When we were kids at primary school, we would ask each other deep and insightful questions like ‘what’s your favourite sport, footy (Australian Rules Football) or cricket?’ Other sports never featured in this most important of schoolyard inquiries. Depending on what season it was, I would answer one or the other. In summer, I would be convinced that I loved cricket the most, but in winter I would answer ‘footy’ without hesitation.
As a kid growing up in Victoria, football was everywhere in winter time. The back pages of the newspapers were all about Aussie Rules, and so was the evening news’ sports report. Footy fans would discuss the upcoming round of matches with increasing intensity as the weekend approached, and come Monday analyse the results with the same gravity afforded to geopolitics. Local neighbourhood businesses displayed the League Ladder behind the counter, where little cardboard team names were slotted into their positions after every round. Many gave away free, fold-out season fixtures. Shops also sported framed team photos and premiership posters celebrating the past glories of the proprietors’ chosen club. Match day would see public transport seething with fans dressed in their supporters’ gear heading to the games.
We wore our footy team jumpers all weekend, with our favourite player’s number sewn on the back. Every schoolboy, and probably a lot of schoolgirls, had a stack of footy cards in their pocket. These were collector cards featuring portrait shots of League players, and were keenly swapped in an effort to complete your favourite club’s list. If your team lost over the weekend, sing-song taunts of ‘What happened to (insert team name here)‘ would greet you at primary school on Monday morning.
Live football wasn’t shown on TV when I was in primary school, and we certainly didn’t have pay-tv footy channels showing endless replays and diagnoses of the minutiae of the game. You got a replay of a couple of matches on Saturday night and Sunday morning, and that was pretty much it. If you couldn’t get to the game, the only way to keep track of the drama unfolding at suburban grounds across the city was to listen to the radio.
Small transistors, single-deck tape players and 80s boom boxes all brought the football into homes and workplaces, and people on the move tuned in on their car radios. The voices of the individual commentators, with their unique styles and sayings, were well-known to all the fans. Being the only football follower in my household, and too young to attend the games by myself, I relied on the live broadcast. Footy on the radio was the soundtrack to Melbourne winter weekends.
Today I drove from southern Ukraine up to the capital Kiev, about a seven and a half hour journey. It was a cold and rainy day, not unlike Melbourne winter weather. As luck would have it, my trip coincided with the start of the 2023 Australian Football League season. To say the footy snuck up on me this year would be an understatement. Needless to say, Australian Football doesn’t have much of a following here in Ukraine. So it was only when a mate messaged to tell me the season was about to start that I realised it was footy time again.
Thanks to Ukraine’s impressive mobile coverage, I was able to listen to nearly the whole game during my drive. There’s something very comforting and reassuring about the familiar sound of footy on the radio. The excitement in the voices of the commentators rising and falling in line with the action, the roar of the crowd acknowledging feats of skill and courage, the blaring sound of the final siren, and the post-match interviews from the change rooms with the winners and losers. Although the broadcast quality is a lot better nowadays, all the elements from my childhood days of tuning in to the footy are still there.
I have to say, it was an enjoyable distraction from the reality of life here in Ukraine, and for a few hours I forgot about the Russian invasion. I got swept up in a game being played on the other side of the world, in a peaceful, stable nation where 90 thousand people came together in good spirit to enjoy a sporting contest.
It is times like these that I remember how lucky the Lucky Country really is.
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