AFL: African Style
I could have been in Melbourne if I closed my eyes and listened to the pattering of rain on the grass, like it does on so many winter days. I could have been walking out onto any suburban footy ground ready to start the afternoon match that is the highlight of so many people’s weekends, including my own.
But alas when I opened my ears and my eyes, I was certainly not in Melbourne. The jumpers were the same, Pies vs Blues, the ball was the same, red and made of leather, and to some extent the ground was the same. But the sound of African singing and dancing as a warm up exercise definitely told me I wasn't in Melbourne. I was in Capetown, South Africa, about to help umpire my first African game of AFL.
To my pleasant surprise, the players knew what they were doing. The ruckman jumped for the ball, the rovers gathered it and bodies were flying, this was footy the way I love it. One small difference was that the traditional 'BALL' was only heard approximately twice a quarter, rather than the twice a minute back at home. But I wasn't complaining about that, nor were the other umpires, all of which were female! Cleo and Lerato were the main field umpires with 6 other females making up the boundaries and goals, two of which had travelled down from Joburg with me on the plane, Charmine and Brigitte as well as Lerato. Another slight difference was the ground. It had 4 goal posts at each end- that was all in order, and you could just make out the marking on the field. But what you don't get on Melbourne grounds is your very own rain system by way of sprinklers that won't turn off. But a job is a job and you work with what you have. So we had 9 umpires, 36 players, a ball, a field and some extra water...certainly enough to play a football game.
|Lerato and Cleo|
|All the umpires|
From my sources within AFL South Africa, I have heard that the players can sometimes treat the umpires not so nicely, but that was not going to happen on my watch. After having a pre-game meeting with the umpires, to make sure everyone knew what they were doing, it was time to tell the players to do what I wanted them to do. The list was simple. Be nice, don't swear, don't get angry at us (the umpires), your teammates or other players and we won't get angry at you, play fair, play by the rules and try and have fun!
|There are the goal posts!|
So off we went. Up went the ball, splat went the players, splash went the ball on the wet ground and splish went the water from the non-stop rain/sprinkler system in the middle of the ground. Oh and not to mention the actual rain that was falling on this extremely chilly winter's day in Capetown.
My job during the game was to try and teach my 6 and a bit years of umpiring knowledge to umpires that are relatively new to the game. The first quarter was about feeling my way through what AFL in South Africa actually means, so I could translate this into Melbourne footy then translate it back into African footy. Obviously the players and the umpires are not as exposed to AFL as I have been, where it is your face, on your TV screens and possibly splattered about my house (carn catters!), so their feel for the game was a bit different. Nonetheless it was a great brand of footy. Daring, fast-paced, hard, at times clumsy but above all there to give it a red hot go! As umpires we had to be right on it. There for the holding the ball when a player decided to be a bit too daring, or for the high tackle when a player went in a bit too hard. And we had to run our socks off to keep up with the running, side-stepping and long kicks that are involved with AFL in SA.
|Being the photographer during the game|
Once I was not quite quick enough and got a ball smack bang in the knoggin..I think I blacked out for a second, but after a couple of minutes of running around with vision in only one eye I was all good to continue being the umpiring teacher. As the game wore on I could see the confidence in Cleo and Lerato grow tremendously. Their whistles became louder, their calls stronger and positioning more effective. I felt like a proud mother sending her children off to big school for the first time.
In the last quarter I let Cleo and Lerato control the game themselves, where I only stepped in one or two times to pay a free kick. With my down jacket on, rain ceasing (apart from the sprinklers of course), I was able to be a semi-spectator in the middle of the ground. I think this is why I love umpiring so much. Each weekend I get to be a semi-spectator in an incredibly spectator friendly sport. I am of course doing my job, looking out for free kicks and keeping control of the game, but every now and then you become a spectator. Whether it be for an amazing mark a player just took on someone else's back, a desperate tackle, an incredible goal or a beautiful kick, I'm there, in the middle, whistle in hand, watching the excitement and joy that is footy.
In the fourth quarter I was able to see the little kids that had huddled under shelters or behind walls to watch the game out of the wind and rain, whether they really knew what they were watching or not. I was able to see the coach, in an Essendon tracksuit yelling out instructions just like I hear every Saturday. I was able to see the celebration of a goal, the goal where the team knew they were safe from defeat. I was able to see the colourful shanty homes of the township that surrounded the ground. This was South Africa and I was watching Australian football, and I was loving it.
|Western Cape celebrating their win in the rooms|
In the end it was Western Cape (Capetown) that came home with the 4 points (if they play for 4 points) over Gauteng (Johannesburg) by about 25 points. It was an awesome first experience of AFL in South Africa and I really hope I have many many more in the months to follow. There is such a passion for the game and you can tell that people just want to share it. I hope I can be part of that sharing experience. A massive thank you to Phindi and the team at AFL SA for giving me the opportunity to be able to experience this. And to Neville Nash, for sending that email many months ago. The wheels are a moving and the AFL train is a chugging.