Australian Rules Football, also known as “Aussie Rules” or “footy”, is one of the many existing forms of football, with roots traceable from early forms of Rugby and Gaelic football, but it is uniquely Australian. Its rules were first codified in 1858, and probably predate all other modern forms of football, such as American, Canadian, Rugby Union and League, Association (Soccer) and Gaelic football. Interestingly, it is most likely the oldest organised football in the world.

Today it is a multi-million dollar business, with a professional national competition called the Australian Football League, semi-professional state leagues and a longstanding place in the community with amateur suburban and country football as the greatest participant pastime in Australia. Interest in the game is generally at an all time high within and outside Australia, yet despite this, some parts of eastern Australia are still lukewarm in support of their team in the AFL, and the game has yet to take a firm hold overseas.

As a uniquely native pastime, Australian Rules Football today is central to Australian identity and nationalism. Indeed, there is perhaps nothing more Australian than trying to hold a pie and a beer while singing Waltzing Matilda at the MCG on Grand Final day.

As the predominant sport for young men in our country, many of our servicemen have taken footy with them abroad. On October 28, 1916, at Queen’s Park, London, diggers training in England played a match before six thousand spectators, including the Duke of Windsor and King Manuel of Portugal. The Third Division played the Combined Training Unit with proceeds in aid of the Red Cross. In World War One the A.l.F. played the Light Horse (hundreds took part in the game) out in the front of the pyramids at Gizeh, Egypt. Anzacs played Football in France and in Greece. Australian soldiers have also played Football in North Africa, the Middle East, the South Pacific, New Guinea, the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam. The game is now continued in New Zealand and the South Pacific Islands because of them.

The VFL and AFL

The modern day Australian Football League (AFL) has many teams dating back to the beginnings of the game – the Melbourne Football Club is the oldest professional sporting club in the world, having been formed in 1860. Other clubs include Geelong(1860), North Melbourne – now the Kangaroos (1869) Port Adelaide (1870), Essendon (1873) and Footscray – now the Western Bulldogs (1877).

A schism in the Victorian Football Association (VFA) in the 1890s led to the formation of the Victorian Football League (VFL), which commenced play in 1897 as an eight team breakaway of the stronger clubs from the original VFA competition, increasing by 1925 to twelve Melbourne suburban clubs. All of the original VFL clubs are still in existence, with the exception of South Melbourne who in 1982 relocated to Sydney and became known as the Sydney Swans, and Fitzroy, which merged with Brisbane in 1996 due to financial difficulties.

In the late 1980s, a strong interstate interest in the game led to a more national competition so the VFL changed its name to the Australian Football League (AFL) in 1989 after admitting non-Victorian clubs. Today, the AFL is the sixteen franchise elite-level competition in the game.

At the elite level, the game still retains some touches from its inter-suburban roots. Players run on to the field through a crepe paper banner depicting some message (for instance, congratulating players on a milestone number of games) constructed by volunteer supporter groups at the mostly member-owned clubs. All clubs have a team song, most composed in the 1940s or apeing the musical style.

Leagues other than the AFL

There are many semi-professional and amateur leagues around Australia, where they play a very important role in the community, and particularly so in rural areas.

Perhaps the most notable of the other leagues are the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) and the Western Australian Football League (WAFL). Prior to the birth of the AFL, these two leagues were every bit as important as the VFL – these three leagues being the premier football league in each of the three premier football states. The footy tradition just as prevalent in the south and west as it is in the east.

Although the VFL was generally accepted as the strongest league, clubs from all three leagues frequently played each other on an even footing in challenge matches and occasional nationwide club competitions that were basically precursors to the AFL. However, with the introduction of the AFL, the state leagues rapidly declined to a secondary status.

The VFA, still in existence a century after the original VFL schism, changed its name to the Victorian Football League soon after the original VFL became the Australian Football League.

Australian Rules internationally

While Australian Rules Football is a popular spectator sport only in Australia (except for occasional exhibition games staged in London for the large Australian expatriate community there), there has since the late 1980s been a growing international amateur competition in countries such as New Zealand, Ireland, Great Britain, Denmark, the USA, Canada, Germany, Japan, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Samoa, China and South Africa, initially established by Australian expatriates but collecting growing numbers of native players.

A series of hybrid matches between Australia’s best and a representative Gaelic football team from Ireland have been staged on a yearly basis. The rules (called “International Rules”) are a compromise between the two codes, using a round ball and a rectangular field but allowing the fierce tackling of the Australian code. The series have remained evenly matched with the Irish using speed and athleticism, and the Australians strength and power – both inherent skills in their respective codes. This contrast of skills has created exciting contests that have been a hit with spectators.

Several Irish Gaelic footballers have been recruited to play in the Australian Football League, most notably Brownlow medallist Jim Stynes, Sean Wight, Brian Stynes with more recently Tadhg Kennelly, Setanta O’hAilpin and Colm Begley.

The inaugural Australian Rules International Cup was held in Melbourne, Australia in 2002. Eleven teams made up exclusively of foreign nationals played a series of matches, with – in a surprise result, Ireland defeating Papua New Guinea in the final.