Will there be peace in the footy wars?

Will there be peace in the footy wars?


By Tim Harcourt


It’s a big week on the Australian sports calendar now with Grand Final week in both the Australian Football League (AFL) and the National Rugby League (NRL). And there are parallels in both games.


In the AFL, sentimental favourites the Western Bulldogs nee Footscray play the Sydney Swans nee South Melbourne on Saturday at ‘the Mecca of Aussie Rules’, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).  It will be the first time the Bulldogs have played in a Grand Final since 1961 and they’ll be looking for their first flag since 1954 (their only VFL /AFL flag). By contrast, Sydney will be in their sixth Grand Final since the lowly South Melbourne Swans relocated to the harbour city to get a beach head into New South Wales, hoping to pick up their third flag as the Sydney Swans.


In fact, Victorians got a bit of a scare (bigger than the ‘Mediscare’ campaign that drove Liberal party director Tony Nutt to tears in his post mortem on the 2016 Federal election) when it looked like the Sydney Swans could have been playing the Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Giants in an all NSW Grand Final. GWS have only been in the competition since 2012 and after blooding some young kids who regularly got flogged by big margins they are now turning into a mightily skilful side. This has led to accusations that by other AFL clubs that a ‘Frankenstein monster’ has been created by generous draft picks courtesy of the AFL all to create a side that can fight off soccer and rugby league in the mighty 2 million plus market of western Sydney in terms of population. Other non-AFL types like Rugby league loyalist Roy Masters have claimed that GWS don’t belong to western Sydney but belong to the AFL. But fortunately for Roy Masters and the scared Victorians, the Bulldogs won a close arm wrestle in western Sydney on Saturday and will be the people’s favourite (well, the Victorian people’s favourite anyway) in the big dance at the MCG.


There’s a sentimental favourite in the NRL too, the Cronulla Sharks who have never won a flag. They used to say you can leave the porch light on for Harold Holt when Cronulla win and now they have a chance to at last win the competition (they have made a grand final in the old NSWRL and in the Super league but have never come top). Standing in their way is the mighty Melbourne Storm, a successful club set up in the Victorian capital just as the Swans were set up to grow Aussie rules in Sydney. Those in rugby league who are sentimental and the entire population of the Sutherland shire will be behind the Sharks, but the Storm, an accomplished and well coached side, will starts slight favourites.


And that’s just half of it. After the grand finals are over AFL and NRL finish for the year and A League starts in soccer (Association football) and there’s still some rugby union to play. Australia is a fascinating country in that it divides its football codes four ways – Aussie rules, Rugby League, Rugby Union and soccer – and it’s very striking how Sydney is hotly contested (hence the creation of GWS to battle it out against the Western Sydney Wanders and the League sides).


But healthy competition between the codes is one thing, but like in the same sex plebiscite let’s hope it doesn’t end up in bigotry against one code or the other. For instance, soccer, known as football beyond our shores, is the world game but the world game’s greatest commentator Les Murray appreciates Australia’s indigenous game Aussie Rules and the rugby codes as part of Australian society, as much as he loves his own code.


Contrast Les’s tolerance with the authors of Soccernomics Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski who say:


“It was striking how quickly the Socceroos learned EEC football…they beat Uruguay in a play-off to qualify for the World Cup. Suddenly the Melbourne Herald Sun found itself wondering whether Aussie Rules Football could survive as the dominant sport in Australia’s southern states. Already more Australian children played soccer than Aussie Rules and both rugby codes combined…a century from now Aussie Rules might exist only at subsidised folklore festivals.”


First, things first. The authors of Soccernomics clearly don’t know Australia. Since when were folk festivals subsidised? Ask Greg Champion and the ‘Coodabeen Champions’ if they’ve ever made a submission to the Productivity Commission on arts, culture and recreation subsidies. And secondly, why bag Australia’s indigenous game? After all clubs like Melbourne, Geelong and Port Adelaide are older than Liverpool and Manchester United and as historian Geoffrey Blainey pointed out Aussie rules games have been some of the largest spectator attendances in the world from the 19th century onwards.


When I was a 12 year old kid, I got in a rare (physical) fight with another kid who called soccer ‘wog ball’. I told him he was a racist and should respect other people and the football code they play. I’d say the same thing to the Soccernomics authors – there’s no room for bigotry in sport as in life, we should respect all codes. Many colonists thought Australia’s indigenous people would not survive when Europeans came, but they did and are one of the world’s oldest civilisations on this continent with a proud culture. Australia’s indigenous game will also continue despite what the Soccernomics authors say. I think we should be true football ‘multiculturalists’ and support all codes or at least respect the rights of others to love their code as they would their culture. After all whatever game you want to call footy – it’s better to have the kids playing one of them than sitting on the couch playing computer games – and it’s better for you and your community as well.


Good luck Swans, Doggies, Sharkies and the Storm!


Tim Harcourt is the JW Nevile Fellow in Economics at the UNSW Business School, UNSW. And the author and host of The Airport Economist.



Read Murray Bird’s piece on the whingers who struggle to grasp the idea of a national Australian Football competition.




  1. Well played,Plug love the Harold Holt line.Who won the fight ?

  2. Will there be peace in the footy wars? Outside of junior participation I’m not sure there’s a war going on. In both cases I don’t think so much the AFL is trying to overtake Sydney or Rugby League Melbourne. More an opportunity to create a sufficient number of eyeballs on screens. Even after 35 years in the market and all of the consistent competitiveness / success more people in Adelaide watched the Swans prelim on FTA than people in Sydney. But if the AFL can generate (non-Crows game) Adelaide like viewing numbers in Sydney for both teams they will consider they have successfully created/accessed a new market and the $ involved. Stuff the war.

  3. Earl O'Neill says

    1978 at DLS Kingsgrove, everyone called it wogball.
    There’s more of a ‘police action’ than war, it bugs me that Assoc football (blessings upon ye Tim) gets ‘football’ in the media while Australian Football and Rugby League get AFL & NRL.
    Rugby League fans in Sydney write ‘gAyFL’ when asking on FB how the schedule will affect them, some being old mates, I wouldn’t notice if we were talking in a pub.
    F’gawsakes, it’s all football! American, Assoc, Australian, Gaelic, Rugby League, Rugby Union, and all those weird local varieties. Football creates a tribalism like no other.

  4. Spot on earl it’s all football – choose the one you like best – and it might be more than one

  5. As football/Soccer lover I find the war is played up mainly by the media. Generally you will find these days people support various sports. In Melbourne you have an AFL team, then you support Melbourne Victory or City and of course we all love the Storm. There is room for everyone and no one has to make a choice.

  6. Great discussion Tim, from my perspective being a premiership player coach in Sydney in the early 2000s. Coaching was a tough gig as games were canceled after team selection Thursday night and late Friday I had to contact all players by email or text of the situation. Reason, ground closed due to rain. The groundsman were afraid cricket pitches would be carved up in the middle of June. Therefore I realized Cricket is king in Sydney and every other football code is second.

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