The Australian Football League is the top level of Australian rules football, with the best professional players making up the 18 competing teams. The AFL Commission which oversees the competition is also the official governing body of the entire game of Australian rules football, having taken over from the Australian National Football Council in 1993 and the International Australian Football Council in 2005. This makes it the official body of the sport both domestically and internationally.
The Beginning of Australian Rules
The first game played using “Australian rules” was in the city of Melbourne in 1858, with these rules formally codified in 1859. The oldest set of rules that have survived to the present day date back to 17th May 1859, three days after Melbourne Football Club was founded. Although these rules were used and formulated around this time, it is thought that the sport had been around longer as it morphed from other football games in Great Britain and Ireland.
Before the codified Australian rules, teams would need to agree which set of rules they would use before they began playing. This was understandably quite confusing since rules of association football (soccer), rugby, Gaelic football and several other variants were often intermingled. In the early days of the game, the rules were called “Melbourne rules” but were later referred to as “Australian rules” as the game spread across the country.
The Victorian Football League
By the turn of the 20th century a number of leagues had been formed in Australia, with the Victorian Football League, the South Australian National Football League and the West Australian Football League all operating independently of each other. Across these parts of the country, Australian rules was the most popular winter sport. All three of these leagues exist today, although the Victorian Football League has become the Australian Football League. For a seven year period between 1907 and 1914 a playoff match called the “Championship of Australia” was held between the winner of the South Australian Football League and the Victorian Football League. The competition then returned in 1968 but it again only lasted for seven years.
Several of the Victorian Football League’s founding teams can be found in the AFL today, including Melbourne, Geelong, Carlton, Hotham and the Sydney Swans. These teams had been competing in the Victorian Football Association until 1897 when they broke away to form the VFL after a disagreement. By 1908 several other VFA players had joined the VFL and by the 1920s the latter had become the major Australian rules football league.
Becoming the Australian Football League
In 1990 the VFL was renamed to the Australian Football League in recognition of its expansion outside of the state of Victoria to cover the whole country. However the VFL’s old rival the VFA took the name Victorian Football League in 1996, which features lower level teams in the state.
The national expansion began in 1982 when one of the VFL’s founding teams, South Melbourne Football Club, relocated to Sydney and changed its name to the Sydney Swans. As interest in the VFL grew in other states two further non-Victorian teams joined in 1987 with the addition of the West Coast Eagles and the Brisbane Bears to the league. After the name change to the AFL, Adelaide joined in 1991, Fremantle in 1995 and Port Adelaide in 1997.
The Grand Final
The AFL Grand Final is the most important event on the Australia rules football calendar, and is somewhat comparable to the Super Bowl in American football. It is traditionally held at Melbourne Cricket Ground which has hosted almost all of the Grand Finals in VFL/AFL history, with only World War II and the 1956 Olympic Games interrupting this. The venue will continue to host the Grand Final for the next four decades, having signed a contract until 2057.
The first Grand Final was held some 40 years after the founding of Australian rules football in 1989; however, the term “Grand Final” was not commonly used until around 1931. The first Grand Final had issues: firstly, the organisers forgot to book a venue and eventually chose St Kilda Cricket Ground. This last minute venue had not been prepared in time, meaning the pitch did not have any grass so players had a dry soil surface to play on. This meant huge plumes of dust were created, impeding the view of the 16,500 spectators that were in attendance. Despite the hiccups, the event was deemed to have been successful, securing its future on the Australian Rules calendar.
The AFL traditionally runs during the Australian winter, between March and September, with the Grand Final being traditionally held on the third Saturday of September. With several months to go before the final a lot can still change, but according to Oddschecker, Collingwood and Geelong have merged as favourites to take victory in 2019. The 2019 winner, like all previous AFL Grand Final winners, will receive a cup and the prestigious “AFL premiership flag”. This large pennant gets unfurled at the team’s first home game in the following season. The flag was first awarded in 1895, meaning it predates the Grand Final itself.
Numerous changes have been made to the “Laws” of Australian rules football over time. For example, the 2006 season saw the introduction of a number of rule changes that were designed to speed up game play in Australian Rules. This included time limits on how long a player was allowed to hold the ball, limiting them to 30 seconds for a shot and just 8 seconds in general play. This was similar to the shot clock in basketball which was introduced in 1954 after the game had been suffering from a chronic lack of baskets. The shot clock was deemed hugely successful in basketball and has had a similar effect on Australian rules. Other rules included the introduction of a spare ball bucket behind both goals so that the players wouldn’t need the crowd to return the ball after each shot. Australian rules is a sport that has a rich history with roots across the countries of the former British Empire. The expansion of the VFL into the AFL has helped to expand the reach of Australian rules football across the country and internationally, and under a unified governing body it will likely continue to grow.