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Football in Australia

Andrew Johns holding the Trans Tasman Trophy at Aussie Stadium, Sydney, on July 24 2003. Image courtesy of NSWRL.

Australians love their 'footy'. Each weekend during the colder months, thousands of Australians descend on football stadiums around the country to support their teams.

A serious ritual, this process involves proudly wearing team colours, barracking for favourite players, and engaging in enthusiastic cheering at every opportunity.

The country has four major football codes, each represented by a professional league at an elite level:

Football codes in Australia have traditionally been male sports, but starting in the late twentieth century women began playing from a grassroots level to the highest levels of the game.

In each Australian state and territory the word football' has a different meaning. For those living in the Northern Territory, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, football usually refers to Australian Rules Football. In the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, and Queensland, it could mean rugby league or rugby union. The word 'soccer' equates to the game played by the Football Federation Australia for all of Australia.

The football code an Australian plays or follows is often dictated by where they live, their cultural heritage, or by the code they were taught at school.

But for the players and supporters of all the football codes across Australia, the end of summer is welcomed since it signals the start of the 'footy' season. The season usually stretches from March to September, when fans crowd stadiums in their team colours to cheer and soak up the atmosphere of the game.

Australian Football League

When it comes to professional football codes some of the most loyal and dedicated fans are those devoted to AFL. Often referred to as 'Aussie Rules', the game originated in Melbourne, devised as a way of keeping cricketers fit in their off season. AFL is now taught in schools and clubs across the country and the code is a significant national sport.

The first Australian Rules competition was in 1866. The Victorian Football League (VFL) was established in 1896 and by 1925 there were 12 clubs involved. The line-up remained unchanged until 1987 when Brisbane and West Coast joined what had by then become known as the AFL. By 1997 the competition comprised 16 teams with two each from South Australian and Western Australia, and one each from New South Wales and Queensland. The remaining teams were from Melbourne in Victoria.

The AFL is Australia's premier spectator sport attracting millions of people each year. According to research conducted in 2000, it had the third highest number of registered players of any Australian sport, at 443,978.

Some of the great AFL players have been Ron Barassi, Roy Cazaly, Alex Jesaulenko, and Tony Lockett.

Australian Rugby Union

The Australian Rugby Football Team of 1907 (The Wallabies). Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

According to legend, rugby began in 1823 during a game of football at Rugby School, England. William Webb Ellis, having caught the ball, ran with it rather than kicking it as he was required to do. (An ancient game called harpastum, similar to rugby, was introduced to Britain by the Romans in around 400 AD.) From 1840 to 1860 many varieties of football were played, in some cases mixing soccer and rugby.

Australia's first rugby club, the Sydney University Football Club, was founded in 1863, and the Southern Rugby Football Union (later called the Australian Rugby Football Union) was founded in 1875.

Today's schools remain a major breeding ground for young rugby players, with many moving on to club rugby and some graduating to professional levels.

Australian state rugby union teams participate in an annual provincial competition between teams drawn from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, known as Super Rugby.

Internationally Australia's rugby union team is known as The Wallabies. Since the late 1990s, The Wallabies have won two World Cup titles (1991 and 1999) and five consecutive Bledisloe Cup titles (1998 to 2003).

In October 2003 Australia hosted the Rugby World Cup. This was the first time a host nation defended the World Cup on their home turf, and the first time a Rugby World Cup final was played in Australia. The 2003 Rugby World Cup was the fourth largest sporting event in the world behind the Olympics, Soccer World Cup and the World Athletics Championships.

A traditional rugby team has 15 players. In a modernised version of the game – Rugby 7s' – teams field seven players. It is contested at the Commonwealth Games and internationally at the World Sevens Tournament.

Australia's international rugby success is notable considering there were only 37,000 senior male players in Australia at the time of the 2003 World Cup, compared to England's 174,000, South Africa's 120,000, and Japan's 100,000.

Despite its professional status, the majority of Australia's rugby playing fraternity are amateur players who continue to support and grow the game. At the end of the 2001 season, there were 130,000 registered players in Australia of which only 120 were professional.

Australia has a women's club rugby competition and a national women's rugby team, the Wallaroos. The Wallaroos competed in their first Women's World Cup in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in 1998, where Australia claimed victory in the Plate Final.

Some of the great Australian rugby players have been David Campese, John Eales and Nick Farr-Jones.

National Rugby League

Rugby League originated in England in the 1890s. Disputes in the early days of the Rugby Football Union over professional and amateur status led to a split and the creation of Rugby League in 1895. A similar separation occurred in Australia in 1907.

The rules of Rugby League are different to Rugby Union, the most obvious being 13 players per side rather than 15.

Rugby League was first played in Australia in 1907, and has grown to be one of Australia's most popular sports. It is taught in schools and played at club and professional levels.

The Australian national competition, known as the National Rugby League, includes 15 teams representing the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria in Australia, and Auckland in New Zealand. The NRL has a strong team membership and support base.

Rugby League is also contested internationally. Australia's team is called the Kangaroos. The first Kangaroo Tour, in 1908, was to Britain.

Some of the great players in rugby league have been Clive Churchill, Bob Fulton, Wally Lewis, and Mal Meninga.

Football Federation Australia (formerly Soccer Australia)

The results of a worldwide survey, conducted by the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and published in the spring of 2001, determined that more than 240 million people worldwide regularly play football (soccer). Soccer is now formally known as 'football' in Australia, in line with international usage.

Football, men's quarter final, Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, 23 September 2000. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Football (soccer) is taught in schools across Australia, and has an active club and national league. Football (soccer) is recognised by many to be the first sport in Australia to establish a truly national competition. The national A-League showcases the best of Australia's talent in the sport, while many of the country's top football (soccer) stars play in the international leagues such as the English Premier League.

Australia's national football (soccer) team, the Socceroos, is becoming better known on the international scene, contesting World Cup qualifying and other international matches.

The Australian women's football (soccer) team is called the Matildas. The Matildas compete at the FIFA Women's World Cup and at Olympic Games level. They finished seventh at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and are considered by the international football (soccer) community to be one of the most improved teams in the sport.

Useful links

Australian football

International football

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Last updated: 28th March 2008

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