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Football In Australia

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Australians developed their own version of football four years before the English FA had established a set of rules in 1863. The game started spreading beyond Melbourne in the 1880s but really took off after World War II. David Goldblatt reports.
Football arrived in Australia before the rules had been settled in England. British migrants, colonisers and convicts brought traditions of mob football and public schools football to Australia along with British attitudes, class structure and culture. But 12,000 miles from home, and without any regular communication, this transplanted microcosm of Britain evolved, like Australia's unique plants and animals (which evolved in isolation from the rest of the world), in a very individual direction.
The early arrival of the game is one reason why the nation, with its Anglophone society, invented its own version rather than adopting its metropolitan equivalent. By the early 1850s, a large-scale game was played in Melbourne based on the English public school rules of "old boys" (former pupils) against the elite. The games proved so popular that the first set of Melbourne Rules were established in 1859: four years before the FA made up rules in London in 1863.
The Australian rules allowed handling and catching of the ball and created a game of remarkable speed and fluidity. By the mid-1860s, large crowds were gathering on Melbourne's cricket pitches and scrubland to watch the game. A report in Bell's Life magazine from July 29, 1865, described the journey of the ball during the game: "Backwards and forwards, on this side and that, now out of bounds; amongst the crowd and again into the ditch by the fence, now into old Dennis's cabbage patch, and again kicked into the branches of those horrible gums; now kept in exciting closeness to the Melbourne goal… and for over two hours, the closest observer could not tell which side had the best of it."
By the late 1860s, the game was entrenched in Melbourne and clubs formed in every new suburb of the rapidly expanding city. In close parallel with the English game, the crowds became greater and amateurism could not contain the vast interest of the sport. Soon enough fences, turnstiles, money and payment to players became part of the sport. This was followed in the 1880s by the creation of a full professional league in the city, and the addition of new teams in the rest of Victoria and in South Australia as well.
Football based on the English FA's rules finally did arrive in Australia in the 1870s following a new wave of British migrants to the industrial suburbs of Sydney and the towns of New South Wales and Queensland. But even here the game's hold was precarious. By the turn of the century, rugby union and rugby league were more popular, leaving football as the second or third sport in every state of the country.
Australia's hitherto autonomous states (like New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland) handed over much of their power to a central federal Australian government in 1900. At this crucial moment of nation-building, the sporting authorities declared their intentions: "One flag, one destiny, one football game." That game was Australian Rules football, to be played only with balls from Australian manufacturers and to be staged beneath an Australian flag at every stadium.
Although a football association was created in 1884 and local leagues and inter-state matches began to develop, the game based on the FA's rules remained fragmented and amateur. Its revival, even at this level, would await a new influx of migrants from Greece, Croatia and other parts of Europe in the inter-war and post world war two years, a revival which only served to reinforce the minority status of the game.


David Goldblatt, March 2004

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