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Australian rules football captures the imagination of the public like no other football code in the country. Originally developed in the mid nineteenth century to keep cricketers fit in the off-season and because it was less likely than rugby to result in injuries to them on hard grounds, the game has gone from strength to strength. Many traditions have developed in the game at the top level of competition, the national Australian Football League (AFL).

Before the start of matches, the players of each team traditionally run through a large crepe paper banner in team colours put together by their respective fan clubs. They might include a message or slogan relevant to the match, or congratulating a player for reaching a milestone such as 300 club games, or a sponsor’s message. Each team runs through their banner in turn, while their club song in played. The song of the winning team is always played at the end of the match too.

Spectators cheer wildly during the match but there is little of the mass singing and chanting common in soccer matches. Cheer squads and individual spectators yell out support for their team, such as ‘Carn the Lions’, ‘carn’ being short for ‘come on’, or ‘Mel-bne’, clap-clap-clap, often repeating this a number of times. Traditional consumables at matches are meat pies and beer. A ‘pitch invasion’ occurs at the end of a match, where spectators jump the fence and run across the ground, or play kick to kick with a football they brought in themselves, or just stand on the ground and talk in small groups. The main AFL grounds have banned this tradition to protect the playing surface.

Players wear their team guernsey, often referred to as a jumper in Australia. Some of the designs have changed little in more than 100 years. The material used to make the jumpers has changed over the years, and the tops are no longer of the lace-up variety. Shorts have been worn since the 1920s. Long socks are compulsory. Traditional jumpers are worn in the annual ‘Heritage Round’ of AFL matches. Umpires wore white for a long time, but have worn brightly coloured clothes in recent times to help distinguish them from players. A scarf and sometimes a beanie (a type of hat) in team colours are worn by spectators.

There are several traditional rivalries between certain AFL teams. One that goes back to the nineteenth century and is still arguably the biggest in the competition is Collingwood versus Carlton, two inner suburbs in Melbourne. Both teams have been very successful over the years, with Carlton winning the competition 16 times (equal first with Essendon) and Collingwood 15 times. Some of the most fiercely contested matches are between non-Victorian clubs in the same state, including games between West Coast and Fremantle in Western Australia and Adelaide and Port Adelaide in South Australia. These games are promoted as local derbies.

One of the great traditions of Australian rules football is the Brownlow medal, awarded to the ‘fairest and best’ player during the season as voted by the umpires. It is regarded as the highest individual honour in the game and has been awarded since 1924. The medal is named after Charles Brownlow, a Geelong (a city near Melbourne) player and administrator in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The voting and presentation of the medal is conducted at a formal dinner of hundreds of players and officials and their partners on the Monday night prior to Grand Final Day and is televised nationally.

The Grand Final Parade is held in the main streets of Melbourne city at lunch time on Friday, the day before the Grand Final. It features the players of both sides sitting on the back of open cars. Recent crowds have been estimated at 40,000 in 2004, 50,000 in 2005, 75,000 in 2006, 100,000 in 2007, and more than 100,000 each year since then, except in 2009 when 80,000 watched in the rain.

Traditional songs are sung by choirs and celebrity singers at every Grand Final. The first song is usually ‘Waltzing Matilda’, written by Australian-born poet Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson in 1895 as a four-verse poem. This song was a contender for Australia’s national anthem in the 1970s. A medley of football songs then follows, which varies each year and might include ‘Up There Cazaly’, after high-flying footballer Roy Cazaly of the 1910s and 1920s, ‘One Day in September’, written by Australian musician Mike Brady, ‘That’s the Thing About Football’ by local artist Greg Champion, and ‘Holy Grail’, originally performed by Aussie band Hunters & Collectors. The club song of each team is performed live, with a recorded version when the players enter the field. Once the players and umpires are on the ground and standing in line, the national anthem ‘Advance Australia Fair’ is played.

The venue for the Grand Final itself has traditionally been the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where cricket is played in summer and football in winter. The game is held on the last Saturday in September. Despite the large size of the ground, the AFL Grand Final is always a sell-out. A record crowd of 121,696 people attended the 1970 final between Collingwood and Carlton. More recent crowds have been smaller, just under 100,000, as the ground no longer has standing room areas and all spectators have a seat. An estimated 30 million people in 72 countries watch the match on television.