AFL Rivalries – Not Usually a Zero Sum Game

There’s a quote attributed to the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: ‘Being powerful is like being a lady; if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.’ While this is difficult to say with any accuracy that Mrs Thatcher actually said this (and it might be considered a problematic statement in the twentieth-century), it did come to mind when I was listening to the promotions for the recent Carlton v Collingwood game, which was being touted in some areas as the greatest rivalry not only in AFL but in Australian sport in general.


If marketers need to go to that much trouble to inform us that this is a great rivalry then surely it isn’t self evident to those observing it. And rivalries should be self evident, or at least follow some enduring logic external to the mere contest between two teams. While Carlton v Collingwood has a storied past (the 1970 and 1979 Grand Final alone are the stuff of legend) and the fact that they have a combined total of well over 100,000 members (and many more non-member supporters) which gives their contests a weighty significance, the actual substance of their rivalry is somewhat ephemeral.


Clichés aside, how would one differentiate a Collingwood supporter from a Carlton supporter? Remove them from the MCG, take off their club colours and what is left of the rivalry? It’s not as if their fans live in demonstrably different parts of Melbourne, or represent different cultural groups. The tribal identity of both clubs is not rooted in anything tangible, the geographic distinctions between the inner-city suburbs the two clubs represent have long since disappeared, and I’ve never seen any evidence that the two sets of fans are demonstrably different in any social, economic or cultural sense.


The sporting rivalries with the greatest gravitas are cultivated off the field and then find expression on the field. Some of the most notable rivalries in club-level sport are found in round-ball football, where clubs are notionally expressions of different communities. In Spain, Barcelona v Real Madrid is a contest around ideas of Spanish nationalism and sub-nationalism, with Madrid as the embodiment of the Spanish state (particularly during the reign of Francisco Franco) while Barcelona are represent Catalan nationalism. In Argentina, the rivalry between River Plate v Boca Juniors revolves around class. While both clubs have supporters from across the socio-economic divide, Boca are seen as the working-class club while River, Los Millonarios, are the more affluent. In Scotland, the tribalism between Rangers and Celtic runs along the centuries old religious divides. While probably few supporters of either club would consider themselves devout, the labels of Protestant (Rangers) and Catholic (Celtic) are use to delineate between far more secular and political notions of nationalism, particularly with regards to Northern Ireland.


All these rivalries are built on much more than what happens on the field. While sporting clubs inherently create a tribal mentality, external influences magnify the intensity of in-group cohesion and distrust/animosity to those seen as being antithetical to the group’s identity and purpose. When transposed back onto a sporting field, this creates such intensity between the two sets of supporters, which often stokes some of the worst aspects of football violence.


AFL rivalries do not rise to this level of intensity; they largely lack the extensive off-field baggage that aggravates what happens on the field. Two clubs with a pseudo-rivalry along socio-economic lines are Collingwood and Melbourne, with the former a club born out of the inner-city working class compared with the latter as the affluent establishment club with its roots in the Melbourne Cricket Club.


While this rivalry was heated during the late 1950s through Melbourne’s era of dominance into the 1960s, it has largely fallen into abeyance and the animosity between the two groups of supporters does not rise to any great heights (beyond the ubiquitous disregard most supporters have for Collingwood). Trying to re-grow the rivalry through the perennial fixture on Queen’s Birthday Monday is a very top down solution that does not necessarily permeate through to the supporters into the wider sporting culture. Intellectually it makes for an intriguing contest (due to the history and heritage of the two clubs), but so much depends on the actual on-field performances carry the intensity.


I don’t mean to suggest that the lack of intensity among AFL clubs is a negative; it speaks of a relatively homogenous society free from deep divisions. There is a lack of clear rifts between groups of supporters that invokes the worst manifestation of tribalism: inter-group violence. A somewhat bland landscape between AFL clubs is a good price to pay to avoid the type of animosity and violence we condemn in other sports.


What we see in AFL is that rivalry flourishes when both teams were successful on the field and competing in Grand Finals. This is where the Collingwood v Carlton rivalry was at its most intense, and it’s the legacy of that period that stokes the fires of antipathy between the supporters. This seems to be the pattern for AFL rivalries, which seem to be generated from on-field rivalries rather than off field tensions.


Take another recent contest, Geelong v Hawthorn, which has arguably been the most intense on-field rivalry in the league for the best part of a decade. While these two teams have undoubtedly delivered some fine examples of tight contests in recent years (with the 1989 Grand Final as a preamble), beyond Grand Final appearances and both teams being successful at the same time, what is there that holds the rivalry together?


Part of the attraction when these two teams play is that they play at a high level of intensity and skill and whoever wins has done so by overcoming the best that their opponent could throw at them and in so doing deny them the prestige of being the better club. When they both become less successful, will the intensity of their rivalry fade to memory? Aging supporters will remember tight battles between the two clubs, but younger fans will have nothing but the distant recollections from a bygone era – as has happened with Collingwood v Melbourne.


The welcome exceptions to this type of contest-defined rivalries are the local derbies in Perth and Adelaide. I’ve long considered West Coast v Fremantle and Adelaide v Port Adelaide to be the purest rivalries in AFL because they are self-evident. They are in cities with an Australian rules heritage (unlike the Sydney v GWS contests) and the binary natures means that the contest between the two teams is self-defined – you’re either one or the other.


If your team wins, not only do you rejoice in having won, but you also rejoice in the fact that your opponent hasn’t won, that you’ve denied them something. Ordinary games, you celebrate a win because you’ve achieve something against an opponent, but in rivalries you celebrate a victory over the rival because you have both achieve a victory and inflicted a defeat on the opposition – because who the opponent is matters. This attitude is undoubtedly malicious, but that’s the nature of the zero sum game.





About William Westerman

Canberra-based historian. Author of 'Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996' Available here:


  1. Very thoughtful article WW. I agree with everything you said. I like our comparatively homogeneous society and that we don’t much feel like going to war – over football, economics, religion or other obsessive passions. I like that we compete WITH, more than compete AGAINST.
    I found the stoning/flare throwing of the Manchester City team bus at Anfield last week very disturbing. It was a lot more than a “few idiots”. Seemed like a lot of pre-planning (however informal and chaotic) had gone into that sort of sustained attack. In Australia I hope that a game would be cancelled rather than play. Man City 3-0 down in the first half? Coincidence or unsettled? Will that guarantee more attacks and more reprisals, in an escalating cycle of aggression?
    All top European soccer clubs are owned by mega-rich oligarchs of one sort or another. Liverpool by a US hedge fund, and Man City by Arab oil sheiks. But the class/wealth resentment of “Johnny come lately” Man City seems to run deeper, and speaks to social ills as much as football elitism.
    For all we criticise the decline in standards of Australian politics and society, and the equalisation policies of the AFL (capitalism for the bosses/socialism for the workers) – we are still the comparatively “lucky country”.
    I NEVER want to see this in our country.

  2. Thanks William. Much to consider in here. One of the more astonishing nights I’ve had was going to Southhampton and Watford at Vicerage Road, being segregated and then, after the match, siphoned down a tunnel of very large policemen. At no point was I allowed free-will or movement. Only later did I realise what this meant.

    I’m considering attending this Friday’s Crows and Magpies match. I hope it’s a great game, and the crowd can simply enjoy it, the magnificent arena and our wonderful, local code.

  3. E.regnans says

    Thanks W Westerman.
    We probably believe the stories we choose to tell ourselves, finding meaning somewhere.

    People of the Collingwood Flat versus those of the Fitzroy Hill versus those of the Carlton types versus those of the Melbourne Establishment is a case in point. They are foundation stories. “Who are we and what do we represent”?
    It means diddly squat these days of course, when the Collingwood captain sends photos of himself to social media featuring million dollar bay views in the background of his loungeroom.

    So why barrack for anyone?
    The rise of Big Bash League has me wondering this. I’ve viewed the BBL competition as confected dross. In Melbourne we have the Stars and the Renegades from which to choose. But neither team offers any reason to believe. Not players, not history, not local connection. Nothing.

    But then, following this logic, if the BBL can be dismissed as confected dross, so must be the present-day AFL.
    No local connections, no local players, players as agents.
    The only aspect of difference between teams is history. Even the grounds are the same.
    Attending Collingwood v Essendon used to be very different to attending Essendon v Collingwood. Not anymore.
    And that is to the detriment of rivalry, I think.

    Thanks for your considered writing. It’s got me thinking.

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