As a practising member of the Australian public, I am often asked questions regarding vital socio-political dilemmas of our age, such as "Which football team do you barrack for?". In fact, I am asked about this more often than about the Republican debate, or what I watched on TV last night.
The primary reason for this is that a majority of Australian males (and, in rare cases, females) are obsessed by football to the point that the Australian Football League now exists solely for medical purposes - in that, without it, Australians would be deprived of a vital life-support organ.
As a child I tried so hard to like football. Other members of my extended family raved on and on about it and there was nothing else to watch on TV on weekends other than football. They even interrupted news reports about attempted Presidential assassinations and nuclear explosions in Russia to tell us the latest football results.
Often in primary school innocent people were ambushed by crazed mobs demanding to know what football team you barracked for. Back in those days, there were only about four hundred football teams, three of whose names I actually knew. In modern times, there about seven thousand teams, some of them amalgamations of about forty-eight separate teams in attempts to "unclutter" the league. Anyhow, my answer to this question was invariably "The same one you barrack for, naturally." And then the fist was removed from my field of vision and the grip around my neck relaxed.
There was also the whole process of having to endure Physical Education in school. This part of our education was considered more vital than anything else, and I wouldn't have minded it so much if we had been able to play more sports like Badminton or Lacrosse - stuff I was actually good at - which we played for about one class as opposed to spending weeks and weeks on end of running around in the cold and wet fighting each other for possession over something I wouldn't normally touch with an eight-foot Ukranian. You would be able to tell which one I was on the field - standing at the end where the ball wasn't. Either that, or standing completely off the field on the basis of conveniently forgetting my Phys Ed gear. The teacher must have thought I had the onset of a major medical condition regarding my memory in those days.
Add to this the fact that the "I'm-so-great-because-I-play-seventeen-different-sports" guys who really actually wanted to play the game would do it of their own volition after school, before school, on weekends etc. anyway. "I have football training at 2 o'clock tomorrow morning," they'd proudly say. "And I have to buy another pair of shoes worth $6,234,782 for the game this Saturday."
That's what I don't get. The endless training that they have to go through to be able to manipulate a ball that is so stupidly-shaped that it goes the way it wants to at any given time. It's a game purely of luck than skill or judgement yet the people that play it have to pass the ball to each other in practice sessions when they're not actually playing the game itself, because otherwise with their limited brain capacity they might actually forget how.
Sometimes people would ask trick questions, such as "Who is your favourite football player?". Of this, I also knew of only three. I still only know those three, despite the fact that these players are either dead or doing personal appearances on The Footy Show, or sometimes both. And if I had to support my answer with providing the name of the team they played for, I was well and truly stumped. As far as I was concerned, throughout history these three people had played for all of the teams, often simultaneously. In fact, of all the games I ever actually sat through, there were about forty clones of these three people on the field at any given time, passing the ball to themselves.
People would then go on to talk about the various positions these people played in their careers. Centre-Half-Forward-Back-Reverse-Thrust, they'd say, but he was a lot better as the Short-Term-Half-Pike-Twist in 1983. I still don't know what "positions" there are on a football field, and as far as I'm concerned the categorization is irrelevant because, as soon as the whistle blows, the players are swarming like a colony of ants all around the field with the ball as the focal point of the conglomeration of broken and bleeding arms and legs.
Any football supporter might happily suggest to you that "Trainspotters" are, in fact, Nerds (well done fellas, we worked that out years ago). (We might not beat them to a bloody pulp in the pub on Saturday night, however). But then they'll give you full details of every player for the Werribee Woofters for the years 1974-1993 and consider this to be relevant information to know in case it should need to be recalled for Emergency Conversational Needs. "Hoogenflappulent had 4,932 possessions of the ball through his entire career, but only made 2,190 actual kicks by comparison," they'd tell you. And you, considering this vital piece of information, would say, "Really, how interesting." And they'd do it anywhere, at any time, without warning. Dinner parties, corner stores, in the cinemas. The day my grandmother died, a great uncle came around and regaled us with stories about his days as a professional footballer.
I would sometimes bluff entire conversations because I knew to disagree with them would mean being the subject of condescending conversation for the rest of the evening. I would regurgitate virbatim information I had been unfortunate enough to be exposed to that previous week. Sometimes it might even still be relevant to them in some way. Sometimes they just Nod to themselves, knowing that I really don't know how to "use" the lingo. Not that I really care. I can speak fluent Minbari.
Someone once told me that knowledge of football automatically gives you a topic of conversation when you meet new people. My thought at the time that anyone who wants to incessantly talk about football isn't worth talking to. This was a case in point proven once again in the classroom when the guys who did nothing but sit and talk about football the whole time were often the ones who couldn't answer any challenging brain-teaser questions from the teacher, such as "How many beads makes five?". It's a favourite past-time of mine now to find their names in the Police Briefs section of the local newspaper.
Now I have given up pretending. I fear no-one, and of sound mind and body have declared myself immune to the hypnotic rays being beamed into our heads by TV shows such as The Footy Show, The Other Footy Show, Live and Kicking, Talking Footy (which is, literally, an entire hour of people just sitting on a sofa talking about football - they broadcast the same show every week with a different guest superimposed into the picture and nobody notices), Living Footy, Breathing Footy, Thinking Footy and, sometimes as a special treat for the fans, an actual broadcast game of football itself.
These days the question that seems to come up more, as an addendum to the one originally posed, is "Are you un-Australian????". And, if the definition of "Australian" is - according to my own personal survey of the social, poltical, dietary and hygiene habits of a majority of our population - "football-loving, beer-swilling, foul-mouthed, culturally-ignorant brain-dead yobbos", then YES.
I rest my case, your honour.
© Michael Cloonan, 1999