There’s football as most of the world knows it, and then there is Australian Rules Football. It is big business and big money, and it’s here.
In a cricket field in Bhubaneshwar, the ground the ochre-red of central India’s mineral-rich earth, 36 young tribal children, dressed in identical school uniforms, are chasing after a ball. Kicking up large clouds of dust, they run, jump, defend, shout, all the while in hot pursuit of their prize. It could be any football field, anywhere in the country – until one leaps into the air and plucks a distinctly oval-shaped orb out of the air with his hands.
Jumping? Holding the ball? These aren’t the rules of football as well know them. But then, this isn’t football as it’s most commonly known.
It’s Australian rules football: Aussie rules, footy, AFL, a game that’s entirely homegrown in a country far from the traditional heartland of any other code of the game. They’re all there in Australia too: soccer, rugby union, rugby league – for a country of just 24 million people, that’s a lot of sport – but it is Australian rules that arouses the greatest heart-thumping passion and draws the greatest crowds. And it is a game that in the past few years, thanks to the determined efforts of a few, is slowly making inroads into India. But very, very slowly. It is now played in seven states, having been introduced to the students at Bubhaneshwar’s Kalinga Institute of Social Services in April this year, but the Kolkata-based headquarters of the game lack the funds to really get the game the oxygen it needs to really make inroads.
But more on that later. First, a primer in the essentials of the sport.
LESSON ONE: PICK ONCE, PICK WISELY
The very first thing to know about Aussie rules is that it is first and foremost a Melbourne game, a Melbourne passion. The game traces its roots back to the second city in the 1850s, and Melbournians are truly proud of the legacy. To grow up in Melbourne, as I did, is to have a team. If you don’t have a team, you quickly find yourself edged out of conversations, first in the schoolyard, then at parties, in pubs, in the workplace. New arrivals to Melbourne are quickly schooled in the ways of the locals, and those who are smart will pick a side and spend Saturdays throughout winters with the television glued to the right channel, then Mondays at work dissecting the match.
It was a lesson that my father, fresh in Melbourne in the 1960s from the wilds of Karnataka, learned quickly, but perhaps took some bad advice. In his first week he was taken for a beer by a fellow doctor, apparently to be set on the right path. He was instructed to firstly, get a flat of his own, then start dating a nurse, and most importantly, to start following the team Collingwood, colloquially known as the Magpies. Which he promptly did, and continued to do so for decades – even though it soon became apparent that he’d been sold a lemon. Collingwood supporters are renowned for being a little rough around the edges. Many a Saturday we would find ourselves at a game, three small Indian girls and their tweedy bespectacled father, surrounded by screaming Collingwood supporters with no front teeth.
LESSON TWO: KNOW YOUR CODE
While teams are now drawn from across Australia, such as the Greater Western Sydney Giants and the Adelaide Crows, suburban teams are still in existence in Melbourne, some dating back more than 150 years. The code now enjoys considerable support in Adelaide and Perth and elsewhere, but in Brisbane and Sydney it is simply tolerated. In these cities, it’s de rigueur to play rugby – union or league, depending upon your socio-economic status – and AFL is seen as an unfortunate blow-in from the south. Learning: if you swing into either of these two cities anytime soon, don’t try to bond with locals by talking up the chances of their local AFL team. Nothing will mark you out as an interlocutor quicker than this.
LESSON THREE: LEARN THE LANGUAGE
In Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide it’s called footy, pronounced ‘foody’ (as in ‘hoodie’, not ‘food-y’. This is not Masterchef). In Sydney or Brisbane it’s AFL (the Australian Football League is the game’s governing body). Still, ‘foody’ will do, particularly if you’re in an interstate crowd.
LESSON FOUR: UNDERSTAND THE RULES
Ultimately, all football codes are the same, right? There is a large field, a phalanx of sweaty, muddy, muscular men, two teams fighting over a sphere of animal skin and goals at either end. That’s AFL, too, but there are some pretty marked differences. For starters, each team has 18 players, meaning there are a lot of people on the ground at any time. Players wear the same kind of studded boots as in European futbal, but furnish them with tight shorty shorts and a jersey, or guernsey, that is usually a knitted vest in their team’s colours, but sometimes a long-sleeved sweater. Unlike those gridiron-playing lightweights, very little protective gear is worn, a mouthguard or shinguards at most.
The goals are four posts in a row: the two in the centre are the tallest, flanked by shorter poles. Kicking the ball in the very middle is a goal, getting it within the outside poles is a ‘behind’, which still garners points. The game is somewhat less structured and rule-bound than other codes. Players can catch the ball and run with it, however the only acceptable methods of passing it are either by a handball (that is, holding it in one hand, forming a fist and hitting it outwards with the other), or by kicking it.
And it is the kicks that really set AFL apart: kicked on the full with a straight leg, the ball can go high and long, forming a graceful arc far over the heads of players on the field. Everyone watches, sometimes there is a collective holding of breath, watching where it will fall. The sign of a truly talented footy player is when the ball crosses half the field in the air, coming down squarely between the goalposts. More often, however, a clutch of players from both sides will huddle together at the spot they estimate the ball will fall to the ground, and collectively leap up, sometimes a metre or two or more off the ground, all vying to be the one whose hands pluck it from the air. Catching it is what is known as a ‘mark’, and is this spectacle, of players collectively jumping into the air, that more often than not, people have come to see.
Seven years ago, Australian cricketer Ricky Ponting travelled to Kolkata, not to play or promote cricket, but instead to launch AFL in India. In the crowd was a keen sportsman just out of high school, who promptly fell in love with the game. Sudip Chakraborty, now 25, had already been playing volleyball, soccer and cricket, and saw in AFL the graceful beauty that many sports lack. “It’s visually the most attractive sport,” he says. “When you play you get to use all parts of your body. It doesn’t matter what your body type is like, what your skill set is like, in this sport there’s something for everyone.” Chakraborty joined the nascent AFL league, even after moving to Mumbai to study. Later, he did an Msc in sports management in the UK, but footy never left his mind for long, and in late 2012 he returned to Kolkata with the intention in mind to establish India’s AFL league.
“What sets the Indian AFL story apart and inspires people is that it’s the only place where locals have driven the growth of the sport, and not Australian expats,” he explains.
AFL reached other ports much earlier than India, such as Pacific islands like Nauru, New Zealand, South Africa and the US. In all, AFL is played in 50 countries around the world. Lately, much energy has been pumped into expanding the game in China. India doesn’t represent a great priority for the AFL establishment, yet Chakraborty is quick to point out the benefits of growing the game here: India already has a well-developed network of cricket fields that can be used for games, and 80 percent of AFL footballs are made in Punjab. (However it is worth pointing out that production on these was at least halted in 2012 when an Australian newspaper uncovered the widespread use of outsourced illegal child labour in the manufacturing of the best-known brand of footballs, Sherrin.)
At the same time, however, enthusiasm for growing the game here is somewhat muted. AFL India received some startup funding from the Australian government, but very little since, and certainly not enough to grow the game at the pace Chakraborty is eager to. Currently, there are teams in Jharkhand, Maharastra and Rajasthan; there’s the Kalinga school program in Orissa, another school program in Tamil Nadu, kids playing in West Bengal and Kerala, as well as a one-off program that was held in Chattisgarh. The paucity of funds the game receives is simply not enough to even keep these programs going, let alone expand, at this stage.
Chakraborty is philosophical about the state of affairs. “It’s still early days,” he says. “I think the league is more focused on spreading the game throughout Australia.”
This appears to be the case. At home, there is big money in Australian rules football’s professional league. Players can take home anything up to $A750,000 per season, and the team which wins the Grand Final gets $1m. Add to that the broadcast rights, merchandising, overpriced meat pies sold at the stadiums. And in August, the AFL announced it had signed a huge, $2.5 billion dollar deal for broadcasting rights – almost 70 percent more than the previous agreement. But individual teams can find their fortunes suffering, particularly if they have languished at the bottom half of the ladder for some years, or have suffered a drop in membership numbers.
As a result, many are now looking to new avenues to push more members – and here, the Indian diaspora has come in the sights of two suburban Melbourne teams, Richmond and Essendon. Indians are now migrating to Australia in droves, with 40,000 applying to migrate there in 2012-13: that’s a lot of potential new members. Essendon in particular appears to be working hard to embrace the community, even bringing some of its players to India last year, a trip documented on video and recently screened on local cable sports television. The team has also signed a local Sikh migrant, the AFL-playing and loving Amandeep Singh, as an ambassador. “Footy is such a great game, it really brings people together,” he says in a video on the club’s website, his face lit up and beaming with pride. His day job is working with the club to translate online content into Hindi. The team also sometimes provides broadcasts of games on the Fox Footy cable channel in Hindi and Punjabi.
It’s not an uncommon move: most teams, as well as the AFL management, is working hard to harness Australia’s multicultural population. Many teams have their own multicultural officers, and there is a Multicultural Round played each year, comprising of players from non-Anglo communities. In particular, Sudanese refugees, with their long lean body shape, have emerged as strong players.
Still, the game is marred by regular racism scandals, most recently in July this year when indigenous player – and Australian of the Year – Adam Goodes was resoundingly booed after performing an Aboriginal war dance while on field. The story dominated headlines for weeks afterwards, the discourse exposing some uncomfortable home truths about the nature of Australia’s peculiar brand of prejudice. It also managed to dent the AFL’s serious efforts to broaden its appeal amongst non-Anglo communities.
But that element is far from the minds of the Kalinga kids in Bubaneshwar. They might be a long way from the main AFL action, the hope is to inculcate in them the dream of one day, running out onto the MCG field under the bright lights, cheered on by tens of thousands, ready to leap high into the air to take a mark for their team.
Byline: Aarti Betigeri
Illustration: Reshidev RK