Illustration: Jim PavlidisFINAL WORD
“AUSTRALIAN football is a superior sport,” wrote academic and author Stephen Alomes in last Saturday’s grand final edition of The Age, and you can be sure that even before the ink was dry on this quaint and beautiful form of media, a fatwa had been issued against him.
”Footy is multifaceted in its skills and in roles for different body types,” continued Alomes, ”and exciting in its continuous play.”
He enlisted to his cause, among others, the great English multi-international C.B. Fry, who declared the Australian game ”the finest form of football”.
Alomes was not picking an argument but making a nuanced case for the AFL to think and act dynamically to guarantee its future. None the less, I am sure he got an argument.
In this country, the most fragmented football nation on earth, and at this time, the overlap of seasons, it is an argument that recurs predictably. There was a bout this week on Facebook, and even before the last pixel was formed on that new and racy form of media, you can be sure a fatwa was issued. In the southern states, the argument is confined to two codes, AFL and soccer, terms which themselves provoke argument, since one is the name of a competition and the other a diminutive of association football. Both are rejected by purists, but to our mind help to make a non-pejorative distinction.
Both codes claim seniority. This is murky territory. Each code evolved, rather than was invented, so carbon-dating is not helpful.
Soccer in England predates white-settled Australia, but some Australian clubs are at least as old as any in England, and the Australian game was codified first. Both emerged in their recognisable modern forms in the middle of the 19th century. All that can be said, almost safely, is that rugby preceded both.
Then there is scale. Soccer is the biggest game in the world by far. It manifested at the height of British cultural imperialism, and quickly caught on around the globe. AC Milan, for instance, was formed by three English expats as the Milan Cricket and Football Club, still sports the flag of St George on it crest, and still is called Milan, not Milano. Like tales exist everywhere.
But almost as if to symbolise resistance to empire, soccer did not take root in the US, Ireland – which until not so long ago imposed a sanction against even watching soccer – and Australia. All developed their own codes. Here, soccer is the biggest as measured by registered participants, but is not the biggest in any one market.
Globally, ever-growing popularity testifies to its enduring charms. But size of itself is not intrinsic proof of worthiness, or else China would be the answer to everything (come to think of it, in cricket, India is!).
Inherent in the tension between the codes in this country is the certainty that soccer is never going to take over (as distinct from take its place in) Australia, and AFL is never going to take over the world (despite fervent protagonists for both causes). It means each code’s disposition is a mix of superiority and inferiority complexes, certain of its supremacy, but puzzled that not everyone recognises it. Some soccerites argue about fame and money, fatuously, for these are contingencies of scale. Some AFL-ists argue crowd sizes as proof of their code, also dubiously. Generally, because AFL is played on a bigger arena, it is played in bigger stadiums. Does anyone doubt that Manchester United would fill the MCG every week if it had an MCG?
Passion and culture, as measures of a code’s merit, are too subjective. Followers of every sport think themselves the most passionate. I would argue that New Zealand rugby fans top the table. As for a sport’s culture, arguably it is shaped by the society around it, for better and worse, so is not a discrete reflection of the sport’s virtue.
As for spectacle, each beholder’s eye is impossibly different. Alomes argues classically for Australian football because it ”values attack over defence, and lacks an off-side rule”, but acknowledges that the parameters are changing, and that an all-codes defensive hegemony threatens.
I would say the most prized quality in the game now is a plebeian one: industry. In that context, try to imagine how Balkans-born writer Aleksandar Hemon might see Australian football. ”Victory in soccer should never be a consequence of hard work,” he wrote. ”Rather, it should always be a kind of epiphany, an act of magic, unlearned and inexplicable.” He was picking not between codes but countries, adding: ”That is why I have always hated German soccer.”
I suspect Hemon would like AFL. Most who like sport and have an open mind do. Appreciation is reciprocated almost universally. On the night of his 300th game, Jude Bolton went home to ice down ”and watch the English Premier League”.
The argument, such as it is, is not between aficionados but zealots. Possibly, they are all wrong anyway, and the right answer is hurling.
Fatwa servers, this is not my address.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.