Illustration: Ike Curtis, @ike_curtis
After ruminating over this for far too long, I’ve determined that the immense popularity of Australian football can be defined by three key factors.
First, it is those moments that give you a piloerection. It starts with a tingle down your spine and a chill that penetrates through your body. Then, tiny white bumps from your neck through to your arms.
The pinnacle of the game is, without question, the spectacular grab. For a brief yet transcendent moment there is a feeling that time and gravity have been suspended, when a player, through a conduit of another player’s shoulders, leaps to the stars to mark the football. It’s never properly captured on television: to truly appreciate these hangers, you just have to be in attendance.
Or the spectacular goal, where the ball twists and turns on its sinuous route from the contours of the forward fifty to the goals, or, defying all realms of probability, travels half a field in order to sail through the goals.
It is the moments of trepidation and anticipatory silence, followed by a collective roar by 80,000, 90,000, 100,000 people that reverberates around Melbourne’s venerated colosseum—the MCG—just before the start of a critical game. It is the unwarranted sense of accomplishment in singing the song after your team wins a hard-fought battle. Those bone-crunching tackles, those game-turning one-percenters and those ‘BALLLLLLL’ moments.
The second factor that makes footy so popular in Melbourne is that it is so successful at doing what religion strives to do: breaking down social strata (if only for the duration of a match) and unifying people. There are few things in this city that allow for strangers to come together like football, even if it is only in order to berate the opposition or (more likely) a team player.
For me, as a long-suffering Carlton supporter, these moments of unity are frequently shared. Of course, the game can be just as exclusionary as it is inclusionary: the vernacular deriving from football—specky, BALLLLL, banana, crumber, don’t argue—become a wonderful sort of shibboleth.
Footy provides water-cooler and icebreaker talk that can alleviate tension between two people with little else in common. It provides the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than yourself, that is also—fortuitously—not harmful (unless, of course, you are a Carlton supporter. That takes a severe toll on your mental wellbeing).
The third aspect that makes football so immensely popular is the incorrigible and seemingly interminable wait for premierships. It is unfair, but teams don’t win premierships cyclically. For some lucky supporters, it comes in frequent bursts. For other supporters, the wait is never broken. But when it happens…
Well, actually, I have no idea. As a Carlton supporter, I’m still waiting for that day