To say the debut game of the Australian Football Women’s League at Princess Park Friday night was a success is quite the understatement. 24,000 people crammed into a ground that barely could cope with the mass of humanity, 2,000 outside wishing they could have got in. A million watching at home through free-to-air coverage as well as pay television. Just a success?
24,000 people had 24,000 different reasons to be there. For some it was a statement of solidarity – the idea that women should have equal opportunities in the spotlight of the Sporting Capital of the World™. For others it was the opportunity to be a part of history – to be able to say to others, maybe to children or imaginary future children that yes, they were there when the AFLW begun. Other just saw a spectacle burgeoning and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Placing the game in the heartland of the most progressive area of the most progressive city in Australia couldn’t have hurt.
Regardless of the motivation, those 24,000 people crammed into Princes Park like they do a tram in peak hour. When we arrived about half an hour before the bounce there were thousands of people funnelling into the stadium. We snaked through the ground trying to find available seating. Already the lines for food were astronomical, and later we would hear the rumour that they had run out of beer at quarter time. Not that we were going to bother lining up to find out – entire civilisations could rise and fall in the time it would take to get to the front.
And the ground breathed. It heaved with a mass of excited people, anticipating what was coming. To say it felt historical sounds trite but there was a joyous celebration, something different to a normal football game. A different feeling to even say a final at the ‘G. At stake wasn’t something that would matter this year but something that could matter for a lifetime. When Collingwood kicked the first goal of the game the majority Carlton crowd cheered loudly.
There was a truckload of children about and I was worried that this may mean this was more Big Bash League than AFL. The Big Bash League is a wild success but has yet to establish the club loyalty that other Australian sports engender. A great event to bring the children to for a couple of hours on a summer’s night but ultimately the sporting equivalent of fast food: forgotten the moment its consumed.
Of course the AFLW started strong by pitting perhaps its most fabled rivals against each other. Carlton chants swamped around me all game. The game was less than minutes old when a resounding roar went up in my section at a Carlton mark. Moments later, a ‘I swear I am at the G’ moment when it felt like all of Melbourne celebratedly yelled ‘baaaaaallll’ when a player was caught. As a migrant to Melbourne, the spontaneous and often irrational yelling of ‘baaallll’ by tens of thousands of sporting lunatics is something I’ve always cherished. It’s cathartic. It’s communal. But most of all it’s an expression of genuine care. We, the people demand you, person in white, give our favoured laundry a free kick. We are very upset. Together.
The play was engaging. A different game to the men’s version, there was more work to be done in the middle of the park and closer to the ground. It was harder to get the ball into the forward line. But the skill was still sublime. Cartlon’s midfield were continuously around the ball, removing Collingwood’s tall forwards from the game by not allowing them any service. The nature of this meant the game wasn’t high scoring, but it’s hard to argue it was anything but free flowing.
The physicality was astounding. Hip checks abounded and were met with the normal ‘oooh’ quickly followed by cheering (so long as it was a Collingwood player on the ground). As a big proponent of the legalised and regulated violence of sport I was pleased to see no inch was given.
And the skills were impressive. When Darcy Vescio snapped a left footer from the forward pocked in the final quarter you had your moment that could be shoved in the face of every ‘women will never be good at footy’ anonymous commenter.
At the risk of good old fashioned This Is What It Is All About™ Mansplaining, it was so heartening to see this game succeed. So many women I’d spoken to this week had expressed how much this mattered to them. One told me of how she’d been pushed out of football at a young age towards netball. Not explicitly, but the soft push of prejudice. The removal of opportunities. Another friend said she got teary throughout the week just thinking about the game.
Already it seems this game was beyond a success. The 24,000 in the game. The 2,000 outside. The million watching at home. Hopefully they will all be back throughout the short season. And when the success demands expansion either into the men’s season, or demand the restructuring of the men’s season, hopefully they will be there to support it.