Words and photos by Jenni Mazaraki
Every year about this time it happens. Every year my chest tightens and my ears want to close off from the abrasive sound it makes. And now they’ve even got a public holiday for it.
The AFL grand final is almost here. Even though I’ve never really been interested, I know it’s on this Saturday. It takes priority at this time of year. My friends and I changed our plans to go and see some art at the Ian Potter Centre this long weekend because we realized that Fed Square would be filled with footy fans.
Living in Melbourne, there is almost a cultural obligation to follow the AFL. I’ve had many awkward conversations when people realize I don’t follow a team.
Here’s the thing. I have a long, complicated relationship with football that is messy, tangled and fraught.
My birthday and the AFL grand final are around the same time. It was a given that my birthday celebration would need to be adjusted to fit around football celebrations. It was like this as a child as well as an adult. Maybe it’s similar to the way kids feel when they are born around Christmas. All I know is that the deep-seated resentment started young.
It was also the fact that my Dad was a Collingwood fan. Totally obsessed. The mood of the house would be metered by the rise and fall of the shouts and commentary blaring from his paint splattered transistor radio every weekend. When he would take us to games, I would feel a special kind of terror, crammed amongst adults, usually men who would burst into aggressive cheers and shouts at apparently random moments without any rhyme or reason that I could see.
The hard wooden benches at Waverley provided no comfort or shelter from the elements and there was no way to avoid the stench of stale beer, meat pies and soggy chips doused in salt and vinegar mixed with the constant wafts of cigarette smoke. I would be confused as a kid and try to pass the time by tearing up polystyrene cups into confetti to throw ceremoniously into the air whenever the men shouted in a jubilant manner and pumped the air with their fists.
If Collingwood won, everything was great. If they lost, it felt as if we all had to establish a tone of respectful mourning. It was tiresome and annoying and I didn’t get it.
But such was the pressure I felt that I tried to like it. I tried to understand its beauty and power. I went to games when I was older and watched Nathan Buckley run that ground like he owned the joint.
I watched the people in the crowd. The nannas with their hand knitted beanies and crocheted seat cushions. The little kids in oversized footy vests, indoctrinated young. The girlfriends giving it a go for their new boyfriends. The face painters, the novelty hat wearers, the stylish women wearing coordinated team colours with nails painted to match. The people for whom this game, this day was their religion. A place where they could pour their hopes and come together with a crowd full of strangers and be as one. They belonged. It was their place. I understood and I respected it, but I knew it would never be my thing.
And then a funny thing happened. A couple of years ago I started noticing footy ovals as I drove past and admired their beauty. The crisp white paint of the boundary lines against the lush, winter green grass caught my eye.
I longed for the sense of connection and passion that football fans had and poured this search into an appreciation of the aesthetics of the field. I’d drive past training at night on my way to pottery class and suck my breath in sharply at the sight of mist hovering like a heavy ghost over the field. The night lights accentuated the other-worldliness of this place where people gathered to train like warriors for the weekend events.
But I still felt outside of it all. I still changed the TV channel when the footy came on. I switched the radio when the sport was read out. Because football was not mine. It was still manly and aggressive and frightening to be around.
Things are changing now though. Have you seen those signs popping up at suburban grounds? They are an invitation to women and girls. ‘Kick like a girl,’ they say. Strung up on wire fences, the signs look like they’ve always been there, no big deal. But it is a big deal. It feels like footy is for everyone now. Girl’s leagues are growing and earlier in September, the AFL launched the official branding of the Women’s league. (It’s a brilliant logo incorporating a stylized ‘W’, goal posts and a goal square.)
There is a saying bouncing around the internet lately that tells us that, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ What this means is that visibility is important for role-modelling identity to young people. If young girls grow up seeing that AFL is for them, then the sense of inclusion and opportunity exists in a tangible form.
It’s a bloody big deal.
Now all we need is for the AFL women’s league salaries to match the salaries of the men’s league players. The AFL has promoted the league and we know a bit about the players. We know that Moana Hope is a goal kicking machine. Just pay them all well for the job they’re doing.
There might even be a day where I celebrate my birthday at the footy watching women players own the field as they kick like girls. And I might even love it. It could happen. Anything’s possible.