Love of the game
Soon the scarves will be folded and flags rolled up. The roar from the MCG will fade. No more footy for six long months.
The end of the AFL season may be a reprieve for those who find the saturation coverage of our national game tiresome. But for me, it’s a time of mourning.
Footy, in particular the Hawthorn Football Club, is a huge part of my life. From March to September I’m immersed in the brown and gold.
When we win, it colours my whole week. Losing can invoke despair.
And there are the rituals. If I don’t wear my Hawks socks I might jinx the team. Tipping against them could set the universe out of kilter. I am a footy tragic.
A looming diary of football-free weekends has got got me wondering what drives this obsession. Are some of us hard-wired to be lured by footy’s hypnotic pull, while others are built from DNA that makes it a tedious spectacle?
I have friends - both male and female - who can’t fathom the passion I have for a game which to them is just that - a game. It baffles them that I was reduced to tears when the Hawks lost (again) to Geelong by a kick after the siren.
It’s not as simple as either being a sports fan or not. To borrow a phrase from AFL legend Malcolm Blight: ‘‘I couldn’t give a rat’s tossbag’’ about cricket. Rugby league seems to me to be an unintelligible exercise in bogan warfare. Likewise, I have friends who are enthralled by tennis or the Grand Prix, yet are completely turned off by football.
Some say it’s a ‘‘blokey’’ sport rife with misogyny, and question why a clear-thinking woman would be captivated by it. True, there are aspects that don’t exactly advance the cause of sexual equality - The Footy Show is to feminism what Robert Mugabe is to the human rights movement - but at the game, sexism has not been my experience.
A sport in which 50 per cent of the barrackers are women is hardly indicative of an exclusive sport. The diverse backgrounds of the people who love the game are part of its attraction. As is the fact that I can watch with friends who wear opposing colours without fear of violence.
Until I moved to Melbourne from my native Scotland 11 years ago, football was a game played with a round ball. Sitting at the wrong end of the ground was a declaration of war.
Then, I was as passionate about Edinburgh’s Heart of Midlothian Football Club as I now am about Hawthorn. I never imagined I could love a sport more than the ‘‘beautiful game.’’
But AFL drew me in from the very first bounce. Sure, those athletic bodies squeezed into tiny shorts and tight jumpers made it easy on the eye, but it was more than that. The game vibrated with life.
In that first match at the MCG on a sunny winter’s day in 2001, I felt as if the crowd’s energy would lift me clean from my seat. Hawthorn, the team I inherited from my then boyfriend, faced Collingwood in a gladiatorial battle.
The screams for ‘‘ball’’ that reverberated around the colosseum spoke to something primal in me. Tough yet skilful, and played with an intensity that left me breathless - this was the best game in the world.
And it’s not just what’s happening on the field. In Melbourne, footy is both currency and language. If you don’t at least learn the basics you’ll find yourself locked out of many a conversation.
Living so far from family, football has given me a surrogate tribe. Win or lose, these are my people. Some of my deepest friendships have been forged through mutual love of the game.
Unlike my friends who grew up in households where the weekly pilgrimage to the footy was part of the parental bonding process, I can’t use family tradition to explain this passion.
But I think in part, the ritual - the colours, the banter, and the waft of warm pies - reminds me of happy times with Dad, who took me to my first Hearts game aged 10, and through football instilled in his wee girl the values of loyalty, perseverance and of never, ever leaving a game early.
AFL has also helped me connect with Australia’s story, and notions of mateship, larrikinism and the ‘fair go’. Like the great Jim Stynes - the lanky lad from Ireland who became one of the greatest ever Australian sporting heroes - footy has bonded me to my adopted land.
It wasn’t until I sang the national anthem at the MCG in the opening round of this season that I felt I’d truly embraced the Australian citizenship bestowed upon me earlier in the year.
The emotion took me by surprise, but I suspect for many of us football is a safe dumping ground for all kinds of feelings. Whether it be anger, ecstasy, hope or grief - we can indulge them all at the ground.
As my Hawks prepare for Saturday night’s preliminary final against Adelaide and a potential spot in a Grand Final I would give anything to be at, I’m bracing myself for that familiar tumult of emotions. It is at once exhausting and exhilarating.
Whether the result brings me to my knees or has me punching the air, I will be thankful for having been part of it.