The Basics of AFL: Everything a Tourist Needs to Know

Most Melburnians are mourning the loss of summer as we head into the winter months. But there’s one silver lining many of us are anticipating: the return of footy!

The passion for this sport is fervent. AFL is, after all, older than our country itself.

But for outsiders, the rules of this sport can remain as elusive as Melbourne’s winter sun. So, dear tourists, grab a coffee (you’ll need it) and sit down. I’m going to attempt to tell you everything you need to know about AFL.

(Melburnians, you know the drill. You can check out this year’s fixtures here).

The Weird Origins of AFL

According to the official history, AFL was devised by three Australian cricketers in the mid-19th century as a winter sport to keep fit.

The first team (Melbourne Football Club) was formed in 1858. The game grew in popularity until the Victorian Football League was established in 1896 (Victoria was then just another British colony since Australia did not exist until five years later).

By 1925, twelve inner-Melbourne football clubs had been formed and these clubs remained unchanged until 1987, the year VFL was nationalised. The year it became AFL. Since then, the game has expanded to include eighteen teams.

Aussie Rules has come a long way in the past few decades. Just a quarter of a century ago, I watched my first live match from my dad’s shoulders at the local Moorabbin Oval. Now, my team – the St Kilda Saints (woe is me) – has upgraded to the stately Etihad Stadium.

AFL Traditions

Any Melburnian is familiar with the pre-game traditions, but you don’t realise how weird they are until you try to explain them to a tourist.


Each song has a team, sung in bass tones and brass beats. Pay attention to these songs. They’re rarely musical and barely lyrical, so they’ll give you some pre-match enjoyment.

When each team’s song plays, the teammates trudge onto the pitch. They try to look upbeat in their tight, tight get-up (guernseys, miniature shorts and long socks). And in a show of bravado, they burst through huge banners constructed by their supporters.

Each team’s eighteen players spread themselves out on the oval field, the teams’ ruckmen (generally the tallest), meeting in the middle.

An intrusive siren blares throughout the stadium, signalling an umpire (dressed in fashionable fluorescent yellow) to bounce the ball on the ground between the ruckmen. As it somersaults into the air, the ruckmen leap to pound it over to their side first, and the game begins…

AFL Rules

This is where the whole game will unravel and any outsider spectator will be playing catch up. So I’ll break it down for you.

Unlike in rugby, you cannot throw the ball. It has to be punched – or handballed – to teammates. If you’re far enough away, you can kick it instead. If your intended target catches the ball, it’s called a mark. And much like a penalty, they’re given a “free kick”, which provides them time to choose where to kick the ball next.

If players are lucky enough, they’ll mark the ball near their own goals, marked by four tall posts, the middle two taller than the outer two.

If the ball is kicked between one of the inner posts and one of the outer posts, it’s called a behind. That’s one point to the scoring team. If it cruises straight through the middle posts off the player’s foot, it’s a goal worth 6 points.

Still with me? No? Then here it is from the experts…

Wondering what the flag waving is all about?

If you haven’t noticed, a footy oval is huge (the size of a cricket oval, naturally). There’s more than one ump (umpire). And these guys need to communicate with one another.

That’s where the flags come into it. Goal umpires mark goals and behinds with their hands. One out in front for a behind, two out in front for a goal. But to make sure their umpiring buddies down the other end of the oval see them, they conduct a complicated flag-waving routine, which the other umpire mimics.

Got it? Good. At the end of the game, the winning team’s song rumbles across the stadium. Follow the crowd to the local pub and grab yourself a beer. Mention a good mark (“How about that speckie?” will get you brownie points), and you’ll feel like a local in no time.

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