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If soccer has been too readily written out of Australian cultural historiography and the idea of Aboriginal soccer sounds like an oxymoron, much emotional and intellectual energy has been devoted to establishing the indigeneity and Indigineity of Australian rules football. Writers like Sandercock and Turner, Blainey, and Hess and Stewart have written long and eloquently of the vital contribution Australian rules football has made to Australian life. Through their work they argue that Australian rules is the indigenous and national Australian game.
More recently, influenced by the work of Jim Poulter, Martin Flanagan and others, a younger set of critics has begun to entrench an even more spectacular notion: that Australian rules has Aboriginal origins and, as such, is an Indigenous game, a controversial claim that generates much debate. The Football History Wars (sharing some of the gravitas of the more general History Wars) peaked in 2008 over Gillian Hibbins’ suggestion that the purported Aboriginal beginnings of Australian football are a ‘seductive myth’.
Hibbins stood accused of neglecting the massive contribution Aboriginal people have made to Australian rules football when she suggested that there is no evidence to support the hypothesis of Aboriginal origins. However, this accusation confuses the undeniable presence and influence Aboriginal people have in contemporary Australian rules football with the idea that Aboriginal people have been there all along. Aside from being historically questionable, it is an inadvertent way of ignoring the racism to which Aboriginal people have been subjected within Australian rules football. To suggest that the game has Aboriginal origins is to assert a lineage that can comfortably charge through the packed histories of Aboriginal exclusion. It reads the long century of racism endemic to the sport as a deviation from the true original spirit, rather than as something that was inevitably there in the colonial enterprise of establishing a codified sport with British sources.
According to Tony Collins, the purported Aboriginal origins of Australian rules lend themselves to a contemporary political exercise. He believes that
it has now become popular to imagine that Australian Rules has its roots not in Australia’s imperial past but within its native Aboriginal culture. The invention of an Aboriginal pre-history for the sport therefore plays the role of, as Hobsbawm and Ranger point out for different contexts, ‘establishing or symbolizing social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities’ and ‘legitimizing institutions, status or relations of authority’. For the AFL, it plays a crucial role in authenticating its claim to be Australia’s true national football code.Practically, it is to forget the racism that drove Doug Nicholls out of the Carlton Football Club. It is to forget the colour bar imposed in the Darwin competition in the 1920s that resulted in the Aboriginal players temporarily shifting over to soccer. It is to forget the near total absence of Aboriginal players in the history of Australian rules football’s premier competitions until the 1980s. Ultimately it is to forget why it ever occurred to Nicky Windmar to raise his guernsey and point proudly to his skin.
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There is no question that Aboriginal people played forms of football in the 1850s and earlier. Whether as marn grook or under some other name, there are many historical examples. The following etching by Gustav Mützel is a rare pictorial representation of Aboriginals playing football and has been the source of some debate about the kind of football it represents.
The Age argued in 2007:
An etching of Aborigines playing “kick-to-kick” near Mildura could be the first record of Australian football, experts say. The black-and-white image, created from Victorian scientist William Blandowski’s 1857 observations, precedes Australia’s first known game of football - a match between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar in 1858. Dr Patrick Green, Museum Victoria’s chief executive, was thrilled with the historic find, which could ignite debate on Australian Rules Football’s origins. “We’re suggesting this could be the first image of football in Australia,” Dr Greene said.While definitely not the first record of Australian football, it certainly is an early image of football in Australia. But it is not an image of Australian rules, even if it is assumed to portray some characteristics of that game. Yet Green claims:
I was looking at the image with my colleagues for different reasons entirely, and suddenly it struck me. Those kids are playing footy! It looks just like the games of ‘kick-to-kick’ we used to play in the school yard. Look at that guy: it seems like he’s preparing to take a mark.In order to make his argument Green needs to ignore two things: 1) William Blandowski’s 1857 notes on Aboriginal life on which the etching was based. Blandowski describes the game he observed thus: “The ball is made out of Typha roots; it is not thrown or hit with a bat, but it is kicked up in the air with the foot. Aim of the game: never let the ball touch the ground;” and 2) the actual visual representation. From both the written description and the etching, the boys in the middle background are participating in an activity that more resembles soccer (keepy-uppy or hacky-sack) than Australian rules (kick-to-kick).
Indeed it also resembles more the game as described by SCR Bowler in 1901:
The children play a kind of football, the ball being made of opossum wool, spun by gins, and made into a ball about 11/2 inches in diameter, they do not take sides. One person kicks the ball up in the air, and then there is a general scramble to see who can kick it again before it touches the ground; the main object is to keep the ball from doing so, if it does, however do so, they start afresh. It requires great agility and suppleness of limb to play the game with any great skill. Whoever kicks the ball the most number of times is considered the best player. When any of the players miss the ball the others all laugh at him.The contemporary game named Woggabaliri in the Australian Sports Commission’s guide to Aboriginal games seems to have been informed by the same practice.
BackgroundAn argument could be mounted that proved through this evidence that Aboriginals first played a game more resembling soccer before they ever played Australian rules. This argument would be crowned by the fact that in June 2009 a team of young Aboriginal players from Victoria played in the national Aboriginal soccer titles under the name of Marngrook Meenteel (Football Stars) thereby recovering their true soccer heritage. This argument is of course futile and probably offensive – and it is of the same usefulness as any other attempt to recreate the past in the likeness of the present.
Aboriginal people in places such as the Bogan and Lachlan River areas of New South Wales played ball games with a ball made of possum fur. This was usually spun by the women and made into a ball about 5 centimetres or more in diameter. The various types of games required great agility and suppleness of limbs to play with any degree of skill.
The name for this game was taken from the Wiradyuri language for ‘play’ (woggabaliri). This language was spoken or understood by many Aboriginal groups in central and southern New South Wales.
This is a cooperative kicking volley game to see how many times the ball can be kept in the air before contacting the ground.
We need to remember that Indigenous cultural practices were (and still are) a diverse and complex set of behaviours that varied from region to region. Foster might be right to see the Mützel etching as representing a soccer-like game. But first he needs to take into account that the etching is not a photograph but was an image made by a German artist who had never been to Australia and who was relying on the evidence of an explorer when he created it. Secondly, even if we see this soccer-like game as a staple of the region in question, games more resembling Australian rules or the rugby codes were played elsewhere.
Ultimately there is no one true Indigenous game. By making such an assertion, Foster inadvertantly buys into the logic of the AFL and takes the debate into the realm of mythology. There is no doubting Foster's passion and enthusiasm. I just wish he'd read and consult with football historians before making claims like these. They help no-one trying to understand the complex genesis of any and all of the football codes in Australia.