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Why code wars are eroding Australia's love of sport

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In the second part of his meditation on the game(s) that shaped Australian Rules, Paul Marcuccitti argues that the ‘code wars’ dividing supporters are doing more harm than good – and explains why he, as a lover of soccer first and foremost, will be glued to the AFL Grand Final this weekend.

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Despite the British influence in its founding, and its limited popularity in Queensland and New South Wales, there is no reason to challenge the AFL’s claim that its sport is “Australia’s game”.

Its development, over more than 150 years, is an Australian story.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t seem to be enough for a few of the game’s propagandists.

Efforts to elevate the role of Tom Wills in the sport’s beginnings have succeeded in convincing many that he was the founder of the game.

He certainly promoted the playing of football, however, in organising matches and rules, he wasn’t alone.

But exaggerating Wills’ role goes hand-in-hand with exaggerating the ‘Australian-ness’ of the game’s origins as he was the only person involved in the writing of the sport’s original rules who was born on our continent.

There have even been efforts to describe parts of the original ten laws of the Melbourne Football Club as “uniquely Australian”. One such attempt suggested that one of the rules that did this was the banning of hacking.

That conclusion is flawed in a few ways but the most obvious is that Melbourne’s original laws owed as much – if not more – to the Cambridge Rules of 1848 (which didn’t allow hacking) as they did to the Rugby Rules (which did).

I devoted a lot of the first part of this piece to showing how heavily the first laws resembled those used in different codes in England – a necessary part of this discussion.

That, however, isn’t the most British aspect of Australian Rules’ beginnings.

READ MORE: Part One of Paul’s analysis of the shared heritage of the World Game and Australia’s game

For what happened in Melbourne in 1859 – agreeing on a set of rules for a code of football – was similar to what had happened in Rugby in 1845, in Cambridge in 1848 and 1863, and in Sheffield in 1858.

And these are just some of the more famous examples. As I also noted in part one, it would take until 1876 for the clubs here in Adelaide to end the division created by two different codes.

Moreover, in the 1850s, the three chaps who wrote the laws with Wills would have seen the Colony of Victoria (which had barely organised responsible government) as an outpost of their nation; they were Empire men, educated in the most hallowed universities of Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Their objective, famously stated by Wills, was to use football as a means to an end – keeping them fit while the Empire’s established sport – cricket – was out of season.

Even this goal wasn’t unique. The Sheffield Cricket Club had been organising football matches (which led to the writing of the Sheffield Rules) during winter months for the same reason.

One of the consequences of the exaggeration of Aussie Rules’ Australian-ness is it increases the perception that other sports, like soccer, are foreign or ethnic

Australian Rules’ popularity wouldn’t grow much until later in the 19th century when the Victorian Football Association began to take control of the arranging of fixtures and awarding of premierships. It is instructive that when William Hammersley died in 1886, the obituary in The Argus was glowing in its description of his cricket career but said nothing – not one word – of his contribution to football. This was one of the men who wrote the original Melbourne rules.

So it really doesn’t matter if there was a small influence on the original laws that could be described as uniquely Australian. The rules’ content was less important than their purpose. And that purpose had another (utterly English) sport in mind.

One of the consequences of the exaggeration of Aussie Rules’ Australian-ness is it increases the perception that other sports, like soccer, are foreign or ethnic.

It should be completely illogical. I don’t expect that most fans should be familiar with the sports’ shared roots but it is commonly known that soccer’s first laws were written in England (like those of several other games) and that England’s Premier League is incredibly popular around the globe.

Complementing the spin around Australian Rules’ origins are the lies that are told about soccer and its fans.

And all this simply results in building antagonism between supporters of the different codes.

Which is quite sad, particularly for people (like me) who love both sports.

When Saturday’s AFL grand final is played, I will have my eyes glued to the action as I do every year.

The game is part of my upbringing.

Soccer fans that also follow Australia’s game are getting fed up with the constant barrage of negativity aimed at them by the AFL’s media acolytes

Though my memory of it is vague, I know I was taken to the 1980 SANFL grand final (at the age of six). I even played for a year at school but then reverted to soccer which is of course my first sporting love.

Still, I’d get to play a bit more footy in house matches and I truly enjoyed them.

I understand that those in the AFL industry who influence code wars are doing so because they feel it will benefit or protect their product but I wonder if that approach might end up doing more harm than good.

Increasingly soccer fans that also follow Australia’s game are getting fed up with the constant barrage of negativity aimed at them by the AFL’s media acolytes.

I’m continually hearing more stories that they’re deciding not to buy AFL tickets or memberships because they feel that putting their dollars into the game would be rewarding belligerents.

And the hostility seems so pointless.

AFL is an extremely popular competition and it will remain popular. However, soccer isn’t going anywhere either – if there has been one silver lining from all the difficulties the sport has had here over the years, it’s that it has proven durability. It was always a step behind because even though it arrived late in the 19th century, other codes already had a foothold.

An article in The Advertiser of 8 July 1893 shows this and it also noted that English football players were divided as well. I apologise in advance for the length of this excerpt but how much it says about how we got to where we are is quite extraordinary:

“The unassuming football match played last Wednesday on the ground of Prince Alfred College between representatives of H.M.S. Ringarooma and a local scratch team may possibly prove to be the opening of a new era in the record of the game in this colony.

“For the encounter in question was regulated by the laws of the English ‘Association’ game, and it seems to be understood that two clubs will be formed in Adelaide under these rules.

“It need hardly be said that English football players are divided into two great camps, devoted respectively to ‘Association’ and ‘Rugby’ rules; and that Australia has devised for herself an original code, a compromise between the other two, but utterly unlike either.

“This is accepted in South Australia, Victoria, and Tasmania, while New South Wales, Queensland, and New Zealand have adopted ‘Rugby’ rules almost without exception.

“This diversity of opinion is unfortunate, but there is not much hope of its being remedied. Indeed, an additional element of confusion seems likely to arise, for several clubs have recently been established in Melbourne under Rugby rules, and now, as we have said, the ‘Association’ game is about to be introduced here.

“Its chief peculiarities are, briefly, that the ground is oblong, not oval, the ball is round, and must not be touched at all with the hands, the goalposts have a cross-bar at the height of some ten feet, under which the ball has to pass to constitute a goal, and the players are only eleven on each side.

“It is of course the true and original ‘football’, the use of the arms in any way being strictly prohibited.”

(NB: I paragraphed this piece to make it easier to read. Also, for completeness, soccer had been played in Sydney as early as 1880.)

It is understandable that “the diversity of opinion” was “unfortunate” in 1893.

But now that it’s been a feature of sport in Australia for more than a century, it’s something we should have less trouble appreciating.

Paul Marcuccitti is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays. 

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