Saturday, July 2, 2011

A man's love for footy

I don’t get AFL.

I mean, I understand the game; I frikkin love it. What I don’t get is why it means so much to me. How can watching a bunch of guys – most now younger than me – running around after a piece of inflated leather and trying to put it between a couple of poles engage my most basic, instinctive, raw emotions.

What the hell does it all mean? I know its best for me not to think about such things too much, but overanalysing the curious elements of life is one of my curses.

Tonight I spent a lonely Saturday night at home glued nervously to the TV, enthralled by the efforts of my boys – Essendon – to overcome the undefeated Geelong and a month of shitty form, and fight out the best win I’ve seen since ‘AnZaharakis Day’ two years ago (I’ll come back to that one).

I don’t often find myself watching Essendon games alone. My main Bomber buddy was at a gig tonight and I don’t much go to Docklands anymore since they cracked down on the ability for me and my mates (and seemingly many others) to enter the ground with a cheap child’s ticket purchased online. I often wondered what Ticketmaster and the AFL made of all the children buying tickets with no adult accompaniment.

But you can’t beat being at the MCG for a big game, one of 90,000 people all focused on that little ball, yelling in an absurd manner and tapping into an instinctive, irrational, but oh so enlivening emotion.

It’s a crazy experience really. People around you are nervous, excited, angry, jubilant, hysterical, hyper-active, dumbfounded, and just about any other emotional adjective you care to throw in. Some sit in silence, maybe with a twitching leg, or biting their nails; many yell out intermittent “Go Bombers!” in an attempt to help lift the players, others keep it more subdued, maybe seeking to reaffirm their own faith; and others will yell instructions and abuse to their own players as if they are better qualified to judge their decision-making than the coach or players themselves. Then there are the words yelled towards the opposition team, but I think that's more of a release, healthy or not, than the other behaviours which are seem to be more tied up in the emotional experience of following a sporting team. I do find myself telling the ball to ‘bounce!’ before landing in an opposition players arms, or muttering ‘punch!’ to both myself and almost telepathically to, say. Dustin Fletcher in a nonsensical effort to will these outcomes.

The way people react to their own team fascinates me most. Yeah, I'll admit I’ve been part of the vocal Brent Stanton anti-fan club at times, and I take credit for any proliferation of referring to Prismall as Brent ‘Dismal’. I'm not proud of that, but that’s generally when I’m at my most frustrated. I like to think I’m a fan who cheers the positive more than deriding the negative.

But I’m staggered by the people who continue to bag the team, and particular players, even when the team’s winning. What’s the point in going if you can’t find anything to enjoy, right?

The 2009 season was one of the most enjoyable of my life, in many ways even more than our (yes, ‘our’) dominant premiership year in 2000 when winning games, including the grand final, was little more than a relief and enjoyment had to be drawn out from gloating about our dominance. In 2009 though, the team overachieved, unexpectedly producing a bunch of amazing wins from nowhere and I remember Facebook being a frenzy of Essendon love after every win. I have a lot of friends of varying degrees to share the love with and it was, plain and simple, a load of fucking fun. In some cases it’s all we have in common, but its just about enough.

AnZaharakis Day
Clearly ANZAC Day is my favourite match of each year (while we’re not playing finals especially), and I’ve already written about it from a different perspective. That 2009 match is one of the best footy experiences I’ve ever had – I just remember being in the standing room as Zaharakis kicked that goal and moments later when the siren went, jumping around madly in a moment of lost adult sensibility, hugging and high-fiving friends and strangers alike, sharing emotions created by a group of guys we have no real connection to. Whatever – it was a true moment in life.

But where does the meaning come from? The clubs aren’t community-based clubs anymore, they’re businesses. The many suburban teams around Melbourne in the AFL are also linked less and less to their traditional geographical base – Hawthorn and Collingwood don’t even train in those suburbs any more. Is it the jumper? Those change too with marketing and merchandising having its way at most clubs – not so much at Essendon thankfully. The players mostly have no previous link to the team when drafted, and are traded around as commodities of the business, rather than enduring representatives of the culture.

At least in one-city, one-team sports you have a sense of shared allegiance within the general community who follow that sport. I’m dead keen on going to a Geelong game at Kardinia Park, the last true suburban ground in the AFL, in a one-team town, and remember thinking it would have been amazing to experience the celebrations of the two recent premierships in Geelong. But it was their moment.

Until recently I didn’t even know why Essendon is my team. It’s a northern suburb, far from the eastern base of my dad’s family who almost all staunchly support the Bombers. Apparently the reason is that my Grandfather owned a pub in Essendon that was frequented by many people from the club. And so a tradition was born, despite the fact they lived in Ivanhoe, probably a Collingwood area if anything. Thank God for the drinkers at Essendon back in the 1950s.

I can see why people don’t get into it. Sure, on a level it is superficial, meaningless crap. The players are overpaid entertainers, the clubs and league are more and more detached from the community, but in Melbourne the AFL remains at the centre of a significant, inescapable culture. If you don’t have a team you may as well ignore half the city’s winter conversation.

Resist the urge to think too deeply about it, even if a lot of journalists are paid far to much to do so, and just enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with riding the rollercoaster of emotions and having fun with it.

I don’t know why watching David Zaharakis kick that goal was one of the most exhilarating moments in my life. It doesn’t matter. It feels kind of sad to say that, but I don’t think it is. Maybe if I’d been sitting at home alone and it was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life it would be sad. Or if I was in a cheer squad.

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