Geoffrey Blainey, the author of the Shorter History of Australia, notes that Australia was the first country to provide special attention to spectator sports — especially to Australian Rules Football. Until today, Aussies weep and cheer for our beloved football teams, and even scour the internet to get tickets for AFL Anzac Day. With such dedication to the sport, one has to wonder: when did we start falling in love with footy?

The Formation of the “Big League”

Formed in 1859, Geelong and Melbourne are one of the world’s oldest football clubs. Shortly after, the Carlton (1864), North Melbourne (1869), Essendon (1871), St. Kilda (1873) and Hawthorn (1873) clubs followed. During this period, Victoria and other parts of Australia had already formed their own clubs, which caught the attention of the nation. Thereafter, big crowds began attending games in Melbourne.

By 1880, huge matches began to lure in crowds of 15,000. The game between South Melbourne v Geelong drew in 34,000 sports fans, which is the biggest crowd in the world at the time. Blaine says the clubs attracted communities who created teams for themselves around hotels, churches, self-help groups and schools.

The Miracle of Sport

For centuries, people took enforced rest and work for granted; leisure was still an anticipated innovation. Australia’s forefathers basically considered Saturday afternoon rests as a secular miracle. The establishment of football clubs brought in the idea of leisure as a new sense of time. Blainey noticed that the emphasis on leisure turned into a trademark of social life and unionism. The limited working hours also encouraged more Aussies to spend their free time on sports, especially football.

The expansion of footy clubs and the ever increasing number of fans brought about a historical revolution in Australia. Football practically etched itself into Aussie history and birthed the concept of leisure time. Now, most Aussies would identify with their football team as with their identity, job or even religion.

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