Thursday, September 25, 2008

Footy, Pt. 2 -- The Game

THE MCG -- a glimpse of Heaven? It just might be. Click to get the big picture.

So -- here's the game (and check the post below first if you wondering what the heck we're talking about):

Imagine an enormous oval. HUGE -- much bigger than a baseball stadium, for example, or a football field. (Football field: 100 yards -- 300 feet long. The MCG oval: 172 m x 118 m -- 565 ft. by 387 ft. HUGE.)

And at either of the long ends of the oval is a set of double goal posts -- the middle pair looking just like football goal posts, but without a middle bar, and a smaller pole on either side of the middle. (The middle poles are called goal posts; the end ones are called behind poles.) If a ball is kicked or bounces through the middle pair, six points are scored. This is called a goal. If the ball is punched into the goal poles or kicked/punched between a goal pole and a behind, or hits a pole, one point is awarded. This is called a behind.

When a team scores, the fans behind their goals raise and drop these enormous colored pom-poms. Much fun.

The ball, like the field, is an oval -- in fact, it looks a lot like our own football, but a little squatter on each end, and a bit thicker. You can kick the ball to your teammates or to try and score a goal. You can punch the ball to pass it to a teammate. Or you can dribble the ball if you want to run with it. (The ball must be dribbled for every 15 m you run.)

But you can't pass it. Actually, same is true in rugby. You can kick, you can do an underhand toss backwards -- but no passing. Far as I have seen, that's unique to our gridiron.

The game proceeds a lot like soccer, but with a team of punters who played basketball in their spare time: -- guys running up and down the field, hard as they can, dribbling the ball occasionally, passing the ball to one another either by punching it or kicking it, trying to get close enough to the goal posts to score a goal or a behind. If you pass the ball or run with it, you can be tackled -- and there ain't no pads. (Same in rugby. These guys are tough, I tell you.)

On the other hand, if you kick the ball and it is caught, everyone has to back off. He can choose to run, in which case opponents can bring him down; but if he kicks it himself to another teammate, the opponents cannot obstruct him. So, you'll see some teams do a lot of kicking.

You can just see the goal posts here. Click for a better view.

If a ball is caught within 50 meters of the goal posts, the guy catching it will usually step back and then try to score a goal. Again, because he caught the ball, that shot is not obstructed. He just gets to take it. SO -- a big moment of excitement in the game often happens when a guy catches the ball in that zone. (Which is really weird when you don't understand the rules. The first time I went, all of a sudden there would be these enormous ROARS from the crowd, and I had NO IDEA why. No goal had been scored, no great move had been made. Just a catch -- and everyone's going crazy. Seriously -- it was worth it to go just for that experience of being so out of touch.)

The game moves very, very fast and has astonishing shifts of momentum. I can't tell you how many games I've listened to or watched where one team is up by 28, 32 points, and it all turns around. And then turns around again. Unlike soccer, scoring can occur quite frequently, such that the end score looks like that of a basketball game or even much higher.

(For instance this game, the end score was 128 to 80. Scoring, by the way, is done in terms of goals and behinds -- so, looking at the score total again, Essendon had 19 goals and 14 behinds for a total of 128 points.)

A last thing -- and probably I put it last because I understand it least -- tackles. If you're moving with the ball, or you've been punch-passed the ball, the opponents want not so much to tackle you -- this isn't football, there are no downs. They want you to either lose the ball (of course) or to hold onto it. If you hold onto the ball when you could have passed it and you're tackled, you lose possession. (Actually, everyone in the crowd screams HOLD! Then you lose possession.)

So them's the rules. I could go on and on with more -- it really is a most extraordinary, exciting, explosive game.

But I'll tell you just one more thing, and that is, when I knew I loved it. My first game -- lots of screams I didn't understand, all by myself; so at halftime (there are four quarters, by the way, as in football), I'm wondering, do I stay for the whole thing or at some point have I seen enough? For some reason I stuck around.

So the game ends, Carlton wins, their supporters (teams in Australia have supporters or barrackers) go crazy -- apparently Carlton and Collingwood have some really diehard fans. Think Yankee fans.

And then, music begins to play, and the crowd begins to sing the Carlton Blues song. Which, to my mind, sounded a little bit like the old Budweiser beer song -- bum bum bum bum, here comes the king, here comes the big number one, bum bum bum bum, Budweiser beer, the king, is second to none -- seriously, it has that sort of an easy, upbeat charm to it.

And they sang it over and over and over again.

I got to say, it charmed the socks off me. Really. By the time I left the MCG I had a Carlton scarf, a shirt and a new love.

Won't you join me?

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