© 2019 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
The word football means different things to different people. To an American, it's American football (of which Canadian football is a relative); to most Europeans, Asians, Africans, and now many Aussies, it often means soccer; to Aussies from the right side of the tracks, it's Australian Rules Football (Aussie Rules); to some other Aussies, Kiwis, Fijians, Samoans, Japanese, and Frenchmen, it's rugby league; the Irish play Gaelic Football; and then there's rugby union, among other football codes.
Call me biased, but having been raised on Aussie Rules "since I was knee-high to a grasshopper," I have never been able to get remotely interested in any other code of football. I ask you, what sort of games allow time-outs; require that you break your nose at least once per season; have players who look and often behave like professional wrestlers; penalize you for getting ahead of the opposition; dress you like a gladiator; have specialty players who get only a few minutes of on-field time each game; or after two hours of play end in a nil-nil draw?
In this essay, with very few further insults, I'll provide a gentle introduction to the one true code of football, as perfected Down Under but first, let's define a few terms. When I say "professional football," I'm referring to the Australian Football League (AFL) national competition, whose players' jobs are to play football. "Semi-pro(fessional)" refers to the top league in each Aussie state or Territory, in which almost all players have full-time jobs outside of football, and who play football on the weekends in season. Many of these players get some financial compensation for playing. "Local" refers to all other leagues, in which some players of some teams might get paid at least something to play depending on the level of the league and the local economics.
In Australia, the game of Aussie Rules is played from March through September; that is, in late autumn, winter, and early spring. The regular season—called the minor round—runs around 22 games and is followed by a series of finals. The AFL has a pre-season competition, and at that time, many leagues play trial games between teams in the same or different leagues as practice matches.
A game is played over four 25+-minute quarters. During the quarter- and three-quarter-time breaks, the coach addresses the players on the field, while at half-time, the players leave the field and rest in their dressing room.
The game is played on an oval, a field whose shape is, well, oval. The object of the game is to kick the ball between the goalposts at each end of the oval; high score wins (more on that later). Games can be drawn, and under certain circumstances, a draw can result in extended time. In all finals, if scores are tied at the end of official time, two five-minute periods are played. If the scores are still tied after this extra time, play continues until the next score.
When I played, each team had 20 players suited up, 18 on the field and two reserves on the bench. A reserve could only take the field if a teammate left the field; no interchange was permitted. Later, interchanging of players was added, so players could be rested, and less-debilitating injuries could be treated. Later still, in some leagues (including the AFL), the number of reserves was increased to four for a team total of 22 players.
Of the 18 on the field for each team, 15 start in fixed positions and 3 as "roaming" players, arranged with 6 in each of two zones within 50 meters of the goals and six across the center. Of these 6 in the center, 4 are within a 45-meter central square. A team's offensive and defensive players are on the field at the same time. After play commences any player can run/play anywhere on the oval. Each of a team's 15 fixed-position players has a direct opponent, who they are said to stand. Each quarter, the teams change ends.
Once a player has possession of the ball, there are two ways of disposing of it: kicking it with either leg or holding it still in one hand while punching it with the other fist (called a handball). Throwing the ball is not permitted! A player cannot carry the ball beyond 15 meters without kicking it, handballing it, or bouncing or touching it on the ground.
If the ball has been kicked a minimum of 15 meters without being touched by anyone, a player can catch the ball. This is called marking the ball, and the player took a mark. Unless the marking player plays on (that is, runs on with the ball), play stops, no tackling is allowed, and that player chooses to restart play either by kicking or handballing. Marks can often be quite spectacular with players leaping 1–1.5 meters (3–5 feet) off the ground.
The AFL has 18 teams in one national league, with 10 of them in one metro area, Melbourne, a city of around 5 million people. My own state capital, Adelaide, a city of around a million, has two teams (which play each other twice a season in what is called a "Cross-Town Showdown".) Adelaide's semi-pro league (SANFL) has 10 teams.
The Playing Field
At each of the two narrow ends of the oval there are four posts. The inner two are taller and are the goal posts. The outer two are the behind posts. The boundary of the oval is marked with a thick, white chalk line.
There is no fixed size for an oval, and they vary from 135–185 meters (145–200 yards) long, goal-to-goal, and 110–155 meters (120–165 yards) wide. [The Marvel stadium in Melbourne is covered by a retractable roof.]
Markings on the ground include 50-meter arcs (from the center of the goal line) at each end of the ground, and a 5-meter diameter circle in the center of the ground surrounded by a 45-meter square.
Many ovals have at least some light towers to allow training in the dark (remember, it's wintertime). Some ovals have major lighting systems allowing for games to be played at night. [The oval at my semi-pro club, Norwood, was well lit, as it also hosted semi-pro baseball games at night.]
While ovals host football games in winter, many also host cricket games in summer. Cricket uses a rectangular pitch some 20 meters (22 yards) long and several meters (yards) wide, located at the oval's center. Better pitches are made of turf and are rolled hard. The worst are made of concrete, which can hardly be hidden by several inches of dirt during football season! Even so, heavy rain on the sandy soil of a turf pitch in winter can make for a mud patch! The refurbished Adelaide Oval (capacity 55,000) actually has a very large machine that can lift-out the whole cricket pitch at once and replace it with different soil and turf for the football season.
The hallowed ground of Aussie Rules is the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), which has 100,000 seats.
There are two kinds of scores: a goal (worth six points) and a behind (worth one point). The team with the most points at the end wins. For example, a total score of 10 goals 20 behinds (10x6+20=80 points) beats one of 12 goals 5 behinds (12x6+5=77 points).
A goal is scored if an attacking player kicks the ball without it being touched by any player, and it goes between the two goal posts without touching either. If the ball is touched (even by an attacking player's teammate), or it scrapes the inside of a goalpost, one point is scored. Kicks going between a goal post and its adjacent behind post, result in a behind. When a goal is kicked, the ball is taken back to the center circle where play is restarted. When a behind is scored, the key defender [the role I mostly played] kicks the ball back into play from the goal square, an area in front of the goal posts.
At the end of a season, the leading goalkicker for each club and each league receives an award. A hundred goals are a lot for any one player to kick in a minor-round season.
The game is refereed by a group of umpires. Back in my time, there was one central umpire who ran over the whole oval, blowing his whistle and calling out play status, for things like marks and penalties, and when players play on without stopping. Given the pace of the modern, streamlined game, and that play can go from one end of the oval to the other in a few seconds, and that some players can kick the ball 70 meters (75 yards), and on occasions, much further if there is a tail wind—it can be hard to keep up. That led to semi-pro and pro leagues having two central umpires, and now three. The AFL is trialing four. That gives more sets of eyes on the game, especially for violations committed away from the play. [Most local leagues use two central umpires. Semi-pro leagues use three.]
At each end of the oval, a goal umpire stands on the goal line between the goal posts, and determines if a score is a goal or a behind. Each of the two boundary halves is patrolled by two boundary umpires, whose job it is to throw the ball back into play if it goes out-of-bounds (except that if the ball is kicked out on the full or kicked out deliberately, a penalty is awarded).
At the end of the game, the central umpires agree as to the three best players of the match, but that information is kept secret until after the minor round ends, at which time, the "Best and Fairest player" in the league for that season is announced.
In recent years, women have begun officiating as umpires.
The ball is a 3-dimensional oval, but not as pointed as an American football. It is designed to be kicked, handballed, and bounced.
At the start of each quarter and after each goal, the central umpire bounces the ball in the center circle of the oval with the ball rising straight up some three meters (3+ yards), and two competing players try to hit it to a teammate. However, if weather or oval conditions are such that the ball cannot be reliably bounced, it is thrown up, much like a jump-ball in basketball. The ball is also thrown up when play stalemates in a scrimmage.
A player can bounce the ball while running at full speed, which is sometimes necessary, as it is not permitted to otherwise run with the ball beyond 15 meters.
Nowadays, there are two kinds of kick. A drop punt involves holding the ball in a vertical orientation and dropping it on the front-center of the boot. The ball turns end-over-end. A torpedo punt involves holding the ball at an angle and dropping it on the outside of the boot. The ball screws much like a thrown American football. Back in my time, drop kicks were allowed. This involved bouncing the ball on the ground and kicking it as it rose.
Each player wears a pair of shorts in approved club colors, with a jockstrap (athletic supporter) underneath. They also wear a sweater-like jumper—sometimes called a guernsey—which must also be in approved club colors. [AFL teams have home/away sets to distinguish against rival colors; they also have special-event sets.] Each player has a distinct number, which is on the back of the jumper. The AFL allows a small commercial sponsorship logo; the player's name is not included.
Long or short socks are worn; these too must be in approved club colors.
Boots are much like numerous other sports. The soles have cleats (sometimes called studs; in my time, sprigs). Fifty years ago, the cleats were made from layers of leather and were held in place by several nails, which with wear-and-tear could lead to sharp metal edges. As a result, prior to the start of each game, the central umpire had to run his hand on the underside of both boots of each player to make sure there was no obvious danger. Later, rubber cleats molded around metal screws were used. Eventually, the sole had the cleats molded right into it.
Although some players might wear shin guards in their socks, players do not wear helmets or body padding.
The rules are very strict/limiting with regards to permitted body contact between players. For example, the following are not permitted: tripping, pushing in the back, grabbing around the neck/head, or punching. In fact, a player cannot interfere with an opponent unless the opponent is in possession of the ball or within 5 meters of it.
That said, it is common for a player to use his body to push aside or to get in front of his opponent when competing for the ball.
At the top level, the game is way too fast and complex now for a coach to also be a player at the same time, although playing coaches still exist in local league clubs.
At the pro and semi-pro levels, a coach has assistant coaches who specialize in some aspect of the game.
The coach usually sits high up in the stadium and communicates with his assistants and reserve players by radio/phone. He also has a runner who is permitted out on the oval after a goal is scored to deliver messages to/from players, and to move players to different positions.
The Finals Series
For leagues with a small number of teams, there might be a final-four team group that competes for the championship. Some leagues have a final-five. The AFL has a final-eight. In all cases, eventually all but two teams are eliminated, and those go on to play in the Grand Final.
Infringements and Violations
Most infringements result in play being stopped and a free kick being awarded to a player. If the recipient of the free is injured or otherwise unable to take the kick, a teammate can do so.
Disobeying a central umpire's ruling can result in a 50-meter (55 yards) penalty, and multiple such penalties can be awarded, which can sometimes allow the recipient to move right up to the goal square.
Other offences—including off-field behavior—can result in fines. Very serious offenses result in a player or official being reported by one or more of the umpires. Reports can also be made after the game by video review. Reported players attend a hearing/tribunal several days later, at which time, they are exonerated, fined, or suspended for one or more games. [Intentionally hitting an umpire can get you a very long, if not lifetime, suspension.] In my time, being found guilty meant disqualification from the league's "Best Player" award, but that now depends on the severity of the charge.
In AFL and semi-pro leagues, a player is not sent off for serious infringements, but most local leagues have their own regulations to allow for "send-off" or "sin-bin" for a limited time.
The classic injury is torn cartilage and/or ligaments in knees. [I suffered both.] Certainly, players can get concussed. Twisted ankles can easily occur. Hamstring and groin muscle injuries are common. Players who have suffered some sort of head injury in the past, might wear a soft, leather, head protector.
While some injuries can end a career [as was my case], they are generally not too debilitating. That said, in the 1970's one semi-pro player had his neck broken leaving him a quadriplegic.
Some American Influence
The US has long had professional leagues for its football, basketball, baseball, and ice hockey, among other sports. And it treats such sports as business. As such, it is not surprising that leagues in other countries adopt or adapt rules and operating procedures from US sports. Examples in the AFL include the following: drafting new players, trading existing players, blood rule, team salary cap, fines (for both on and off-field conduct), specialty coaches, sponsor logos on oval turf and players' jumpers, and characterization and recording of statistics such as goal assists.
For local and semi-pro leagues, games are still mostly played on Saturday afternoons. However, the nine AFL games played each week might be staggered over Thursday and Fri nights, Saturday afternoon or night, Sunday afternoon, and on holiday Mondays. As such, they can get people to pay to attend multiple games in the same week. Afterall, each pro club is a business!
My Own "Footy" Background
As a young kid, I started as a boundary umpire. I first played competition in an Under-14 team in my hometown. I then moved to the Under-16 team in which my right leg was broken in the dying moments of a Grand Final (which my team won). During that time, I was recruited by one of the oldest and most prestigious clubs in the South Australian state semi-pro league, Norwood. However, I deferred joining them until I finished high school. [Over the years, more than a few players from my hometown have made it to the state semi-pro league, with a few going on to play pro. The most notable from my time was Russel Ebert, who won the South Australian Magary Medal a record four times.]
At age 16, I moved to the state capital and played a mediocre season for Norwood's Under-17 team. Then I played two very good seasons with their Under-19 team, both times winning the state competition. For certain, the highlight was playing both finals series on the league's premier field, Adelaide Oval, in front of a large crowd.
The following year, I played in several pre-season trial games trying out for a spot on the top-level team. Although I was doing well, during the third game, I had the first of a series of knee injuries that eventually forced me from the game. C'est la vie!
Of the 30-odd teammates I had in Norwood's junior teams, at least a dozen went on to play at the top level. One, Michael Taylor, was club champion many times, represented the state, and was assistant coach in the pro league. Another, Neil Craig, was a star player, and a semi-pro and pro coach.
The club coach and captain at Norwood when I played there, was Robert Oatey, who went on to receive the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2008, for his "service to Australian Rules football as a coach and as a contributor to the development of younger players." [Some 40 years after I started at Norwood, I reconnected with Robert, and spent quality time with him during several visits to Adelaide.]
In 1967, my Year-10 high school home-room teacher was Roger Magor. [He also taught me mathematics and chemistry.] Due to injuries, he retired from playing and became an umpire at the local level. He eventually worked his way up to become a semi-pro league umpire, and finally Chairman of the Board that managed umpiring for the state of South Australia and was responsible for appointing umpires to officiate at games.
In 2015, during a visit to Adelaide, my good friend John took me to a Cross-Town Showdown at Adelaide Oval. While I was there, it occurred to me that it was the first time I'd been at that oval since I played there in an Under-19 Grand Final in 1972. It was a rather nostalgic moment!
There are some similarities between Aussie Rules and Gaelic football, which led to some Irish players being recruited by AFL (and other) teams. Also, at the end of the AFL and Irish seasons, Australia plays an International Rules Series against Ireland.
Over the years, a number of semi-pro and pro Aussie Rules players have played in the US National Football League, selected for their ability in kicking field goals and kick-offs. Click here for more information.
The AFL actively promotes Aussie Rules outside Australia, and each season, a few games are played in other countries (e.g., China and New Zealand) to showcase the sport. International fans can also subscribe to live/replay broadcast videos.
In the past 10 years, there has been growing interest by women in playing Aussie Rules. In 2017, the AFL started a women's competition. Semi-pro and local leagues have followed.
Historically, Australian aborigines have shown a significant aptitude for various kinds of sports, including Aussie Rules. The AFL encourages the participation of indigenous players, and currently, they make up some 10% of the AFL player's list (which is a much higher ratio than their 3.3% in the general population).
Unlike the US college (university) sports system, which is a major pathway to playing professional American football (among other sports), Australia does not have any such system. Nor does it have any big, organized high school sports league systems. Players come to the semi-pro and pro ranks straight from high school or from local leagues.
Barring injuries, a good player might play 300+ games over 18 seasons, from age 18 to 35.
Unlike US pro teams, Aussie Rules teams are not owned by individuals or corporations; rather, a club owns itself! As such, teams are not bought and sold, renamed, or relocated to other cities.
For the rules of the game, click here.
If you've made it this far, and want to see how real football is played, search this website for game videos.
[Thanks very much to Roger M. for greatly improving my initial draft by incorporating all the changes during the game's evolution in the 40+ years since I left Australia. Thanks also to Kathy and John—rabid Port Power and Crows fans, respectively, for their input.]