The Finest Form of Football

In the early 1900s, the England Test cricket captain C. B. Fry was touring Australia. A talented sporting all-rounder he had already equalled the world-record for the long jump, been an England soccer international, a senior rugby player and had received a first class honours degree in classics at Oxford. This Renaissance sportsman observed regarding the indigenous Australian sport Australian Football, that

The Australian game is easily the finest form of football ever invented – the most athletic to play and the most exciting to watch (quoted in Australia’s Yesterdays, 1974: 178).

This paper argues that the Australian game should be seen as a cultural form of significance and even as an art. The fact that the game is not considered as either, even sometimes by those who in their avocational hours are ardent followers, may be the product of a lack of thought, inadequate research, or the product of a cultural divide between the arts and sport, and therefore aesthetics and sport. Perhaps it is the product of a peculiarly Australian capacity for a kind of colonial self-assessment and sometimes self-denigration, even in relation to ‘the finest form of football ever invented’?

The paper seeks to demonstrate the forces that have shaped this great omission, this social and cultural myopia, and the evidence that qualifies it. Consider first the cultural divide in Australia, between ‘the arts’ and ‘sport’, which contrasts with the ancient Greek view that, more thoughtfully, saw both categories of human activity as arts as well as cultural pursuits. Consider then the artistic skills of the game. Consider, in contrast, its reflection in the arts in Australia and its deployment as myth, metaphor and allegory, a qualification to the normal cultural myopia about a sport as an art. Finally, consider the ‘lie’, that Australian Football is not only marginalised by the institutions of the intelligentsia, but is seen as an inferior form (of art) to other sports (which have been considered as art), ones supported by imperial, class and global myths. The theme of this discussion is Australian Football as an art form, as an art form on the field, as captured in the arts, and as an artistic and allegorical narrative for society and culture.

Sport as Art: Greek Ideals and Australian Realities

Even in the globalising 21st century Western societies see themselves as partially founded on Greek and Roman civilisations. In the ancient Greek athletic ideal, as expressed in the Olympics, the games were a festival of sport and culture. In the ancient Greek Olympics the Greek word athletes meant to contend for a prize or participate in a contest (athlos meaning contest and athlon meaning prize), that is a ‘competitor’. In the ancient Olympics contests were held in poetry, music and drama as well as on the field of sport (Young, 1984: 125). In the Australian situation, with a European inheritance and a colonial/colonising experience, the arts and sport have been seen as distant and different. It is as if there is a demilitarised zone, if not a Berlin wall or a kind of ‘apartheid’, separating the arts and sport.

That reality was discerned by the journalist Wanda Jamrozik, who reflected on a great divide in Australian society: the great cultural divide that says that if you can read, you can’t be into sport (in Alomes and Stewart, 1998: 45).

Some writers challenged such views. However distinguished they remained voices in the wilderness in a society divided into two cultures, even though a minority of men and women loved both with fervour. Speaking of his childhood, youth and adult staple, Rugby League, the writer Tom Keneally remarked that

To me, sport is part of the arts. It comes from the same area of the human imagination that the arts come from. I love Rugby League, because it’s a model of life. It is a model for politics, love, territory, fraternity, everything else (ABC, Talking Heads, 2007).

That divide is compounded by the fact that Australia is a colonial country, albeit a settler/invader colony and a subject colony for Indigenous Australians. Its intellectual elites, home-grown and imported, value the metropolitan over the local and assume that the physicality of sport denies its artistic qualities. Colonial countries value both everyday material achievement and, in contrast, metropolitan status in culture, rather than talent or the indigenous achievements in the arts and other fields. In cultural spheres, colonial countries exist in a dependent as well as derivative relationship to imperial countries, whether the technical form is provincial/metropolitan or is rendered as periphery/centre as well as colonial/imperial. As a result of this dependent relationship, colonial countries export talent, not culture. In theatre and film, Australia has exported: actors, from Peter Finch and Judith Anderson to Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana; directors, from Bruce Beresford to Fred Schepisi (who takes his football videos on location) as well as scriptwriters, rather than films and plays. In music, our exports have continued, from Nellie Melba to Joan Sutherland and Charles Mackerras to John Williams and after, and in art, from Arthur Streeton to Sidney Nolan and beyond (Alomes, 1999).

Other popular myths about culture, class and gender ensure that Australian Football is not recognised as the superior and sophisticated game that it is. A priori views, prejudices deeply grounded in respectable society, cast aspersions on the game, even despite its cross-class and cross-gender appeal.

The Art of Australian Football

Consider the following artistic permutations and reflections of the Australian game, as communal festival, as a metaphor for life, and as an aesthetic form:

  • The art of football as a communal celebration. It is a form of social theatre, with its performers, chorus and arena and its social divides and tensions and their partial resolution in achievements and victories and defeat. In these respects, it mirrors the seasons of life, from youth to age as well as the seasons of the year. It has become an ongoing festival celebrating the sun of autumn, taking people through the depths of winter and into the spring of vitality and hope, and then finally to thoughts of ‘next year’…
  • The art of football and meaning. Football is not just a story of seasons of success and failure on the field. It becomes a metaphor for the seasons of experience, invoking the fluctuating fortunes of life, the impact of the Fates, the seeming deus ex machina off the field (chance, injuries, political tensions) and on the field, the umpires and key moments of error, in the tale of a quest for justice, as well as significance and success.…
  • The art of football and beauty, the aesthetics of the game as played. This encompasses the visual beauty of the high mark, the perfect pass, the goal from an impossible angle, the subtlety of team play, the drama of the final timely tackle, and the exhilaration, spectacle and drama of a creative running game in the most multi-faceted of all football spectacles. Today this merges into a different aesthetic, a director’s or grand architect’s aesthetic: the arts of design, creativity and execution in a new global world of sporting plays and strategies, many drawing on new ideas from other sports and made possible by new levels of aerobic athleticism.

The cultural significance of the Australian game is implicitly understood by millions. However, rarely is it made explicit or broadcast to a wider audience. In more protean words than C. B. Fry, the legendary master coach and lateral thinker Kevin Sheedy declared, in the tones of his generation, in regard to the inability to export the game on a large scale: ‘We’ve got rock n’ roll but we don’t know how to sell it!’

The Lie of the Ball

In terms of this subject, we might ask ‘where is the lie?’

The lie is a dual one. In a country afflicted by the colonial cultural cringe it is assumed, first, that sport is inferior to all forms of art and, second, that the ‘Australian’ and the Australian game are inferior to sports, as well as art forms, derived from overseas, from the imported, the ‘international’.

Australian Football, Australia’s most popular form of football, however high its profile in the media (covered by more journalists and news crews than Federal politics), however high it is held in the emotions of its millions of followers, is often left off the cultural map.

The colonial cultural cringe is deeply rooted in the Australian psyche and in a culture in which the elite of the colonial invaders look to overseas for significance, an orientation which is shaped for a larger constituency and which is accepted and even at times endorsed by much of the population (Phillips, 1958; Alomes, 1999: 4-11, 19-23, 116-131, 247-255).

The second lie, the parallel view that Australian Football is inferior, and sometimes specifically perceived as inferior to other ‘international’ sports such as rugby and soccer, follows from the colonial cultural cringe. There is a social class dimension regarding rugby union (as it is called in Australia) with its social class-driven claims to be the ‘the game they play in Heaven’, while soccer’s claim to be the ‘world game’ offers a different geographical dimension. Such coloured misperceptions also appeal to some immigrants and to those elites who feel sceptical about Australian popular culture or simply have other primary ‘metropolitan’ identifications, in the first case a product of their formative experiences and values learned in other places. While there is an argument that sport unduly dominates Australian media and public debate, the view expressed by one caller to ABC radio in Melbourne had some dubious a priori assumptions and prejudices: ‘I am of European origin. We are people with brains. We want stimulation, not “Up There Cazaly” 24 hours a day’ (ABC 774, Jon Faine program: 14 March 2000).

Australian Football as an Art Form on the Field

Before discussing the aesthetic skills of the game, it is necessary to refute a related lie, one ancillary to the first lies – lies of class, colonialism and culture, noted above.

That lie is an international lie which has become a global lie, an increasingly hegemonic lie in our current global times. It is the most powerful marketing coup in sport today, a blow which has been as powerful as it is deceptive.

That lie is the assertion, the assumption, the cliché, that soccer is ‘the beautiful game’. The problem with the myth is that it confuses magical moments, sublime stars (Pele, Zinedine Zidane) and dream teams (Brazil and also several Cameroons World Cup teams) with the game as a whole. The ‘beautiful game’ is Brazilian soccer and ‘Jogo Bonito’, as it is called in Portuguese, is itself in retreat, except from the magical few superstars, as European-trained coaches emphasise disciplines and efficiencies which are concerned with winning, rather than beauty. The mechanical reality of English or German soccer in the 1980s-1990s confirms that soccer as played is often a percentage game with only rare moments of magic which break out of the formation play which minimises errors. It is a game with less opportunities for creative transcendence of the structured pattern than Australian Football. Even the often intoxicated soccer aficionado, Damien Lovelock, has remarked that ‘not everyone likes English soccer… a triathlon with a ball’, a game played in terms of kicking it around, a long kick and then a shot (ABC Radio National breakfast: 25 August 2007).

Like basketball, soccer has two main forms of appeal. One, it has been spread from the imperial power of the day (in soccer, originally the UK, in basketball from the USA). Two, like McDonalds or Coca-Cola, it has global coverage. Underlying all of these, whether in sport or in tastes on the palate, is simplicity. Soccer and basketball are above all simple games that can be played by anyone at any time almost anywhere. Any round ball will do for an improvised game.

However, in a false transmutation, demographic reach is associated with power and cultural significance which is then transformed into sophistication as well as a deeper significance. Few would make a similar argument regarding global cuisine, whereby reach is transformed into quality. It is not that McDonalds and Coke are the finest foods in the world, just that they are amongst the most available, have bright and recognisable packaging and branding, and have the status associated with global spread. Starbucks, with its high profile corner shops, its claims to modishness and its unfortunate ‘American’ standard of coffee, follows in their wake.

Faced with such ‘culinary’ choices in sport, it is wise to choose finer fare.

A Superior Form of Sporting Art: The Aesthetics of the Game

The artistic qualities of the Australian game are often forgotten as it is treated in stereotypes, even archetypal pictures of footballers as physical, as unthinking ‘jocks’ (to use the American term), as uncultured athletes whose skills only begin below the neck.

The problem with the stereotype is that it is simply wrong. The picture of footballers as physical only leaves out the many teachers who have become coaches (Robert Walls, David Parkin), the historians who strapped on the boots as an undergraduate (Henry Reynolds perhaps learning something about equity and harmony in the University of Tasmania football team), the author and prime ministerial speechwriter Don Watson who played for Melbourne University Reds with the novelist Laurie Clancy and the poet Jamie Grant. In the game at a higher level in recent years AFL players have included: Brendan Gale (Richmond ruckman, MA in Asian Studies, CEO of the AFL Players Association – favourite book Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment), James Clement (Collingwood full back and MBA), Peter Bell (North Melbourne rover and Fremantle captain, entrepreneur, law graduate) and the CEO of the AFL, Andrew Demetriou (former North Melbourne player, La Trobe BA, and successful entrepreneur). A host of veterinary surgeons, physiotherapists, podiatrists, physical education teachers and graduates at large help make up the larger cast. Some, such as the Hawthorn recruit Tony Wilson (career truncated by injury) have gone on to be novelists and broadcasters, while Rupert Betheras, both at Collingwood and after, has been an exhibiting artist.

Yet popular myths persist, stereotyping footballers and the game. The game is nasty and brutish, if not short, and the players are devoid of intellectual interests or of creative sensitivities. This resembles the erroneous view which gathered around the Australian heavy rock band Cold Chisel in the 1980s and 1990s. Because of its appeal to young, and supposedly boozy, men, and the Jimmy Barnes persona as a gravelly-voiced hard-singing, hard-drinking heavy rocker, other artistic elements were ignored: the social and political content of Don Walker’s lyrics, the musical nuances of the tunes and the subtlety of Ian Moss on lead guitar were all forgotten or de facto rejected. Such simple associations between vigour, intensity and inferiority are not ones which are habitually applied to either Graeco-Roman wrestling or to Richard Wagner, or even, traditionally in the pre-professional era, to rugby union with its the higher social class-endorsement. Yet, regarding Australian Football, erroneous myths persist.

Consider the superior athletic skills of the Australian game, many of which contrast with the other codes of football:

  • The range of bodily types playing the game
  • The interaction of speed, size (large and small) and strength
  • The mix of hand and foot skills including marking, handpassing and kicking
  • The skills in tackling
  • The team skills, the orchestrated creativity of the team, and in contrast the role of the individual player in breaking the conventions – the frontier creativity of the game, based on impulse and energy rather than regulation
  • The skills expressed as a language of the ball, especially as displayed by some Indigenous players and also by many players from the country.

Football as Poetry

Consider the aesthetics of the game at a level higher than the execution of skill, its capacity to inspire and excite. The high mark is the most spectacular of all forms in any code of football. It even provides the model for two pale imitations, rugby union’s strange assisted leaps in the line-out and soccer’s most spectacular photos, of leaping and diving goalies. The lifted posteriors of heavy rugby forwards and even the leaps of agile goalies are in fact poor imitations, as is the cult moment of another sport, the slam dunk in basketball where very tall men rise a couple of feet off the ground to put the ball down into the net.

The high mark is physical and spiritual, also expressing the human aspiration to fly. In the words of the popular football anthem, ‘Up There Cazaly’, to ‘fly like an angel’, and its moments are preserved and celebrated, if not immortalised, in film and photography.

Its examples include the balletic leaps of Alex Jesaulenko, with a suggestion of the athleticism of Mikhail Baryshnikov. ‘Jezza’s’ aerial display was complemented by a Russian/Ukrainian hauteur of visage, after Rudolf Nureyev, and by his balletic movement on the ground.

Indigenous beauty: flying high amongst the gum tees,
Aberfeldie vs Keilor Park 16 June 2007
( S. Alomes)

Many players have also expressed the beauty of the game on the ground. A halcyon few have included the magician, the Tasmanian Darrell Baldock, a cluster of Indigenous and silkily skilled talent, including Maurice Rioli, Michael Long and the poetry in motion of Andrew McLeod. The forward line wizardry of the Macedonian Marvel, Peter Daicos was mirrored in the centre of the game by the running dance of Melbourne’s Robert Flower.

The poetry of the Australian game was captured by Manfred Jurgensen, pioneering publisher of multicultural literature and holder of a personal chair at the University of Queensland. Also a former Carlton reserves player, poet, writer, he captured the spirituality and the aesthetics of football:

There were Saturdays when the game turned into poetry for both the team and the crowd. The ball was recited in a metre of inevitable beauty. For once there was precision, even among supporters. And I went home alone, kicking words, booed by the barracking of dusk.‘Not a game,’ I began, ‘but old dreams re-enacted. In its drama of endeavour, life became the ballgame it reflected. High marks in the Never-Never. Suddenly its meaning depends on a kick twenty metres out dead in front’ (quoted in Alomes, 1994: 53-4).

The poet and fellow exile in the then football desert of Queensland, Bruce Dawe, found the religion not in the aesthetics of the game but in the tradition. In the popular poem, ‘Life-Cycle’, he celebrates the football life from cradle to grave:

When children are born in Victoria
They are wrapped in the club colours, laid in beribboned cots,
having already begun a lifetime’s barracking,
Cam. they cry. Carn … feebly at first.

Other religious odes (ANZAC) and regions are echoed in a reflection on the passing of the years:

They will not grow old as those from more northern states grow old.
For them it will always be three-quarter time
With the scores level and wind advantage in the final term.

He finds individual and social regeneration in football:

That passion persisting, like a race-memory, through the welter of seasons, enabling old-timers by boundary fences to dream of resurgent lions and centaur-figures from the past to replenish continually the present (Alomes, 1994: 54).

Australian Football in the Arts: Different Names, Many Cultures

The history of Australian Football is also the story of Australian artists, writers, playwrights and historians as well as of footballers and supporters. It is a story both of significant overlap between creative spirits in different spheres and of the exploration of life through the allegory of sport.

In the 1920s, the great anthropologist F. Baldwin Spencer, then at Melbourne University, was President of the VFL. In the 1950s, a big solid Carlton ruckman, Dick Pratt, won the 1951 Morrish Medal for the best and fairest in the VFL Under-19s. Later, he went off to perform on several other stages, in 1957 amongst the cast of what was then seen as the first internationally recognised Australian play, and therefore ‘THE great Australian play’, The Summer of the 17th Doll in London. He would become a successful businessman and an arts and social philanthropist, while maintaining his support for Carlton Football Club. Different was Ted Hopkins, a Carlton player of premiership distinction off the field, the blonde-haired mop top goalkicker of 1970, who went on to become first a concrete poet and a publisher and then the supreme guru of a different art form, football statistics, through Champion Data

A Fine Art

In the arts, the history is an old one, dating back to Arthur Streeton’s painting ‘The National Game’ of 1889, when ‘National’ still meant the colony, rather than the nation. The ball and the palette came together again when one of the exercises in figure painting for young artists at the National Gallery school from the 1920s to the 1940s might be the painting of football. Several important works, notably those by Noel Counihan of the high mark, emerged between the wars. Other artists who explored football, sometimes only in one work, included Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Mary Alice Evatt, Fred Williams, Danny Moynihan and the artist, sage and cartoonist, Michael Leunig.

More recently, football and art became the theme of two art shows: Eyes on the Ball, a major travelling exhibition at the time of the AFL centenary in 1996, opening at the Waverley City Gallery and curated by Chris McAuliffe; and an AFL-sponsored centenary art exhibition, featuring several Aboriginal works including major paintings by Ginger Riley, in the National Tennis Centre, just across from the MCG. Another Indigenous artist Malcolm Jagamarra had also mixed his creative mediums, playing football for North Adelaide in the early 1970s. In the early 21st century, the West Australian Rupert Betheras, who played in Collingwood’s losing 2002 Grand Final side, is an exhibiting artist who expressed a new professional aspiration after leaving football: ‘I have been a professional athlete before and I feel the next phase for me is to be a professional again, in art’ (ArtsHub website, 2007).

A new annual exhibition held every September during the finals over several years at the Artists Garden nursery and gallery in Fitzroy was another vehicle for the revival of football art. The annual thematic exhibition which, led by Gary James (aka Spook), encouraged more subversive accounts of the players, the supporters and the strange worlds surrounding the game.

Other expressions included the commissioning of a range of football art works to enhance the new Great Southern Stand at the MCG in the early 1990s, and, driven by marketing as well as sporting culture, the Australia Post 1996 AFL Centenary football stamps, with illustrations by Brian Clinton.

In August 2004, in association with Geoff Slattery’s publication The Spirit of Football, the National Gallery of Victoria hosted a competitive prize exhibition, prompting the Ageart critic Robert Nelson to reflect:

A timely exhibition at the NGV Australia reminds me, however, that the dichotomy of art and sport is maybe a bit artificial. After all, lots of people love both, and chief among them are artists themselves. They often have plenty to say about football; and some actually played it in their misspent youth, whereupon, with tribal recalcitrance, they even make art about it (Nelson, 2004).

Like the Artists Garden exhibitions, the 2004 NGV exhibition gave a new range of artists an opportunity to take to the canvas which joined art and football, and in each case art explored the football experience in the new media era, as well as the game itself (The Spirit of Football, 2004: 106-159).

In one of those meetings of different worlds, as football and money had met in the last decades of the 20th century, so did art and money. A new Basil Sellers Art Prize was created for works of art exploring sport. Donated by the former Sydney Swans backer, business saviour and stalwart over two decades, the $100,000 prize administered by the Ian Potter Gallery was initiated in 2007, with the first award announced in 2008.

Sometimes, football mattered almost as much as art. The 2003 Archibald Prize winner, Tasmanian artist Geoff Dyer, who had played for North Hobart and then been a journeyman footballer as he taught around the state, recalled that he did not feel at home in Sydney until the arrival of the Sydney Swans. He lived in Sydney in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a struggling painter, and later reflected on his sense of disorientation until the new Sydney VFL team came to Sydney in 1982: ‘when I walked into the SCG I suddenly felt that I was part of the country again, to be part of the ritual was very important. It gave me a grounding’ (ABC Radio Sport: 22 June 2003).

Kicking Goals on the Page: Literature, Film and Music

It is often accurately assumed that cricket has a narrative face, but not football. Despite the popular appeal of the narrative of cricket, the traditional tale of a season or summer in England/Australia, and the massive proliferation of cricket books, far outnumbering the popular hero, club, premiership genres of footy books, there is a small, but rich, literature of football fiction. In fact, some would say, that as with fishing or with politics, the game is indeed a collection of stories…of fictions…of premierships and victories which got away.

That story, along with fiction and non-fiction books and films and videos on football, has been documented in Tim Hogan’s bibliographical study, Reading the Game (2005). Football novels include Alan O’Toole’s The Coach from the City (1967), Barry Oakley’sA Salute to the Great McCarthy (1970, 1974), Robert Bennett’s simpler study of a president’s egotistical persona, The Big Ruck (1974) and Peter Fitzpatrick and Barbara Wenzel’s football thriller, Death in the Back Pocket (1993). Vignettes, often in part memoirs, are many. They include such works as Brian Mathews Oval Dreams (1991), on growing up in St Kilda, and a host of memories in the collection The Greatest Game(1988), whose contributors include Manning Clark, Archie Weller, Gerald Murnane, Oriel Gray, Jack Hibberd, and co-editor Ross Fitzgerald. Also included might be John Harms’ prose, in Loose Men Everywhere (2002) and the romantic writings of Martin Flanagan, including Southern Sky Western Oval (1994), on his year with the Dogs, a year at Footscray; the same subject became the theme of Michael Cordell’s separate and powerful documentary film, A Year with the Dogs (1997). The playwright John Powers wrote the non-fiction study, The Coach: A Season with Ron Barassi (1978), documenting the drama of Barassi’s 1977 premiership year at North Melbourne. A darker side of the game, expressing the racism of country town Australia, is shown in Philip Gwynne’s novel Deadly Unna (1998) while Tony Wilson’s Players (2005) explores the culture of the Channel Nine ‘Footy Show’ genre of football media (Hogan, 2005:133-136).

A rising genre complements youthful football autobiography with football novels for younger readers. Clinton Walker and Matthew Hardy wrote accounts of 1960s and 1970s childhoods growing up with football, the latter becoming a successful stage show in which his Saturday Afternoon Fever (1999) seemed at times more exciting, and certainly more amusing, than John Travolta’s film and dance, Saturday Night Fever. The popular footy novel for boys has included the series by Felice Arena and former Demon champion Garry Lyon, the Specky Magee books, which have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, beginning with Specky Magee & the Great Footy Contest (2003). Other adolescent and young teen novels have included Pete Macfarlane’s Adelaide football novel, More than a Game (1999) and Wendy Jenkins’ Fremantle tales, Killer Boots (1996) and The Big Game (1998), and Cheryl Critchley’s story of a girl footballer,Still Kicking (2006) (see Hogan, 2005:137). Something similar, but also entirely different, is Vietnamese comedian and Carlton supporter Hung Le’s account of ethnic generational challenges crossed with post-modern ‘Asian’ fantasy football in his book for a later generation, Barry Noodles and DaKillerBs (2005).

The poetry of the game has inspired over forty poets, including most notably Bruce Dawe, Philip Hodgins and Alan Wearne (Hogan, 2005: 141-145). In addition, a host of ‘potato poets’, would-be rhymers with wit to greater or lesser degree, furnish lyrics for the Coodabeen Champion singer Greg Champion’s remaking of popular songs, harnessed to tell the stories of football.

In the words – in music – of Paul Kelly, himself a desperate enthusiast as a young player and football follower in Adelaide, the game has progressed in ‘leaps and bounds’ (Frawley, 2006). Football and music come together in music. Songs include, Weddings Parties Anything’s saga of post-mortem debates, ‘Monday’s Experts’, other songs by Dave Warner from the West, as well as the suburbs. In words, the footballing memories of a number of singers and musicians, including Paul Kelly, Mick Thomas and opera singer David Hobson, are recorded in Brian Nankervis’ book and video, Boys and Balls(1994).

Football is about movement as well as theatre, and such has been explored in film as well as in the many videos of matches, great marks, great moments, great hits and even football history. Documentary studies of the game’s new inclusiveness have included: Miriam Cannell’s Game Girls (1997), on women in football; Megan Spencer’s more confronting account of the wild boys of the Outer, Heathens (1994) , a study of those non-Saints, the occupants of the cage at Moorabbin, in the last years of the VFL; Black Magic (1988), an account of Aboriginal footballers in the West, the Nyoongahs from Narrogin in the south-west, and their journey to Subiaco and the football grounds of Melbourne; and Year of the Dogs (1997) and other documentaries about women’s football and about the US footy championships (Hogan, 2005:87-103).

Feature films have made a mixed contribution. The film of David Williamson’s play The Club (1980) is a tour de force, an exploration of the politics of football and of old board members and young players with different worldviews. Unfortunately, the film, The Great McCarthy (1975) is, if not a tour de farce, an attempted rendering of Oakley’s picaresque account of the game by film-makers more in sympathy with South Melbourne advertising culture than with South Melbourne’s football traditions. It is one of those cases of two different cultures not meeting, where Oakley’s picaresque humour in the novel is turned into caricature in the film. A product of the artificial cultural divide identified by Wanda Jamrozik, it is also not a good film.

Theatre and the Agon of Footy

Peter Fitzpatrick, the distinguished student of Australian drama, has written about Australian Football as theatre, in part from his own position in the chorus, as a long-suffering Geelong supporter who has seen hopes rise and hopes dashed in the Agon of the game.

In his understanding, football matches are shaped, theatrically and emotionally, by a time, a place, a structure comparable with a well-made play, although worked out in four quarters rather than three acts:

The fact that football and most other games are, like theatre, time arts, is fundamental to the construction of the narrative to come. Henry James, after the particularly grisly premiere of his mediocre melodrama Guy Domville, complained that theatre is really a bastard art because of those crude constraints of time. Its duration was determined not by the organic needs of the subject, but by the need to delay the start until eight o’clock, and to have everyone out of the theatre before eleven. Who could possibly construct a sublime and memorable occasion, he rhetorically demanded, that was bounded by “dinner and the suburban trains”? Well, Shakespeare, we could begin to reply, and Gary Ablett also. And Brecht and Bunton (I imagine), and, yes, even Andrew Lloyd Webber and Billy Brownless. In two and a half-hours, a little more or a little less, a human drama is to be played out. Those who watch it, at least as much as those who perform it, will ride an emotional roller-coaster that for many of them will continue beyond the final curtain or siren; they will recall and relive its moments, whether delighted or profoundly disturbed, long into the night and the days that follow.

The plot structure of the game, like that of the well-made play, has essentially three phases; explication, complication and denouement. The conflict is set in motion, its critical agents defined; the lines of decisive development, the key players and potential impulses toward resolution, then emerge and interact finally, one set of forces brings the action to its conclusion, perhaps with a powerful sense of necessity, or (sometimes) with a tantalising ambiguity that seems to defy the closure which has been imposed upon it (Fitzpatrick, 1998:30).

He argues that the dictionary definition of ‘dramatic’ is recognisable to football lovers as well as theatregoers: ‘… a series of actions or course of events having a unity like that of drama, and leading to a final catastrophe or consummation.’ As the narrative unfolds, with its alternative possibilities, emotions rise and spectators participate vicariously ‘in the human triumph or disaster that is being played out before them’ (Fitzpatrick, 1998: 30).

This is the Agon, the struggle, the battle with adversaries and with the Fates. Morally, this sporting agon is also about the implacable forces, about the Fates and Justice, about the illusion of Free Will and the reality of the larger forces of Determinism

In his reflections, even ‘victory is more often something secured against the odds, a quirky defiance of the devious ploys of the opposition and umpires, a moment of order snatched against entropy.’ Even defeat, with its suggestion of injustice, is seen as the result of the Fates, often implemented by devils traditionally dressed in white, the umpires (Fitzpatrick, 1998: 31).

It is a tale of tragedy, sometimes of the work of the Fates or the Gods, sometimes of a fatal flaw, a coaching error, an injured player, a tribunal injustice, or simply a footballing hero who failed on the day.

In any performance art and any community art, the chorus, whether by the stage or in the stands or the seats, is crucial. It shapes, as well as is stimulated by and responds to, the action. Fitzpatrick argues that the role of the chorus, or perhaps the performance and the scripts, as well as the direction, are different in Australian Football from those in other theatres of sporting action. And in sport, even more explicitly than in theatre, in the new language of theatre studies, ‘the spectator actively shapes the event in the process of witnessing it’ (Fitzpatrick, 1998:35), whether in the movements of the action or the final denouement and result. It is, and it is more than, the story of victory being won due to the voice and passion of the home crowd.

Of all the art forms theatre is the closest to football, despite lacking the physicality found in ballet and in contemporary circus. Deeply rooted in society, theatre’s agon, the conflict wrought on the stage rather than the oval, ending with a denouement and winners of a kind, is close to the struggles on the field.

Football plays date back to the beginnings of modern Australian theatre, to Alan Hopgood’s 1963 play And the Big Men Fly which became a television series in 1974. Football plays have often focused as much on the struggles off the field, as in the internal politics, the haemorrhaging boards and internecine conflict, of The Club.

Allegory and Football: The Game as a Metaphor for Life

Football is sometimes an allegory or a metaphor for another moral story of society. It can be an allegory of life, hope and justice – or injustice. The development, denouement and expectation of a football match is a mirror for a social tale, often one of woe. Barry Dickins tells of the class wars of a period of globalisation as well as of a fight for the future of the game. The battle is played out between the evil media magnate of Murdochian dimensions, and the ‘Nobles’, the everyday (‘everyman’) family as supporters of the Royboys in Barry Dickins’ powerful play of that name (1987).

In, Royboys, the football match is a battle between the Masters and the Nobles for the soul of society. Rupert Myxomatosis is the corporate media magnate who is reshaping football and destroying the traditions and dreams of the working class Noble family. He wants to turn their beloved Royboys into Fitzaki, relocating them from Fitzroy to Japan. As the story moves, the scoreboard changes giving the goals and behinds kicked for the Masters and for the Nobles. Like so many matches, and like so many battles against the forces of neo-liberal economics and globalisation, the struggle results in defeat. At siren time, the scoreboard shows the Nobles defeated, crushed by the global Fates. In a contemporary coda, only a few years ago Fitzroy went north, although only to Brisbane, to be incorporated into the new Brisbane Lions.

Football is more than metaphor for another story. It embodies the other story as it is played out over four quarters or over a season or even over a longer period of a club and its search for the elusive Holy Grail, the premiership cup and the now less valorised premiership flag. The seasons of football can become the seasons of the year, the seasons of youth or age, or even the seasons of life, until it becomes ‘too dark to kick a footy’, in the street, in the backyard or even in the imagination. When the public debate moves to the difficulties footballers face after retirement, the vacuum, the limbo, the Coleridgean state of alienation known as ‘life after football’, the sporting and human story prefigures ageing and death itself.

The Dance of the Tribe

In our urban, materialistic world of constant movement we at times lose our sense of the beauty of the movement of the human body, and of dance in particular. Perhaps, it is in sport that we can rediscover it, transcending the lies of modernity and post-modernity which value speed and images over the forms of human movement.

C. B. Fry believed that dance was crucial for all valuable games:

The Greeks knew the secret. A game was not worth the trouble it put you to unless it was first and last a physical fine art. Cricket was a dance with a bat in your hand, or with the encumbrance of the ball. What was exquisite and memorable was the lyric moment of the artist in action. What was incidental was the score that came about from his handling of the ball (in Coleman and Hornby, 1997: 97).

Football is also dance, in the mimetic or narrative tradition, in which dance tells the story of the tribe and offers affirmation and even reaffirmation, even as it is known and repeated. It is a dance, both as a fine art, and a dance as a communal and tribal celebration. It is a ritual dance that used to happen on certain sacred grounds every seven days, on each winter Saturday afternoon, although now, commodified for television it takes place from Darwin to Launceston and from Friday night to Sunday evening.

Aboriginal Culture and Dance: Tiwi Islands to the MCG

Australian Football is a doubly indigenous creation, a product of settler/invader Australia in which Aboriginal Australians, the country’s original Indigenous people, have excelled. While there are debates about origin and influence – mainly unresolved as will be shown below – there have been links between the frontier and cultural life of Aboriginal Australians, including traditional dance, and Australian Football.

One link comes through the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, both a direct link and perhaps a coincidence. In 1911-12 the anthropologist Professor F Baldwin Spencer, also president of the Melbourne University football club then playing in the VFL, studied the people of the Tiwi Islands and their culture. In describing Tiwi culture, several decades before the musician, footballer, historian (and later Northern Territory Governor) Ted Egan developed the St Mary’s football club in Darwin with its strong Tiwi involvement, Baldwin Spencer captured cultural traditions which would prove amenable to re-creation through the Australian game:

They set to work and cleared away all the grass that had grown on the mound, and then dug holes for posts. The men were decorated in various ways. Some had their bodies covered with red, others with yellow … others with lines of red and black or black and yellow.

The two men, one in black, the other in yellow, took up the running, rushing madly round and round, pausing every now and then to face the posts …

When any man showed signs of flagging, another … took his place …

Every now and again a man would jump into the air as high as he could. Even one of the older men would spring from the ground until his hips were on the level of the shoulders or sometimes the heads of the men amongst whom he was standing …

By this time all the women and children were gathered round the ground watching … and every now and then one of the older women sang out … This went on till late in the afternoon … (Frawley, 2003; Frawley, 2005).

Is it chance, symbolic serendipidity or something of greater historical and cultural significance that Tiwi Islands football and dance come together? This culminates differently in the festive celebrations at the time of the Tiwi grand final and in the dancing steps of Tiwi islands footballers, on the islands, with St Mary’s in Darwin, and through Maurice and Dean Rioli and Michael Long, in the VFL and AFL.

A romantic frontier idea is that the sense of space demonstrated by Aboriginal football players has its roots in the bush, and in the culture of hunting. It is also true that, like many non-Indigenous players, they too have grown up throughout a young life lived with a footy often in hand, therefore learning the language, the music, the dance of the football. The bush/hunting connection is supported by the thoughts of Andrew McLeod and Michael Long on a possible relationship between their earlier hunting experiences and their footballing abilities.

A different view suggests that the Aboriginal talent is like that of country footballers, the result of learning the language of the ball from a young age. A subsequent analysis discerns a different lie. It argues that the romantic AFL and AFL club picture of the talents found up north, particularly in the Northern Territory, is actually an ‘Orientalist’ imagining of the ‘magical’ or ‘special’ qualities of Aboriginal footballers from the north. It ignores the simple sporting demographics, that most Aboriginals and most Aboriginal footballers of talent in fact live in the cities and towns and small towns of the southern states. If that talent was recognised – and if real achievements were made in Aboriginal health in general – then there might be many more than the 70 Aboriginals amongst the 700 players on the lists of AFL clubs.

Local Culture: From the Odyssey to the ‘Abers’

In a paper to a sports history conference, ‘Give Me A Home Among the Gum Trees’, about the Aberfeldie Sports Club nestled at Clifton Park in the west of Melbourne near the Maribyrnong River, I argued that story carries meaning, from Homer’s Odyssey to the stories played out on Aberfeldie’s Clifton Park ground. Story is a vehicle for meaning in the grand narrative and grand voyage and also in a more protean, local story such as that of the ‘Abers’ as they are known.

Today, even more than schools, churches and local councils and shopping centres, football furnishes the songs of the suburbs and some of their rituals. A 2002 ‘Grand Final’ parade of the competing teams along Puckle St, Moonee Ponds, an emulation of the AFL Grand Final Parade, provided a ritual of significance for Aberfeldie and for the north-western suburbs of Melbourne, even as the car, the mass media, the pc and the telephone threaten to weaken a sense of locality. It is the lie of our ‘global’ ‘metropolitan’ culture with its unthinking deference towards a few places and a few cultural trends that the local doesn’t matter, or if it does, only in inferior terms to the metropolitan or the global. The soaring high mark in the accompanying photograph, framed by the gum trees is a sight of indigenous beauty, as well as a site of meaning. The image suggests that not only metropolitans can fly like an angel. In fact, in contrast, they are more likely than those performers closer to the everyday world to be afflicted by the Icarus wings of celebrity, and to risk a similar or worse fate (Alomes, 2007).

Conclusion: Indigenous Creativity, the Colonial Cultural Cringe and Social Class

In considering art and meaning, we might ask why has the greatness of Australian Football as an art form, and as a communal set of artistic rituals, not been appreciated in other more formal cultural spheres, despite the passionate devotion of its aficionados? In related terms, why does the world pursue inferior sports, preferring global fast food to this haute cuisine with its roots in the provincial soil? In the arts and in culinary traditions, works of provincial origin are seen as of universal significance, whether from Russia or Spain or rural France or Italy.

The answers can be found, partly, in history and geography. By history I mean that it was Hercules Robinson, the Governor of the colony of New South Wales, who claimed Fiji for Britain, with the result that a less civilised culture from the barbarous wastes north of the Murrumbidgee, that is rugby, was introduced into the region, making rugby union the dominant football code. It is an irony, in this light, that this paper, celebrating Australian Rules football as a superior cultural form, is based on a paper delivered at a conference in Fiji. Despite wondrous exceptions, such as David Rodan, now starring for Port Adelaide in the AFL, Fiji and football don’t usually go together as the sub-imperial colony has been imperialised by the lesser rugger code. Geography has been even more important. Australia’s situation of isolation and small population, in one of the first great eras of the dissemination of cultural institutions, the 1870s-early 1900s was one in which it continued its role as an importer, rather than exporter of culture.

Fundamentally, then and now, the cause is colonialism. Australia has gone from a settler, as well as subject, colony to a post-colonial, post-dominion renewal of provincial status in a global period. After 1788 it became the subject of the two greatest empires the world has seen, first the formal British Empire and then of informal American hegemony over most of the world. This pattern of superior-inferior relationships would continue after Federation, and in provincial, “Dominion’ and ‘national’ Australia as Empire gave way to Commonwealth and as the national was supplanted by the global, each step reinforced by new communications technologies and economic imperatives.

The consequences of this cultural and social situation, whereby status and cultural forms and values flowed from the metropolis to the provinces, from the centre to the periphery, from the imperial capital to the colonies, had two results. One was the failure to export a superior culture from the colonies. Although a few overseas Australians had established competitions on the South African goldfields and near Glasgow by the shipyards in the late 19th and early 20th centuries respectively. Australian Football waited for nearly a century to expand internationally. From the 1980s, in the global pay-TV, sports channel and in the new Australian expatriate era, when a number of end-of-season matches were also played in North America, Japan and the UK, it would sink local roots. Now, with up to 20 countries likely to play in the August 2008 Third International Cup in Melbourne, it has international reach if not importance (

The second consequence was that, however important Australian Football has been for a majority of people, it remained ‘on the outer’ (not quite the same as ‘in the outer’) in the universities and in several other cultural institutions. These imperial transplants, imbued with colonial deference for the metropolitan institutions of their culture, such as Oxford and Cambridge and London and later Harvard and Yale, undervalued sporting culture and local culture. Whether imported academics or locals with a provincial sensibility based in the relationship between place, social class and culture, they relegated sport to the margins of their scholarly consciousness.

In this view academics identified with the First World of Europe and beyond and ‘Culture’, with a capital C if not quite a German K. De facto they opposed it to popular taste which was simply ‘lacking’, downmarket, uncouth, even barbarous. In this dualist assumption, Europe was synonymous with ‘Culture’ and Australia became either ‘Nature’ or ‘Mammon’.

The sophisticated metropolitans were superior to the ‘Australians’, who were merely ‘suburban’ or ‘provincial’. This colonial definition of identification with the superior European culture, with culture itself, and against the ordinary, the everyday, the material, was once the norm. It still persists to a degree today even in an era in which popular culture has become the dominant shared culture of most generations and classes.

In those vestigial colonial institutions, the universities, circumscribed by a derivative and specialist middle class and upper middle class culture, sport in general and Australian cultural achievement in new as well as old forms have been undervalued. Also reflecting similar assumptions in the ‘Old World’, it was – and is – assumed that scholars writing about sport naturally perform at a lower level than when writing about Shakespeare or society, politics or philosophy. As a researcher into nationalism and expatriate intellectuals and artists, I find this contention puzzling as well as myopic. Does the quality of my thought suddenly decline when the subject is the institutions, societies and cultures of sport, rather than those of the arts, ideas or politics?

In the lie of inferiority grounded in colonial and provincial culture, and in the professional myopia of middle class scholars and intellectuals the Australian game is undervalued. Even those who in their private life may follow Australian Football with a passion, handball it to the periphery of their social and cultural vision when they don the hats and gowns of academia. Embracing Jamrozik’s account of the two cultures, we might conclude that it is the would-be ‘cultured critics’ who are living the lie. It is Australian Football that is the art form.



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