A few weeks ago I received an email at work announcing that my place of work, which sponsors the Western Bulldogs Football Club (an AFL - Australian Rules Football club), is doing this competition where people can win four tickets to see an upcoming game between the Bulldogs and St Kilda.
Now, St Kilda is my brother's favorite team. While I couldn't really care less about the AFL - I can't seem to connect with the sport and I keep longing for real football - my brother is really into it.
And as if I needed more to tempt me, the competition involved this "write in your own words how to eat your cake and have it", and in contrast to the way these contests are usually run, there was no word limit.
Readers of this blog will know fairly well that I can bullshit with the best of them when called upon, especially when I'm allowed to go about and unleash a hellish number of words.
And thus, to no one's surprise (especially as there were overall 50 winners in an organization numbering more than 1000 and most of the employees not bothering), we got our tickets.
I managed to drag Jo with me, and to be honest it seems as if she enjoyed it more than I have. Not that I suffered or anything - it was fun - but with all due respect to the AFL (and to be frank, there's not much of it), football it isn't.
There are a few issues where the sport fails. Just like the NFL, it has too many breaks (although compared to NFL, this is an ultra flowing game), and just like the NFL you don't always know why there was a break. I managed to make some of the crowd laugh when I shouted "offside" at one of those unclear referee calls (for some reason, AFL referees are referred to as "umpires", even if they never strike back).
The next problem is that the game is a high scoring game. Although on the face of it this sounds like an advantage - you don't get the notorious 0:0 or the 1:0 to Germany/Italy you get in football, but on the other hand you have to be lucky to watch two very well matched teams to get a tense match. And that something that happens as often as lottery wins. Our match was a case in point: The first quarter ended with the Doggies leading by 4 goals, but by the end of the second quarter the Saints had a 4 goal lead of their own that just kept on being extended throughout the second half; I have no idea why the supporters kept on cheering, because there wasn't much to play for anyway.
One of the things Aussie Rules supporters use to mock football with is the regular use of "simulation" in football. The claim is that basically football is a sport for the light of heart, while real man play the AFL game. However, while there is certainly a lot of to say against football's ever growing spirit, it's not like the AFL is rife with sportmanship. Players push and bash one another constantly, regardless of where the ball is. And everybody will tell you that this is a legitimate strategy to take the opponent off balance!
And it's not like simulations do not exist; they happen on a regular basis, just as in football. One of the St Kilda players we watched, Gehrig, was such a good actor that even Pires would take a bow. The only difference is that in the AFL the average level of violent action is much higher than in football because much more is allowed by the book.
Still, there was plenty to enjoy in the game.
For a start, the atmosphere is great. Unlike football, both teams' supporters are mingled with one another, and surprise surprise they actually enjoy watching the game together. The importance of this can not be overestimated, as in English football in particular one often gets the feeling that rivaling supporters truly hate their counterparts' guts.
And then there's simply the fact that you're sitting in a 55,000 seat capacity stadium watching a match with more than 47,000 other spectators. Just going in and out of the stadium is impressive.
It's annoying to see the more expensive seats left empty while the true supporters are shoved to the inferior seats, but it is also nice to see entire families coming along - babies et al - to watch the game. Female attendance rates are quite high, too. The AFL is truly perceived as a sports for the people, not just the lunatics who have nothing else to live for and who only go to satisfy their tribalism related needs.
For something that we got for free, and for something which we seem to be doing every three years (that was the last time we saw an AFL match live), it was quite a nice experience.