Barely over 100 years ago, the Melbourne Argus published a report (below left) on the growth of soccer in Melbourne. Written by an habitual follower of VFL, it acknowledged that soccer was going through a growth period, with more and more players and spectators being attracted to the game. The report spoke about the attractiveness of the game and the enjoyment of the spectators. It praised the skills of the players and suggested that VFL footballers might have something to learn from soccer's technical qualities. The article also put VFL in a poor light when comparing the 'gentlemanly' nature of soccer with the corruption suspected of inhabiting Australian rules at that time.
Two days ago: 100 years later, Age footy journalist Rohan Connolly wrote an article (below right) that was remarkably similar in both rhetorical terms and in the way it noticed the rise of soccer and the suggestion that AFL might have something to learn from it. As I said to Connolly on twitter, it was both thoughtful and respectful. It also refused to take the anti-sokkah knee-jerk line that others journos have when confronted with the 'evil' of flares. The articles do exhibit some differences of course. The Argus piece is focused largely on the soccer played at Middle Park in 1914 whereas Connolly's interest is in fan engagement. Another difference is that the first piece is followed by the local league results of the day. Hell will freeze over before Connolly's employer reports on state soccer again.
What I find most interesting though is that Connolly is able to write this kind of article; as if this crazy, funny game has only just started to emerge in this town; as if this is a game without local precedent, without local history. I'd love to take Connolly on a ride in my time machine, to Middle Park and Olympic Park and even the Fitzroy Cricket Ground and show him a real, existing, passionate soccer culture across Melbourne's history. I'd like to show him why articles like his, however positive and respectful, are re-inventions of a wheel that started turning in 1883 and has hardly stopped since.
I'd just love to know when we will stop seeing gobsmacked non-soccer writers writing about our long-standing culture as if it has just dropped in from planet UnAustraya. Articles like Connolly's are ultimately about the writer's own lack of knowledge and familiarity and not the phenomenon which he is observing. Good on him for taking this first step. Let there be more of them.
What the AFL could learn from the A-League
Age, October 27, 2014
In purely scoreboard terms, Saturday night's A-League derby between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City was, in the finish, a bit of a rout. Yet the post-game talk universally was of a stunning night for local soccer. Why? It was the atmosphere.
I've been to something like 1500 AFL games in my lifetime and only a handful of A-League fixtures, but the different feel at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night was remarkable. The place simply buzzed.
The derby drew 43,729, more than for all but two of the 48 AFL games played at Etihad Stadium this year, but this was about more than numbers. It was about the noise, the colour and the excitement generated.
Which, heading towards 2015, and a season the AFL has unofficially dubbed "the year of the fan", is an example the indigenous code needs to study very carefully.
Soccer has always had it over the indigenous game for the quality of its crowd chants and singing, but this wasn't just about clever quips and taunts to opposition fans.
There were banners and waving flags aplenty, mass twirling of coloured scarves, and a constant wall of noise generated by the fans, not by ear-splitting and intrusive advertising booming across the PA system at the breaks, a staple of AFL on this occasion thankfully absent.
It was a salient reminder for us older football types of how AFL used to be as a live experience, and perhaps the extent to which the commercialisation and homogenisation of our own code has chipped away at it.
Watch any clips from the old VFL days and you're reminded again. For starters, there were up to eight or nine different venues, each with their own character and quirks, compared with just two in Melbourne now.
Have a look at any home-and-away game from the 1970s or '80s, let alone finals at the MCG or Waverley, and you'll see grounds decked out in club-coloured banners stretching around most of the stands.
They were works of art, slogans that borrowed from old verse or simpler rhymes, the lettering bold or in some memorable cases in Old English script.
Then there were the cheer squads, whose floggers stretched around the fence further than you'd ever see today. They threw copious amounts of crepe paper streamers and ripped up phone directories. Each week, the area behind each team's goals resembled a sea of colour and movement.
The reason you don't see these things any more is in most cases the same: overly draconian health and safety measures and corporatisation of the game to within an inch of its life.
First it was players tripping on streamers and a couple of silly escapades where floggers caught on fire, which led to restrictions on their size. Then came the complaints from sponsors about the streamers covering up the perimeter advertising that began to encase grounds. Good luck finding a square inch of an AFL ground these days not sold off to sponsorship.
There are a lot more AFL games per season than there were 30 years ago. But a lot less differentiation, too, as will happen when roughly 100 games are scheduled for just two multipurpose stadiums that a large contingent of clubs all call "home", though the term regarding Etihad and the MCG should be used loosely.
Social clubs remain anchored at the old suburban bases of those still retaining some connection with them. The grounds of today may have post-match function rooms for the clubs hosting games there, but there's a transient feel, the lack of club culture palpable.
Even beyond that, I hear consistent complaints from football fans about the "nanny state" intruding on their football-going experiences. Signs any more provocative than "Go Pies" being frowned upon or confiscated. And, believe it or not, supporters being warned by security staff for barracking too loudly.
The AFL has had enough trouble this year, amid confusing ticketing systems and unfriendly scheduling, convincing followers to actually turn up to games. The last thing it can afford is to make them feel like naughty schoolchildren when they do.
Which is why, for a hard-core AFL supporter, last Saturday night felt something like a trip back in time. Real passion and involvement, unstymied by over-officiousness. Loads of colour and movement. And lots of noise actually generated by fans rather than speaker stacks.
Of course soccer has its own cultural nuances, its own vibe. But occasions such as the Melbourne Victory-Melbourne City derby just serve to reinforce that, at this critical juncture in the AFL public's relationship with the game, it's a feel those running the show could do a lot worse than reacquaint themselves with.