The AFL is the highest level of competitive Australian rules football in Australia. The competition has changed immensely, both in terms of teams and rules. AFL matches boast the best attendance figures in Australian sport. AFL is often the second-most-watched sport behind cricket (which is Australia’s national game). AFL is exciting, fast-paced and one of the best sports to watch live at the stadium or on television!
The origins of AFL
The AFL wasn’t always known as “the AFL.” There was no such thing as AFLX or AFLW, nor was there a pre-season. The game wasn’t even a professional league when it first started. In fact, the competition at it stands today began in Victoria back in 1877. At that time, the competition was known as the Victorian Football Association (VFA) and consisted of five clubs in Melbourne: St Kilda, Melbourne, Carlton, Hotham (later known as North Melbourne) and Albert-Park. During this time, the competition was not highly structured, and matches were often organised between club secretaries, as opposed to a neutral intermediary.
The creation of the VFL
In 1896, the game of Australian rules had grown quite significantly and there was a strong demand for a more formalised competition. As a result, the strongest clubs in Victoria, which consisted of Collingwood, Geelong, Fitzroy, Essendon, Melbourne and South Melbourne left the VFA to create the VFL – the Victorian Football League. Carlton and St Kilda were also invited to join the VFL from the VFA. In 1908, Richmond joined the league.
In 1925, three more clubs were added to the competition, including North Melbourne, Footscray and Hawthorn. After this, the competition was relatively stable for many decades, with the 1940s to the 1970s regarded as “the golden years” of the VFL.
Professionalism in the 1980s
The 1980s was a period of significant structural change for the VFL. Rising costs were driving weaker clubs into bankruptcy, forcing the South Melbourne Football Club to relocate to Sydney, officially becoming the Sydney Swans in 1983. There was also further pressure for South Australian and West Australian teams to be included in the league. Eventually, the West Coast Eagles and the Brisbane Bears were granted entry into the league in 1987.
The game also became far more professional. The National Draft was implemented in 1986 and the following year saw the introduction of the first “salary cap” rules. The VFL was officially renamed the AFL in 1990, reflecting the code’s desire to become a national game.
AFL in its current form
The current AFL draw consists of 18 professional teams; a mixture of some of the VFL’s foundation clubs and more recent AFL expansion teams.
The Adelaide Football Club (The Crows)
The Adelaide Crows were established in 1990 with the purpose of representing South Australia. The club played their first season in 1991 and won back to back premierships in 1997 and 1998. One of Adelaide’s finest ever players, Andrew McCleod, won back-to-back North Smith Medals. The Norm Smith Medal is awarded to the player judged best on ground in the AFL Grand Final. The club also made the Grand Final in 2017, however, they were defeated by Richmond. In terms of AFL scores, the club registered its highest game total of 188 in 2006, while recording its lowest score of 24 in 2011.
The Brisbane Lions
Based in Queensland, the Brisbane Lions were formed in 1996 when the Fitzroy Lions merged with the Brisbane Bears. In their first season in 1997, the Lions made the finals but were knocked out in the first week by St Kilda. However, the club’s most dominant period of success came in the early 2000s, where the club recorded three consecutive premierships between 2001 and 2003. During this time, the Lions were coached by Leigh Matthews, widely regarded as one of the greatest AFL players of all time. The club’s home ground is the Gabba.
The Carlton Football Club (The Blues)
One of the eight founding members of the VFL, the Carlton FC are one of league’s most successful clubs, having won 16 VFL/AFL premierships (the most won by any club, equal with Essendon). The club plays its home games at Marvel Stadium and the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Carlton has played in some of the most famous VFL and AFL Grand Finals, particularly the 1970 VFL Grand Final, where over 121 000 people attended the MCG to watch Carlton overcome a half-time deficit of 44 points and win by 10. The 2000s and 2010s, however, have been a period of struggle the Blues.
The Collingwood Football Club (The Magpies)
Formed in the working-class suburb of Collingwood, the Magpies’ supporter base has developed a reputation for being hated by the other AFL clubs. This can largely be attributed to their success, in which they have 15 premierships and made over 40 Grand Final appearances. However, between the late 1950s and 1980s, the club developed a reputation known as the “Colliwobbles”, suggesting that the club had a propensity for choking in big games. During this period, the club made 9 Grand Finals, only to lose 8 and draw 1. Fans believed the phenomenon had died after their victory in 2010; however, a narrow lost in the 2018 Grand Final saw the “choking” jokes return.
The Essendon Football Club (The Bombers)
Along with Carlton, the Essendon Bombers are the most successful AFL/VFL team in history (with 16 premierships). A large amount of their success can be attributed to AFL supercoach, Kevin Sheedy, who was the head coach of the club between 1981 and 2007. During his tenure, the club won 4 Grand Finals – 1984, 1985, 1993 and 2000. The club’s 2000 season was one of its best in history, winning 21 from 22 games. However, the club has not been free of controversy. AFL news broke in 2013 that ASADA (Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority) were investigating the club over the legality of their supplements program during the 2012 season. James Hird, the head coach of the club, was suspended for 12 months, along with 34 other players.
The Fremantle Football Club (The Dockers)
The Fremantle Dockers are the second team from Western Australia (along with the West Coast Eagles). The club joined the AFL in 1995 but didn’t make the finals until 2003. The club is yet to win a premiership, however, under the coaching of Ross Lyon, the club did make the Grand Final in 2013. The Dockers were subsequently beaten 77-62 by Hawthorn. The club also won the minor premiership in 2015. The club’s colours are purple and white, and their mascot is Johnny “The Doc” Docker – a blonde haired surfer. In terms of AFL news, Fremantle has largely been without controversy, apart from the siren controversy that occurred in match between Fremantle and St Kilda in 2006.
The Geelong Football Club (The Cats)
The Geelong Football Club are the second oldest football club in the AFL, having been formed in 1859. The club has worn 9 premierships, 3 of which came in 2007, 2009 and 2011. The club is well-known for the Ablett family dynasty, whereby Gary Ablett Sr. and Gary Ablett Jr. have played for the club. Geelong’s 2007 Grand Final win was the biggest in AFL scores’ history, with the club prevailing by 119 points (163-44). The club’s 2007 Grand Final win also broke the club’s longest premiership drought, which was 44 years at the time.
The Gold Coast Suns
The Gold Coast Suns are one of the newest clubs to join the AFL, having joined the competition in 2011. In its first decade of operation, however, the club has developed an unwanted reputation for underperforming, having not made the finals as of 2019. In the first season, the club was not expected to perform well, however, a 21-game losing streak between 2011 and 2012 was suggestive of structural problems with the club. Some brighter moments for the club have been Gary Ablett winning his second Brownlow Medal (the best and fairest award in the entire AFL) with the club in 2014 and Jaegar O’Meara winning the Ron Evans Medal in 2013 for the AFL Rising Star.
The Greater Western Sydney Giants
The Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Giants are the newest club in the AFL, having joined the competition in 2012. Much like the Gold Coast Suns, the Giants struggled for their first few seasons; however, the club had a breakout year in 2016, during which it made the preliminary finals, falling just short in their game against the eventual premiers, the Western Bulldogs. The club has an intense rivalry with cross-town opponents, the Sydney Swans. The club’s colours are orange, white and black, and the club plays their home fixtures at Spotless Stadium. Jeremy Cameron became the club’s inaugural winner of the Coleman Medal in 2019 (highest goal-kicker in the home-and-away season).
The Hawthorn Football Club (The Hawks)
The Hawthorn Football Club were formed in 1902 and have been one of the most consistently successful teams in the modern era. In fact, the club is renowned for being the only club to have won a premiership in every decade from the 1960s to the 2010s. The club has won 13 total premierships, including the most recent “three-peat” between 2013-2015 with another AFL supercoach, Alastair Clarkson. The Hawthorn colours are brown and gold, using a vertical stripe design since the 1950s. The club was also the most successful performer during the 1980s, winning four premierships (1983, 1986, 1988, 1989).
The Melbourne Football Club (The Demons)
The Melbourne Football Club hold the amazing feat of being the oldest professional club of any football in the world. Amazingly, the club was founded in 1858, over 161 years ago. Throughout their long history, the club has won 12 AFL/VFL premierships, with the most recent victory coming in 1964. As of 2019, the Demons have the longest running premiership drought in the AFL. In the past decade, AFL news and rumours have circulated that the club were intentionally “tanking”, i.e. losing games on purpose during the 2009 season. The point of doing this was to try and benefit from higher priority picks during the AFL Draft.
The North Melbourne Football Club (The Kangaroos)
The North Melbourne Football is the fourth-oldest Australian rules football club, based at Arden Street Oval in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. In 2019, the club celebrated its 150th season. The club has had success in patches, fielding dominant sides during the late 1970s and 1990s. The club has won four premierships – two in the 1970s (1975, 1977) and two in the 1990s (1996 and 1999). Some of the greatest players of all time have played for the North Melbourne Football Club, including Wayne Carey and Malcolm Blight. In what has become a staple of Australian rules folklore, Malcolm Blight kicked a famous after-the-siren goal to clinch victory from Carlton in 1976. The kick reportedly travelled approximately 80m.
The Port Adelaide Football Club
The Port Adelaide Football Club were one of the most successful clubs in the South Australian National Football League (SANFL), winning 36 premierships between 1884 and 1999. The unrivalled success of the club saw them granted approval to join the AFL in 1994; however, the club didn’t form a team in the AFL until 1997. The club won its first premiership in 2004, beating the highly-fancied Brisbane Lions who were attempting to win four premierships in a row. The club’s nickname is “The Power” and the famous INXS song “Never Tear Us Apart” is the club’s unofficial anthem.
The Richmond Football Club (The Tigers)
The Richmond Football Club were formed in 1885 and have won 11 AFL/VFL premierships in that time. The club’s facilities are located at Punt Road Oval (its original home ground), which lies adjacent to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The MCG hosts the AFL Grand Final every year. The Richmond guernsey is solid black with a yellow sash, while the club’s “clash” guernsey is the same design except the colours are reversed. The Tigers’ club son, “We’re from Tigerland” is considered by many to be one of the best in the AFL.
The St Kilda Football Club (The Saints)
The St Kilda Football Club hold the unenviable record of finishing last in the competition more than any other team (27 times). On top of that, the club has only one premiership to its name – the VFL premiership in 1966 (which was won by 1 point). More recently, the club won the minor premiership in 2009 and were back-to-back grand finalists in 2009 and 2010. The club’s 2009 season was one of the most dominant home and away seasons in the history of the AFL, with the club winning 20 from 22 matches.
The Sydney Swans
Formerly the South Melbourne Football Club, the Sydney Swans have become one of the most consistently successful teams of the 21st century. Since 1995, the club has failed to make the finals on only four occasions (2000, 2002, 2009, 2019). The club famously broke its premiership drought in 2005, which at the time was the longest premiership drought in Australian rules football history. They would go on to lose next year’s Grand Final by 1 point (against the West Coast Eagles), before winning the premiership again 2012. The club qualified for the Grand Final in 2014 and 2016 but fell short on both occasions. The club is also well known for producing the most Brownlow Medal winners, with 14.
The West Coast Eagles
The West Coast Eagles have been one of the most successful clubs in the AFL era (1990 onwards), winning four premierships (second only to Hawthorn’s five). Whilst the club has boasted great success in the modern era, AFL rumours have always circulated the club. The late 2000s were a controversial period, where the club was criticised for allegations of recreational drug use, links to gangs and a range of assaults. Former champion of the club, Ben Cousins, has consistently been at the centre of such controversies. Despite this, the Eagles’ period of success can be attributed to their dominant midfield, featuring Cousins, Chris Judd and Daniel Kerr.
The Western Bulldogs (formerly the Footscray Football Club)
The Western Bulldogs have won two VFL/AFL premierships, coming in 1954 and 2016. The club’s 2016 premiership win is regarded as a “sporting fairy tale” by many commentators. Despite just scraping into the finals in 7th position, the Bulldogs beat the West Coast Eagles in Perth, Hawthorn in Melbourne and then the GWS Giants in Sydney to book a place in the Grand Final (their first in 55 years). They eventually won the Grand Final by 22 points, in what was considered another upset win. The club’s colours are red, white and blue.
A breakdown of the average season
The regular AFL season consists of 23 rounds. Each team plays each other at least once and each team receives one “bye round”, meaning each team plays a total of 22 matches for the season. Once the regular season had concluded, a “pre-finals bye” takes place, thereby separating the finals series from the regular season. The AFL draw is devised by the AFL’s head office.
Before the regular season begins, each team has two pre-season games, usually played at regional venues. In 2019, the pre-season tournament was the JLT Community Series.
How do teams make the finals?
The top eight teams in the competition effectively qualify for the finals’ series. The highest ranked team in the encounter gets the home ground advantage, while the teams in the top 4 get a “double chance”, since a qualifying final is a non-elimination match. The structure for the finals’ AFL draw is as follows (based on ladder position):
- Qualifying Final 1: 1st place vs. 4th place
- Qualifying Final 2: 2nd place vs. 3rd place
- The winners of these games get the next week off and go straight into a preliminary final in Week 3.
- The losers of these finals will play in a semi final in the following week
- Elimination Final 1: 5th place vs. 8th place
- Elimination Final 2: 6th place vs. 7th place
- The winners of these games proceed to the semi finals next week, whilst the losers are eliminated
- Semi Final 1: Loser of QF1 vs. Winner of EF1
- Semi Final 2: Loser of QF2 vs. Winner of EF2
- Winners of both matches proceed to preliminary finals, with the losers are eliminated.
- Preliminary Final 1: Winner of QF1 vs. Winner of SF2
- Preliminary Final 2: Winner of QF2 vs. Winner of SF1
- Winners proceed to Grand Final, while the losers are eliminated.
- Grand Final: Winner of PF1 vs. Winner of PF2
Famous AFL scores in finals
There have been some incredibly famous Grand Final encounters. In 2005, the Sydney Swans prevailed over the West Coast Eagles (58-54), with a famous Leo Barry mark eclipsing the win for the Swans. It broke their premiership drought of over 72 years. Nicknamed the “Battle of 89”, the 1989 Grand Final saw Hawthorn defeat Geelong by a mere 6 points, in what was a high-scoring affair (144-138). The 2010 AFL Grand Final resulted in a famous draw between Collingwood and St Kilda (68-68). The Grand Final Replay took place a week later, with Collingwood winning comfortably by 56 points.
It’s clear that the Australian Football League is one of the most popular sports in Australia, largely because of its rich and long-standing history. While the game has certainly changed throughout history, it remains a popular and much-loved sport across not just Victoria but all of Australia.