Last weekend I went to the stadium to see a game of football. Or should I say ‘footy’. What people call football here is quite different from what football is in Peru. I have tried to explain to locals, for the sake of naming things right, that, as the name suggests, football is something that requires foot (or feet) and a ball. But that won’t do, they love this sport to death, which is to say the exact same way I love football (the one that requires only foot and a ball).
Especially in Melbourne, where most teams that play in the AFL come from, footy is hugely popular. It’s on the headlines every day since the season began and at the end of it there is a parade where the champions can be seen driving around the city centre. When I arrived last year it was the time of the finals. My first ‘social presentation’ in Melbourne was a BBQ party at one of Mel’s friends’ places to watch the final. There I learnt some of the rules and enjoyed a great game between Geelong and Collingwood.
Australian Football seems to me as a hybrid between Rugby and the other football (soccer). According to Wikipedia, it is related to Gaellic (Irish) football, which would be little surprise considering it dates back from the 1850’s when many Irish, among other nationalities, came to Melbourne to work in the nearby gold mines. I have heard from locals that ‘footy’ started as a way of using the cricket fields the ‘other’ half of the year they were not used–in winter. But also to keep cricketeers fit. You see, cricket is a sport that requires good weather as games can go on for days (that’s right, DAYS…and they call soccer boring?!), so the cricket season takes place during the best time of the year, summer. While ‘footy’ can be played in the same ground (an oval) as a cricket game and weather is not such a big deal for it since players are constantly running. They in fact run an average 17Km per game.
It is played with an oval ball in an oval field, of which there are plenty distributed around the city. There is one just a block from my place and many others not far. You have 2 teams, each with 18 players and each team has a goal, like that of rugby, with 4 long posts standing, the 2 middle ones longer. If the ball passes through the center is a 6 point goal and if it bounces through the sides is a 1 point goal. To carry the ball there the players can run with it, but they must bounce it every few steps. Or they may kick it or send it with their hand by hitting the bottom of the ball held on the opposite hand. It requires a lot of strategy and speed to get to the other goal, and while some games can be fast and exciting, others might be slow and boring.
On Saturday my friend Julio, also from Peru, asked me to go with him to see a game and though hesitant at first I decided to join him. What better way to spend the weekend and get to see an important aspect of life in Melbourne? As another friend of mine,Henry, who used to be a guide in Peru used to say “when visiting a place make sure you go to the market, the church and the main square to learn the different aspects of local life” and he was right but the rules are different here where there are no main squares (not in the sense they are in Latin America) and religion is much less popular. I would in fact replace religion for footy here in my friend’s formula, which sounds also appropriate for Latin America where people approach both in a very similar way: fanatically.
The clash on Saturday was a fun, fast-paced game between Saint Kilda Saints and Sydney Swans, two of the oldest teams in the league. It took place in a packed Etihad Stadium, with capacity for 55 thousand people; very pretty stadium I must say. I’m not sure what would happen if stadiums in Peru had sliding doors and TV monitors all around. I say that because in my country football is usually associated with the lower demographic and it is quite common to hear of riots and hooligan confrontations. Many end in deaths, like the case of a young man who was thrown off a box earlier this year.Surprisingly, in Melbourne the association is the same and it is just very funny to me to see these different societies tagging themselves in the same way. If an Aussie ‘bogan’ met a Peruvian ‘barrista’ (hooligan) what would they say to each other? Of course this is just a portion of the people who attend the stadium, and, like everywhere else, parents go with their kids, so I don’t mean to generalise, just to play with the clichés.
Julio, who has been living in Australia longer than I, was explaining further to me the rules and I think I get it now, I think I am a fan of footy. He was supporting the Swans since he lives in Sydney, and I was supporting St Kilda. How funny is that? Two foreigners choosing their teams of ‘footy’, is that assimilated enough for you? I might have become a fan of footy but I refuse to call it ‘football’.
And yet what I saw was families together, friends drinking beers, people screaming, supporting their team and enjoying their sport just as passionately as we enjoy ‘our’ football. And then it dawned on me that this must be a big and important part of Victorian, if not Australian, life. I have been to concerts, clubs, events and never people seemed as excited to me as they seemed that Saturday at the stadium. They were spontaneously enjoying the game. It seemed to me like I had noticed an important part of being aussie. And it´s exactly what football, or footy, our football, or fútbol, or soccer, does to people– it brings them together. That’s the beauty of it, you forget where you come from, where you are, and just enjoy the sport.