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This page is a quick snapshot of the status of Australian Football in Australia. For further information, browse our news items or use the search facility. If you wish to contact football officials from the country, please search our site for links to their leagues or clubs, including in our Atlas. If unsuccessful, we can normally assist with putting people in touch.

Approx population (2009):   22 million

National side:   un-named, formerly the Galahs

Governing body:   AFL

Primary contact / link:   Australian Football League

WFN Census (2004):   325,592 players (94,680 adults, 230,912 juniors) with 3888 adult teams. Since 2004 these numbers have grown substantially, particularly with the Auskick program and growth in Queensland and NSW.

WFN World Ranking (2008):   1st

History:   Naturally, Australia is the birthplace of Australian Football. In the 18th century football was not so much divided into different codes, rather they were all part of a spectrum without firm dividing lines. Around the same time that Association Football (soccer) and Rugby Football were settling on a divergent set of rules, so too a variation was being accepted in Victoria, Australia. 1858 is acknowledged as the first time the rules were established (although they would steadily change forever more).

The new rules quickly spread to other colonies (later to become states of Australia). The first major leagues were the South Australian Football Association (later becoming the SANFL) and Victorian Football Association (both in 1877). The sport also grew well in Tasmania, Western Australia and New Zealand (which elected not to join in the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901), and to a lesser extent New South Wales and Queensland. In 1897 the VFA suffered a split, with the formation of the VFL.

Interstate matches were regularly played, with Victoria the dominant team though not without occasional losses, indicating that the stronger leagues were at least peers (particularly SA and WA). In all these stronger states Australian Football was the biggest winter code, with cricket the preferred summer option. The sport was loosely governed with the main organisation varying its name from the Australasian Football Council to the Australian National Football Council to the Australian Football Council. Ultimately it was always at the mercy of the biggest football states, and attempts to move to a national competition above the state leagues would prove unsuccessful without VFL support. The other significant governing body was the Australian Amateur Football Council. Indeed below state league level there were and continue to be thousands of amateur and semi-professional teams across Australia.

By the 1970s Melbourne's much larger population compared with the other Australian Football heartland cities contributed to the VFL becoming the first league to push towards full professionalism. Melbourne had always drawn in some of the nation's best footballers, but this process accelerated. At interstate level this was countered with the introduction of State of Origin, which saw Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia share victories.

The growth of the VFL came at a cost, both to other states (in loss of players and therefore the local game) and to some of the Victorian clubs themselves (with growing debt). Perhaps inevitably efforts to create a true national competition were unsuccessful, and instead the VFL unilaterally embarked on a mission to transform itself into the AFL. The Australian Football Council was abandoned and with their state leagues in decline the major states ultimately agreed to enter the AFL (first labelled as such in 1990). Through the 1980s and 90s the number of non-Victorian teams in the league expanded (through both heartland and developing football states), signalling a golden era, at AFL level at least, of professionalism, TV rights money and upgraded stadia.

Outlook (from 2009):   The growth will continue with second AFL sides in Queensland and NSW in the 2010s. The relatively small state of Tasmania remains the obvious omission, and though Canberra and Darwin are often mentioned, their even smaller populations make them unlikely candidates in the near future. By most key indicators, the game is going from strength to strength. AFL player wages and professionalism, crowd attendance at AFL matches, AFL revenue and television ratings, have all been setting records in recent years. Junior participation, especially through Auskick, is also at record levels, as well as growth in female playing numbers.

There are three areas commonly raised as being of concern. Foremost are the changing rules and interpretations (with many fans feeling there has been too much removal of the more physical clashes in the game, such as the hip and shoulder and contested marks). The sport's strength at grassroots level, such as at amateur and country clubs, is another area that is questioned, as is the rise of soccer, which by some statistics is claimed to now surpass Australian Football, though in many areas this is clearly not true. Depending on who you ask the game has never been healthier or has systemic problems; as with many things in this world the truth probably lies somewhere between.

Other points of interest:   Ironically Australia's strength at the game means that at an international level there is no competitor, so while the emerging nations enjoy international matches, Australia does not. To compensate for this a national selection has the International (hybrid) Rules against Ireland's Gaelic footballers, while at junior level the Australian AIS-AFL side has played against the senior South African team (in Australian Football), and the All-Australian Amateur side has toured Ireland playing International Rules. The first serious on-field test may come in perhaps 20 years in the form of a Rest of the World side drawn from true international players competing in the AFL. Australia against another country, sadly, may take decades to reach a competitive level.

Last Updated: Tuesday, March 23 2010 @ 06:14 pm ACDT|Hits: 3,005 View Printable Version