the AFL) and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). The competition became an annual event in 1998, but was postponed indefinitely in 2007 when the GAA pulled out due to Australia’s severe and aggressive style of play. It resumed in Australia in 2008 under new rules to protect the player with the ball.
Australian rules football was played outside Australasia as early as 1888 when Australians studying at Edinburgh University and London University formed teams and competed in London. Today, the sport is played at an amateur level in various countries throughout the world. Twenty countries participated in the Euro Cup and 23 countries have participated in the International Cup with both competitions prohibiting Australian players. Over 20 countries have either affiliation or working agreements with the AFL. There have been many VFL/AFL players who were born outside Australia, an increasing number of which have been recruited through initiatives and, more recently, international scholarship programs.
Many of the overseas-born AFL players have been Irish, as interest in recruiting talented Gaelic football players dates back to the start of the Irish experiment in the 1960s. Irishmen in the AFL have since become not just starters for their clubs but also Brownlow Medalists (Jim Stynes) and premiership players (Tadhg Kennelly). The AFL also selects a team to represent Australia against an Irish team chosen by the Gaelic Athletic Association in the International Rules Series, utilising rules from both codes with the two countries taking turns hosting the series. Both countries’ and codes’ respective most prestigious venues – the MCG and Croke Park in Dublin – have hosted series Tests.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the game spread with the Australian diaspora to areas such as New Zealand and South Africa; however this growth went into rapid decline following World War I. After World War II, the sport experienced a small amount of growth in the Pacific region, particularly in Nauru (where Australian football is the national sport) as well as Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.
Most of the current amateur clubs and leagues in existence have developed since the 1980s, when leagues began to be established in North America, Europe and Asia. The sport developed a cult following in the United States when matches were broadcast on the fledgling ESPN network in the 1980s. As the size of the Australian diaspora has increased, so has the number of clubs outside Australia. This expansion has been further aided by multiculturalism and assisted by exhibition matches as well as exposure generated through players who have converted to and from other football codes. In Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and the United States there are many thousands of players.
A fan of the sport since attending school in Geelong, Prince Charles is the Patron of AFL Europe. In 2013, participation across AFL Europe’s 21 member nations was more than 5,000 players, the majority of which are European nationals rather than Australian expats. The sport also has a growing presence in India.
The AFL became the de facto governing body when it pushed for the closure of the International Australian Football Council in 2002. The Australian Football International Cup, held triennially in Melbourne since 2002, is the highest level of international competition.
Although Australian rules football has not yet been a full sport at the Olympic Games or Commonwealth Games, when Melbourne hosted the 1956 Summer Olympics, which included the MCG being the main stadium, Australian rules football was chosen as the native sport to be demonstrated as per International Olympic Committee rules. On December 7, the sport was demonstrated as an exhibition match at the MCG between a team of VFL and VFA amateurs and a team of VAFA amateurs (professionals were excluded due to the Olympics’ strict amateurism policy at the time). The Duke of Edinburgh was among the spectators for the match, which the VAFA won by 12.9 (81) to 8.7 (55).
Cultural impact and popularity
Australian football is a sport rich in tradition and Australian cultural references, especially surrounding the rituals of gameday for players, officials and supporters.
Australian football has been an inspiration for writers and poets including Manning Clarke, Bruce Dawe and Philip Hodgins. Paintings by Arthur Streeton (The National Game, 1889) and Sidney Nolan (Footballer, 1946) helped to establish Australian football as a serious subject for artists. Many Aboriginal artists have explored the game, often fusing it with the mythology of their region. Statues of Australian football identities can be found throughout the country. In cartooning, WEG‘s VFL/AFL premiership posters—inaugurated in 1954—have achieved iconic status among Australian football fans. Dance sequences based on Australian football feature heavily in Robert Helpmann‘s 1964 ballet The Display, his first and most famous work for the Australian Ballet. The game has also inspired well-known plays such as And the Big Men Fly (1963) by Alan Hopgood and David Williamson‘s The Club (1977), which was adapted into a 1980 film, directed by Bruce Beresford. Mike Brady‘s 1979 hit “Up There Cazaly” is considered an Australian football anthem, and references to the sport can be found in works by popular musicians, from singer-songwriter Paul Kelly to the alternative rock band TISM. Many Australian football video games have been released, most notably the AFL series.
Australian football has attracted more overall interest among Australians (as measured by the Sweeney Sports report) than any other football code, and, when compared with all sports throughout the nation, has consistently ranked first in the winter reports, and most recently third behind cricket and swimming in summer. Over 875,000 fans were paying members of AFL clubs in 2016, which is equal to one in every 28 Australians. The 2016 AFL Grand Final was the year’s most-watched television broadcast in Australia, with an in-home audience of up to 6.5 million watching the match.
In 2006, 615,549 registered participants played Australian football in Australia. Participation increased 7.84% between 2005 and 2006. The Australian Sports Commission statistics show a 64% increase in the total number of participants over the 10-year period between 2001 and 2010. In 2008 there were 35,000 people in 32 countries playing in structured competitions of Australian football outside of Australia.
Australian Football Hall of Fame
For the centenary of the VFL/AFL in 1996, the Australian Football Hall of Fame was established. In that year 136 identities were inducted, including 100 players, 10 coaches, 10 umpires, 10 administrators and six media representatives.
The elite Legend status was bestowed on 12 members of the Hall of Fame in 1996: Ron Barassi, Haydn Bunton Sr., Roy Cazaly, John Coleman, Jack Dyer, Polly Farmer, Leigh Matthews, John Nicholls, Bob Pratt, Dick Reynolds, Bob Skilton and Ted Whitten. The Legend status is the highest honour which can be bestowed on an Australian footballer.
The following fourteen members have been promoted to the status of “Legend” since 1996: Ian Stewart (1997), Gordon Coventry (1998), Peter Hudson (1999), Kevin Bartlett (2000), Barrie Robran (2001), Bill Hutchison (2003), Jock McHale (2005), Darrel Baldock (2006), Norm Smith (2007), Alex Jesaulenko (2008), Kevin Murray (2010), Barry Cable (2012), Tony Lockett (2015) and Malcolm Blight (2017).
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