Australian Rules Football, more commonly known simply as AFL, is undoubtedly one of Australia’s most popular sports. While it is beginning to gain an international following (as evidenced by the AFL International Cup which will be held in Melbourne in August this year), the vast majority of players are Australian.
AFL has been around for almost 160 years. The first match of ‘footy’ – as the sport is fondly known by its followers – was play on the 31st of July, 1859. Although the game has changed through the ages, one thing remains: it is one of the defining feature of Australian history and culture.
From small beginnings
In the mid-19th century cricket was an extremely popular sport among Australians. However, it was somewhat difficult to play
during the winter (especially in Melbourne) because of the pretty average weather conditions. This led to the search for a winter
sport which could keep cricketers fit during the break between cricket seasons.
The idea for AFL was first put forwards by Tom Wills, a skilled cricketer and athlete, in a letter published in Bell’s Life in Victoria
and Sporting Chronicles on the 10th of July 1858. One thing led to another, and Wills soon found himself umpiring the first
recorded game of Australian Rules Football on the 31st of July 1858. Although the rules have changed significantly since the first official set was published (on the 17th of May 1859), the foundations of the great game were evident even then.
A historic rivalry
One of the longest sporting rivalries in the world can be traced back to one of the very first games of AFL. On the 7th of August
1858, Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College played each other in a monumental first game of footy. The match was
actually played over three days, with the game continuing on the 21st of August and the 4th of September. Unfortunately, some
of the rules of this historical game meant that the end result was a draw at one goal apiece.
This rivalry continues in the modern day, with the two schools facing off for the Cordner-Eggleston Cup annually. This is the
longest rivalry in AFL history, and has been continuously running since 1858 – an incredible 159 years
The first league
Although the roots of AFL are traditionally in Melbourne, the first league to be established was actually the South Australian Football Association (SAFA) in 1877. The Victorian Football Association followed just three days later, and regular football fixtures have been in place ever since
The formation of the VFL
The Victorian Football League is extremely well-known as the predecessor of the modern Australian Football League. It was formed in 1897 following a rift in the Victorian Football Association. In its first year the VFL had eight clubs – Carlton, Collingwood,
Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, St Kilda, and South Melbourne. Of these eight clubs, Fitzroy is now represented by the
Brisbane Lions, and South Melbourne is now the Sydney Swans. Essendon was the inaugural premiership winner.
In 1908 Richmond and University joined the VFL, although University withdrew from the competition just seven years later at the
beginning of World War One. In 1925 Footscray (now the Western Bulldogs) Hawthorn, and North Melbourne joined the league,
and it remained unchanged for over sixty years.
From VFL to AFL
Although intercolonial and, later, interstate matches have been played almost since the inception of the game, a the national AFL competition which is so popular today is actually a relatively new development. In 1982, South Melbourne moved to Sydney and renamed themselves the Sydney Swans, becoming the first interstate team to compete in the VFL.
In 1987 the West Coast Eagles and the Brisbane Bears (who later merged with Fitzroy to form the Brisbane Lions) also joined the
competition, paving the way for a truly nationwide sport. In 1989 the name of the league was changed from the VFL to the AFL
(the Australian Football League) to reflect this. Since 1989 another five interstate teams have joined the AFL:
There are 18 teams in the modern AFL, with no plans to increase or decrease this number in the near future.
In the early 20th Zealand became a stronghold for AFL. However, participation in the sport has since declined in the country.
AFL is the national sport of Nauru, and is also one of the most popular sports in Papua New Guinea (and has been since at least
Fledgling leagues are beginning to take hold in a number of countries across Europe and the world. Some of the countries with leagues include Japan (since 1987), England (1989), Denmark (1989), Canada (1989), Sweden (1993), Germany (1995), USA (1996),Argentina (1997), Spain (1997), Samoa (1997), South Africa (1998), Ireland (2000), Tonga (2002), Scotland (2005), France (2005),China (2005), Pakistan (2006), Indonesia (2006), Catalonia (unknown), Norway (unknown), Denmark (unknown), Italy (unknown), Croatia (unknown), Netherlands (unknown) and East Timor (unknown). Note that this is by no means an exhaustive list.
The national teams from many of these countries compete in the Australian Football International Cup, which is held every three years in Melbourne. This tournament boasts both men’s and women’s competitions, and is generally a hotly contested event. Previous men’s champions include Ireland (2002 and 2011), New Zealand (2005), and Papua New Guinea (2008 and 2014). The
women’s competition has only run twice, with Ireland winning in 2011 and Canada winning in 2014.
Essendon and Carlton have won the most premierships with 16 each, closely followed by Collingwood (15), Hawthorn (13), and Melbourne (12). The West Coast Eagles and the Brisbane Lions have won the most premierships out of the non-Victorian clubs, with 3 each. The Fremantle Dockers, Gold Coast Suns, and Greater Western Sydney Giants have never won a premiership, although the Suns and Giants only joined the competition in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
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