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The Greatest Game edited by Ross Fitzgerald and Ken Spillman


I borrowed this book from a friend of mine who is a passionate fan of Australian Rules Football and in particular the Hawthorn Hawks and I enjoyed reading something a bit lighter than the fare I have written about of late. The Greatest Game is a ‘fair dinkum’ collection of poetry, personal histories and other tales connected to Victoria’s (and now maybe Australia’s) preeminent winter sporting code: Australian Rules Football.  It is apparent from reading the various stories whether they be about famous battles in the grand final between giants of the game on the Melbourne Cricket Ground or local heroes battling it out on country grounds that Australian Rules Football is a quintessential part of traditional ocker culture for many Australians.

Sport for life

Sport has been used as a political tool by many nefarious entities including colonial Britain who believed that games such as rugby and cricket would have a civilising affect on the unruly natives. In more benign fashion, I recall the emphasis placed upon sport at school as promoting certain virtues such as commitment, hard work, fair play and loyalty. To those who enjoy sport this is a great thing and we relished taking part in something we loved but to others who were less inclined I imagine enforced sport must have been a chore.  Nowhere is this idea better epitomised than in the chapter written by a theologian called “Dropping the Ball – The Original Sin”*.

The writer describes his religious mentor as a compassionate and sensitive man, devout in his practice and pursuant of Christian virtues in his everyday life. In all of his life, the mentor appeared to be the picture of a humble saint except on Wednesday afternoons when he devolved into a snarling beast who forced his charges to participate in the savage game that is football.  Strong arguments were made by the student that enforced football was like military conscription held no truck with the conscientious objector man of the cloth. Instead he insisted that his students tear into each other. Football was mandatory. It was much to our hero’s chagrin when after being brutalised in a tackle, the whistle blew and he was penalised for “dropping the ball”.

The Fans

The devolution of a humble and modest peace loving Christian into an unruly animalistic character baying for blood as depicted above says something about the tribal uncivilising effect of team sports. I am sure there has been some detailed sociological (perhaps anthropological as well) analysis of the tribalism of sports players and fans alike but suffice to say AFL football is little different for the players or the fans. Passions run deep and fans stay loyal to the team they have once chosen to barrack for come hell or high water. The passion and parochialism runs so deep that the decision by the legendary Ron Barrasi to change teams from Melbourne to Carlton elicited a very negative response. Such a response which typified the expectation of loyalty during the more amateur days of sport was summed up well in the chapter aptly titled “The Perfidy of Ron Barrasi”. Ron Barrasi moved to Carlton in 1965 but the game like many others has changed immeasurably since then.

The professional and the Amateur

One of the persistent stories in sports writing today relates to the pervasiveness of commercialism in the game in question and the distortion of the virtues associated with that game such as fair play, hard work and loyalty. The modern professional player is held to be an amoral mercenary chasing the biggest payday wherever he can find it and chasing any advantage he can get whether it within the ‘spirit’ of the game or not.  A number of the stories within the Greatest Game do critique the modern game and lament the passage of the greatly romanticised amateur era when men played for the love of the game on saturdays after a week’s hard work (often at manual labouring jobs).

The book contains a chapter on Warwick Capper who with long blond hair and flashy white boots to go with his commercial endorsements represented the antithesis of the traditional values long held dear by fans of the sport. Today, the game like many others around the world is entirely professional and Mr Capper would not raise an eyebrow amongst players with tattoos, varied hair styles and a large number of sponsors. Contrary to this narrative I believe that professionalism enriches the game for all viewers.

While we are all inclined to look to the past with rose tinted glasses, I believe the reality is somewhat different. We may lament the supposed loyalty of the amateur era and the rugged battles of yesteryear but the games we see today are vastly changed and for the most part in positive ways. Skilled athletes who are paid for their ability can hone their craft by training full time. The speed of AFL football seems to have increased to a vast degree with teams able to play breathless football as they kick goals without a player being touched by the opposition in movements  sweeping across one end of the ground to the other. Here is exhibit A:



Or there are moments of individual brilliance to savour. Here is exhibit B:



The Greatest Game tells some great tales about the game of Australian Rules Football and helps outsiders gather precisely why it evokes such tribal support amongst its devoted fans. Whilst the romantic picture of the amateur player labouring away in honest toil juxtaposed with the glamorous modern player is overdone, the book is a good collection and most enjoyable. I would recommend to anyone interested in learning more about Australian or sporting culture.

*Dropping the ball when being tackled instead of kicking it or hand balling (punching the ball held in a flat palm with the opposite hand) it will incur a free kick to the opposing side in Australian Rules Football


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