So last year I read this book which made me determined to learn to like football*.
I had, I realised, been going about it completely the wrong way. I saw it like this:
Football = Louts + violence + beer + pies = boring.
I should have been looking at it like this:
Football = fascinating socio-historical practice + hot men in little shorts touching each other + beer + pies = not-boring.
Why fascinating? I'm glad you asked.
In 1830-something, a kid called Tom Wills was playing a kicking-balls-around game with some local Aboriginal kids, near Ararat in regional Victoria. Part of this game involved seeing who could jump the highest to catch the ball.
When he was 14, Tom was sent to Rugby in England. His ex-convict father didn't want him to grow up with the 'stain'. When Tom came back, age 21, he became one of Victoria's top cricketers.
The problem with cricket though, is it's a summer game. And all the cricketers were getting fat over winter. In 1858, Tom wrote a letter to a local sports rag asking if anyone would be interested in playing a game of football. That game was played in Richmond, and the following week, Tom umpired the first Australian rules match between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar, on the land that is now the MCG.
One day, after droving cattle around the place, Tom returned to the homestead to discover his family and all the other workers slaughtered by local Aboriginals (thought to be revenge for something nasty that happened).
Tom returned to Melbourne and married. But he couldn't reconcile his fond memories of playing with Aboriginal kids as a child, and the brutal violence that he had witnessed to his family. He became an alcoholic. One morning, when he was only 44, his wife came in with his breakfast. He asked her to pass him the scissors, and as she did so, she knew exactly what would happen. Tom Wills stabbed himself in the heart with the scissors, and died.
That's why I think football is interesting. Also, that it is such a democratic game. Audiences have always been 50/50 men/women, from day one. It's also attracted people from all socio-economic backgrounds. Ooh, and (slightly ironically) it's done amazing things for relations between the Aboriginal community and the rest of us land-stealers. Michael Long, anyone?
It was not a great game. St Kilda beat Melbourne by an embarrassing number of points, and frankly neither side were particularly impressive. However, the meat pies were still hot, the men were still wearing little shorts and touching each other, and the night air was crisp.
I will return. I may even buy a scarf.
*That's Aussie Rules football, or AFL, in case any non-Victorians are wondering.
**When I mentioned this to my manager yesterday afternoon, he did the kind of double-take I haven't seen since the D-Generation. 'You?' he said. 'Going to the football?' Then he laughed.