keep your eye on the red and the blue

On my recent trip to Darwin, I had the amazing experience of attending an AFL match at TIO Stadium. In fact, my football-crazed family and I organised the trip around it.

I have always associated football, and my beloved Melbourne Demons, with a few basic truths: Melbourne (the city), the awe-inspiring MCG, bitterly cold weather, no-frills Aussie camaraderie and, though it's a stereotype that I loathe, rich white kids and archaic bourgeois in the MCC.

As a matter of pride, I feel it essential to point out that I am not a rich kid, nor do I belong to the upper classes of Old Melbourne. My love of the game largely stems from a childhood spent loitering around the local country footy club and the fact that I was born into a large Irish-Catholic extended family who all have a passionate love of the game coursing through their veins. As a teenager, my mum was a mad St Kilda supporter, but my dad apparently made it clear that a life with him was a life following the red and the blue. Thank goodness, because I'm really not fond of that (alleged) club culture.

(OK, this is not a great photo, but it's Watts, and while I may not be a rich white kid, I have no problem with a rich white kid playing damn fine footy for the Dees.)

When faced with the choice of sitting in the grandstand or entering the general admission area where fans sit and stand on the grassy hills, my Territory-dwelling sister assured us that we should go with the latter, because it's a more authentic Darwin footy experience. I think she was right.

Going to this match showed me a side of AFL that you don't get in Melbourne. It was instantly familiar, because, as my sister reasoned, a game in Darwin is similar to a country footy grand final: it's such an exciting, rare event that both tourists and locals come out in force to enjoy the spectacle, even if it's not their team, which ensures a healthy cross-section of the entire community.

And then there were those aspects of the experience that were not only foreign to Melbourne footy, but specifically unique to Darwin. Firstly, there was the heat. It was quite alarming to attend a match where, even after dark, the mercury would have been pushing 27 degrees. For one thing, I had to fashion a summer outfit consisting of red and blue because I couldn't don my regular long-sleeved woolen Dees guernsey. For another thing, the level of energy in fourth quarter was significantly low. While this is not unusual for a somewhat inconsistent team like Melbourne, in this case it was clearly due to the undoubtedly oppressive heat. I mean, by the end of the first quarter Watts' golden curls had become a wet, dirty blond mop. Clearly it was hot out there!

The other distinctly Territorian aspect of the match was the prevalence of Indigenous attendees. Growing up in country Victoria and then moving to the inner suburbs of Melbourne, I have never been directly exposed to Indigenous culture, which I think is a terrible shame. Not only am I underinformed, but I also feel that as a privileged white person, any comment I make about Indigenous people or culture inevitably sounds condescending. However, my intentions are anything but. Seeing that game alongside so many Australians - both black and white - was an absolute privilege. It was a special thing to be a part of, particularly because Liam Jurrah, the electrifying Warlpiri player from the remote community of Yuendumu in the Northern Territory, was appearing as a Demon in his home state for the first time. The crowd erupted every time he went near the ball, and each of his three goals yielded ecstatic cheering and fence-banging. An Indigenous man next to me explained that though he was an Essendon supporter, he was supporting Melbourne that night because Jurrah, he proudly stated, was his 'brother boy'.

Australian Rules football can be extraordinarily divisive; witness the vehement exchanges that frequently occur between passionate Collingwood supporters and fans of, well, any other team. But it is also wonderfully uniting. A love of the same team, or even a love of the game, consistently brings people of all ages, races, classes and beliefs together like nothing else I can think of. It is the great leveller. Finally, it is so beautifully Australian.

Melbourne won the game that night, but it wouldn't have mattered too much if they had lost. What mattered to me was the extraordinary experience of Darwin footy. In many ways, it's footy as it should be. And while not everyone was there to support the Melbourne Football Club, there was an overwhelming sense that, when it comes to this great game of ours, every heart in that ground was beating true.

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