In Melbourne, it’s an institution even a religion. Traditionally it is played on a Saturday afternoon and luckily for us, we were attending such a game.
Of course, this was last year. This year, with the COVID 19 virus everything, including football has been called off.
Except now we have ‘flattened the curve’ football can start again, only without the spectators. Social distancing means we can’t pack the stadium, or go to a game. For a while, it was just be from our lounge rooms, watching it on the TV.
But, as some of the states began to get on top of the virus, football teams moved from Victoria, and played in Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, and the Northern Territory.
And as the Victorian situation got worse, the decision was made to move the grand final, which had never left the MCG in Victoria, to Brisbane. It was like America never losing the Americas Cup, until they did.
But, below, is the atmosphere that we have been missing, and has returned in a limited sense as coronavirus restrictions eased (but not completely), a game we attended last year:
The stadium is the MSG, one of the biggest and best in Australia. Shortly after the start, I’d estimate there are about 40,000, but eventually, we were told there was 53,000, spectators here for a clash between the two Melbourne based teams. It is not unheard of to have in closer to 90,000 spectators, and the atmosphere is at times electric.
For the die-hards like me who can remember the days when there were only Victorian-based teams, in the modern-day form of the game, to have two such teams is something of a rarity.
However, it’s not so much about the antics on the field as it is the spectators. They are divided into three groups, the members, the private boxes, and the general public.
But in the end, there is no distinction between any of them because they all know the rules, well, their version of them, and it doesn’t matter who you are, If there is something that goes against your team, it is brings a huge roar of disapproval.
Then there are ebbs and flows in the crowd noise and reactions to events like holding the ball attracting a unified shout ‘ball, or a large collective groan when a free kick should have been paid or by the opposite team’s followers if it should have been.
It is this crowd reaction which makes going to a live game so much better than watching it televised live. The times when players take marks, get the ball out of congestion, and when goals are scored when your team is behind and when one is needed to get in front.
This is particularly so when one of the stars goes near the ball and pulls off a miracle 1 percent movement of the ball. These are what we come to see, the high flying marks, the handball threaded through a needle, a kick that reaches one of our players that looked like it would never get there, an intercept mark or steal that throws momentum the opposite way.
This game is not supposed to be a game of inches but fast yards, a kick, a mark, a handball, a run, and bounce. You need to get the ball to your goal as quickly as possible.
That’s the objective.
But in this modern game, much to the dismay of spectators and commentators alike, there is this thing called flooding where all 36 players are basically in a clump around the ball and it moves basically in inches, not yards.
It is slow and it is ugly.
It is not the game envisioned by those who created it and there is a debate right now about fixing it.
Here, it is an example of the worst sort. This game is played in four quarters and for the first two, it is ugly scrappy play with little skill on display. The third shows improvement and it seems the respective coaches had told their players to open it up
They have and it becomes better to look at.
But this is the point where one team usually gets away with a handy lead, a third-quarter effort that almost puts the game out of reach. The fourth quarter is where the losing team stages a comeback, and sometimes it works sometimes it does not.
The opposition gives it a red hot try but is unsuccessful. Three goals in a row, it gave their fans a sniff of hope but as the commentators call it, a kick against the flow and my team prevails.
It is the moment to stay for when they play the winning teams song over the stadium’s loudspeaker system, and at least half the spectators sing along. It is one of that hair raising on the back of your neck moments which for some can be far too few in a season
We have great hopes for our team this year, and it was worth the trek from Brisbane to Melbourne to see it live rather than on the TV
Leaving the ground with thousands of others heading towards the train station for the journey home there is a mixture of feelings, some lamenting their teams, and others jubilant their team won. There is no rancor, everyone shuffles in an orderly manner, bearing the slow entry to the station, and the long lines to get on the train.
Others who perhaps came by car, or who have decided to wait for a later train or other transport, let their children kick the football around on the leaf-covered parkland surrounding the stadium.
It is an integral part of this game that children experience the football effect. Kicking a ball with your father, brothers, and sisters, or friends on that late autumn afternoon is a memory that will be cherished for a long long time.
It’s where you pretend you are your favorite player and are every bit as good. I know that’s what I used to do with my father, and that is what I did with my sons.
But no matter what the state of the game, it is the weekend the football fans look forward to and who turn out in their hundreds of thousands. It is a game that ignites passions, it brings highs and it brings incredible lows.
And, through thick and thin, we never stop supporting them.