To live football is to truly belong
Last week I paid $185 in an exercise of hope. I'll know soon if it was money well spent. Funds were from the family budget, although not altogether with my partner's blessing. She says the product's faulty and causes despair. Certainly, it has a record of loss-making. Last week I spent perfectly good money on membership of the Richmond Football Club.
It's an ongoing arrangement with a familiar end. The sweet perfume of any early wins is by winter usually consumed by the pungent odour of defeat. My team plays a competition leader and philosophical consolations take hold: It's only a game. Winning cannot teach humility.
But then days shorten, leaves loosen, and autumn's dew brings insoluble optimism. What if they learn how to win? How would I feel if they actually beat St Kilda?
After years of living mostly north of the so-called Barassi Line, having returned to Melbourne and its self-made rituals, being near the MCG only heightens this expectation.
In weeks like these, this invention becomes a meaning of life itself. Women and men have gathered under pealing church bells to farewell a big-hearted Irishman and city streets stopped in his honour. The newspaper's back page turns into the front. Barrackers seek out team scarves, and bargain for leave-of-absence on family matters. The game is an obsession.
Brent Crosswell, a man who played in eight grand finals for four premierships but whom I know better as my year 11 Australian history teacher, understood this allure more than most. He told of football's ''unanimity of belief, a passion for a game that links one generation to the next''. As it will tonight, the crowd marching under lights to the MCG, as Crosswell has said, ''to a glorious game, a simpler conception, and one they can all agree about; young footballers running and leaping across an expanse of green grass''.
Herein lies the essence of the contest - that transcendental moment when anything's possible. ''For some this was a carnival of pleasure,'' wrote Manning Clark in his epic saga, A History of Australia. ''Two-and-a-half hours of excitement which lived on in the mind for weeks to come.''
My partner doesn't fully understand the uncomplicated bliss that comes with the crowd's shared gasp. She is new to Melbourne. But for me, its truth is unquestionable.
In following the game there is belonging, a continuum of life, a talking point, and something that has always been done.
In this home-grown game, there is a reflection of ourselves. It is a game we have made, with its own rules and idiom and iconography and curiosities. As Irish comedian Jimeoin has said, it's the only sport in the world where they reward you for missing the goals.
When Sidney Nolan completed the first of his Ned Kelly series, he thought also to paint Footballer (1946), an emblematic portrait of the sports-warrior. The character is said to be Keith ''Nugget'' Miller, the great cricket all-rounder who before World War II played 50 games for St Kilda.
In Nolan's journal, he says: ''Finished my painting of a footballer this morning and called Jim [the gardener] to have a look at it. He said it looked quite real, almost as if you were there, so it at least passed the critical eye of a specialist.''
Tonight I return to the cathedral gates. It pleases me that the flag-flapping goal umpire might be a woman. I'm happy enough to sit among opposing supporters. And I'll resume my man-crush on Bachar Houli - thrilled that he plays for my team, that he's Muslim, that he observes Ramadan, but mostly that he runs off half-back flank with apparent immunity and with an arcing left-foot kick of sublime elegance.
Football is back. My team could yet win.
Dugald Jellie is a freelance writer and former key forward for the Orbost Snowy Rovers.
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