Melbourne is the love of my life. But I hate football. Absolutely detest it. I’ve always hated it. The smell, the sound, the taste… BLERGH. Melbourne I would happily take a bullet for. Football, on the other hand, don’t get me started. Actually I think you just did.
The only thing more suffocating than growing up marinated in something you are repelled by is having to strap on a fake smile and pretend you like it. ‘Why?’ I hear you ask. ‘Why did you feel you had to pretend to like it? Why didn’t you just say, “I hate cauliflower, I hate weeding and I hate football”?’
My 12-year-old asked me the other day, ‘Why were you a Catholic when you were young?’ I thought for a minute and responded, ‘Because I didn’t know there was a choice.’ Football was the same.
Growing up in Melbourne in the ’70s and ’80s, I was embedded in a culture that was obsessed by football. I kept trying to fit in, thinking, ‘Surely all these people can’t be wrong, can they? What am I missing?’ I decided to just pretend.
The result of faking interest in football was decades of nauseating, confusing alienation and cognitive dissonance. It was a life feeling there was something wrong with me. Footy was everywhere. Footy was everything. Who you barracked for was an integral element of who you were and said something about your personality. You could make immediate enemies or instant friends the moment you revealed your team. It was not uncommon for a son or daughter to tell their parents they were getting married and for the first question to be, ‘Who do they barrack for?’
You didn’t just support a club, your veins bled your team’s colours. And how closely you were connected to football was a sign of your worth. ‘You have a cousin in the Carlton under 19s? Well, that’s impressive.’
‘Front row tickets at the grand final? Grouse! Can I see the stubs?’
‘Your uncle is Tommy Hafey’s neighbour? Could you get his autograph for me?’
‘Your dad coaches Carlton? Your dad is a dead-set legend.’
‘You’re married to a footballer…’ (Stutters and staggers into a speechless heap.)
Footballers were – and I am not putting too fine a point on it – gods. Back then, footy was the only way bogans could get famous. These days we have reality shows.
Everywhere you looked there were bumper stickers: ‘One Eyed Pies Supporter!‘ ‘Died in the Wool Demons Fan!’ ‘Go Bombers!’ ‘EON FM Rocks the Bulldogs!’ Have the times changed, or have I just moved suburbs?
Come to think of it, not only did football dominate the conversation and commentary of my first twenty years, it even inveigled itself into fashion, décor and pop music. The barbershop quartet team anthems with the jaunty brass backing were hideous enough but the schmaltzy formulaic pop songs were the real shockers; ‘One Day In September’, ‘Aussie Rules I Thank You For The Best Years Of Our Lives’, ‘The Thing About Football’ and, of course, ‘Up There Cazaly’.
The cloying lyrics and emotionally manipulative music would invoke involuntary goosebumps, teary eyes and a subsequent feeling of embarrassment. The rousing chord progressions, choirs in full flight, strings in octaves and timpani created a confected majesty that tapped into our animal brains. We’re not that smart. Do keep in mind we’re all just monkeys wearing clothes.
The ubiquity of football was even more amplified because of where I lived – in the housing commission area of Reservoir. Reservoir was a working class Mecca where the worst thing you could be accused of was being up yourself. Football was considered a great leveler, an arena where even the dumbest could find some fame, some kudos, some respect. Football was the only game in town. You chose a team and you stuck to it. It was almost like choosing your star sign. And it was for life. You couldn’t change. My childhood was infested with footy-branded beanies, scarves, show bags, stickers, duffle coats, badges, bath towels and doona covers. In: group loyalty. Out: group hostility.
Footy cards were big. Kids would run through four lanes of traffic to grab an empty aluminium can they spotted on the side of the road so they could trade it in for a few cents. They would save up their ‘can money’ so they could go up to the milk bar to buy a packet of footy cards. A packet consisted of five cards with pictures of players on one side and their ‘stats’ on the back, with a stale stick of chewing gum shoved in for good measure. Kids, mostly boys, would sit around at playtime trading cards. ‘Got him, got him, need him, got him, swap ya, got him, got him, need him, got him’. Their dream was to ‘collect the set’. I never knew of anyone who did.
Back then, I barracked for North Melbourne. Why? Well, why does anyone barrack for anyone? I barracked for North Melbourne because my mum did and I was a suck. I had no idea where North Melbourne was, wasn’t keen on blue and white, and had no interest in kangaroos. But at least I had a team. As I navigated my childhood and found myself embedded in constant football I could at least feel a part of one of the twelve tribes that made up what appeared to me at the time to be the world.
‘So who do you barrack for, young Cathy?’
‘Ah, never mind, I won’t hold that against you.’
What does that even mean?
Football was all anyone talked about. I would see people listening to it on the radio, watching it on the television, and as spectators at the footy. These grumpy, surly, disappointed people were alight with excitement at the game. The game! The game! The game! Yet many of us thought, ‘Who cares who gets the ball and who passes to who and who kicks the most balls and who scores the highest and who’s on top of the ladder and who gets the wooden spoon?’ But we dared not utter a sound lest we expose that we were ‘up ourselves’ or ‘unAustralian’.
There was a book that came out in 2002 called Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters. It was about the history of soccer in Australia but the title perfectly illustrates what people thought of you if you didn’t follow footy. You were either a sheila, a wog or a poofter. You were an outsider and not to be trusted.
People keep telling me football’s improved on the misogyny, homophobia and racism front. I’m not convinced. Football only progresses when it has to. When it would be bad for business. The AFL are never pioneering in policies advancing women, GLBTIQ, multiculturalism or people with disabilities. Unless, it means they’ll lose shareholders.
I have three sons. All in high school. None of them are into football at all. We didn’t discourage them. To the contrary. We made sure there were balls around that they could play with and if they showed any interest we bought the appropriate colour jumper, went to grand final barbeques and even organised for one of the boys to see a game at the MCG. I have a vague recollection of one of them spending a couple of mornings at Auskick. I think he only went because he heard there were sausages.
The reason we did not actively discourage our sons’ interest in football was simple. While their dad is not into football either, he would tell me about the importance of being able to chat about what’s going on in the world of football in order to lubricate social and work situations. It’s easier than having to explain yourself with people you were probably never going to see again, or people you just had to work with.
When the boys were young there wasn’t a function, party, get-together or barbeque without a boozy older man bailing them up with, ‘So who do you barrack for, little fella?’ To which they would reply, ‘No one.’ It would take a while to register and the old bloke would look startled, hurt and a bit angry. Then he’d say, ‘You have to barrack for someone.’ And they would respond with something like, ‘Why?’, ‘No you don’t,’ or ‘What difference does it make?’
At a recent dinner party I met a woman who was into football and I asked her if she could guess who people barracked for. She was pretty confident she could. So we halted the chat about renovations, schools and medical dramas and the woman guessed which teams people around the table barracked for. Despite not knowing much about them, she mostly got their teams right.
People occasionally question the video games or movies I let my sons watch. When I respond I would much prefer them play computer games than watch or participate in football, they are gobsmacked. At least computer games come with a rating system, warning of confronting or potentially offensive content. Video games are constantly under attack for their supposed ‘bad influences’. Of course, not everything about them is brilliant. As my old Iraqi mate says to me, ‘Every house has a toilet.’ But people are constantly criticising them, hand-wringing about ‘all that violence’, yet have no problem with football.
I rarely have any contact with football now. Which is liberating. And a relief. It seems far less pervasive than it was when I was young but occasionally I find myself unable to escape it in conversation, on the radio or blaring on a screen. ‘Men, men, men,’ I say in my head as football infects the space. If my sons are there, I say it aloud.
‘Oh look! Something different! Let’s cut to some men commentating with other men about what some men did. Time to show a bit of respect as an old man is being driven around the MCG in an open-top car and the men commentating are calling him a hero and a legend and people are clapping and crying. Back to the men talking about what the other men are doing. Now for a commercial break. Men drinking beer, men tending the barbeque, men driving cars while women sit in the passenger seat. Oh, here’s a woman! What is she saying? “Being a mum is the most important job in the world.” And what’s this ad for? Toilet cleaner. Now back to the football. Men, men, men, men, men.’
So I wrote the above piece a year ago. It was published in this famous and fabulous anthology From The Outer published by Black Inc Books. They asked if I’d like to contribute to a book on football. ‘Sure!’ I said ‘You do know I fucking hate football’. ‘Yes, yes, yes’ they responded ‘write whatever you want’. They assured me they wanted some ‘light and shade’.
When I submitted the piece they sent me something through that said something like ‘Love the piece Dev. Just a few things. The title…’
‘What’s the problem?’
‘Well we are hoping to sell it into schools.’
‘What’s wrong with ‘Rapists In Shorts?’
So the title was changed and the book was released into the world.
As much as I am known for love of bike riding, feminism and the inner North I am know for my hatred of football. I’ll ask people what they did on the weekend ‘Took the kids to watch the rapists in shorts Dev, suprised I didn’t see you there.’ My renaming of football has become a bit of a thing. I can’t see why. I’m not being judgemental, just descriptive.
A couple of months ago Bear and I were walking the dog on our lovely Merri Creek. It was a wet miserable day as we plodded through mud and we heard some teams playing on the oval nearby. Bear looked over and said ‘Girl footy! Let’s check it out!’ Keep in mind this is not for the reasons you think. Bear adores nothing more than seeing women do their thing unhindered and unselfconsciously. He loves Roller Derby and constantly says ‘The sign of a civilised society is women riding bikes at night.’
I needed to use the loo anyway so we headed over to the oval. I’d never seen a full on fair dinkum footy game played entirely by women before. Something exhaled in me. Bear and the dog stood on the side of the ground and I walked around to the change rooms. All the familiar sights and sounds of footy, the umpires at the goal posts, the refs blowing their whistles, people on the sideline cheering, players calling to each other ‘Michaela! HERE!’ but no blokes on the ground. As the spectators, yes. As the spectated, no.
The support teams were mixed gender, and just as I approach the toilets a bunch of excited Middle Eastern young guys poured out a car, joined their mates who were already in the crowd immediately asking ‘Have we missed much? Who’s winning?’
I walked back around the oval to meet back up with Bear and the dog and I was totally absorbed as I passed the whole spectacle again and from nowhere a thought popped into my head ‘I could get into this game if women played it’.
We continued our wet wintery wander and I couldn’t shake this odd feeling of being intrigued by women’s football. I have always hated football but watching the sheilas play made me realise I’d never thought of football separate from toxic masculinity. They were embedded in each other. Like corn in shit.
It was an unexpected Sunday morning revelation. Perhaps it wasn’t football that I hated. It was the toxic masculinity football it’s marinated in. It’s the same reason I’m repelled by religion.
So Bear and I have talked about supporting the Women’s AFL. We’ve been discussing what team we’d follow, who else may enjoy coming to the footy with us. It’s just discussion at this point and, of course, I have huge reservations about enabling the AFL when they have suddenly worked out they can make a buck from footy if they let the sheilas have a kick. If you think I’m being cynical about men promoting women’s sport only when they realise there’s some money in it may I remind you about Lingerie Football. When Kicking In Knickers first hit our screens people from everywhere were nagging me to write something expressing my disgust. But I wasn’t disgusted. I couldn’t give a shit.
My response was ‘Why are you surprised? This is football. This is professional sport. This is commercial television. What do you expect?’
And then there were The Bulldogs. I am working class. I know deep down what football means to poor people. Or at least what it meant when I was growing up. It was something you could join in with and feel a part of no matter how broke you were. So all these people I knew were suddenly talking about the Bulldogs all the time. It was as ubiquitous as Pokemon Go had been when it started. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked.
‘The Bulldogs just beat Hawthorn. The Hawks have won the Grand Final heaps in the last few years. If the Dogs win next week they’re in the Grand Final!’
As the week progressed people got more and more excited. Not the regular footy nuts. I’m talking people who I’d never heard mention football. Lots of mates of mine who were from a long line of Bulldogs fans were beside themselves. The Bulldogs hadn’t been in a Grand Final for 60 years.
The Bulldogs are the ultimate underdog. Working class, unsuccessful but deeply loved. I got so swept up in the good people’s excitement I flicked on the telly a bit before half time.
Reader, I have never turned on the footy in my life.
Fuck me dead. If I were to watch half a game of football in my life this was the one to watch. What a match. What a nail biter. It was as if the future of life as we knew it was balancing on the outcome.
As we all know, the Doggies triumphed. And what a sweet victory it was. When the siren sounded I thought ‘there are thousands of people right now who are experiencing the happiest moment of their lives’.
So yes, I will be watching the Grand Final this weekend. There’s even talk of ‘having something here’. If we do it will involve party pies, cocktail frankfurts, beer, swearing and a pav followed by a feminist debrief.
I don’t hate footy any less. I’m just curious about, if in fact, there’s a place for footy in my life. As I walked back from the loo that wet Sunday I felt ripped off watching the women play. I thought to myself ‘I could have experienced the enjoyment of footy that intoxicated and preoccupied the world I grew up in if I had just felt included.’