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I Finally Identify With Football Culture Again

AFLW is the great social equaliser.

10/02/2017 11:53 AM AEDT | Updated 10/02/2017 12:16 PM AEDT

In 2013 I decided not to renew my Collingwood FC membership. I pulled the pin because I felt sick when I read the allegations about two Collingwood football players -- "my boys" -- participating in utterly inappropriate sexual behaviour after the 2010 grand final. They were cleared, but I still felt sick. Many Essendon supporters are feeling a similar mistrust of their 'heroes' after the much-documented doping scandal. Somewhere along the way, footy culture got toxic.

As the AFLW started last week, I finally identify with football culture again. A new, improved football culture, tapping into a new audience and reaching a new generation of fans. The much-celebrated launch of the women's game is a powerful healing moment for our town.

The powerful symbolism of women playing AFL -- our own prime-time spectacle -- will have reverberations in every aspect of our lives.

I had always proudly and vocally defended and promoted Aussie Rules. Our great game has always had a magical influence on Melbourne culture. Our spiritual home is at the footy, but we're also pretty happy as long as we are watching or listening to the footy, or talking about footy. Much has been said of this city-wide hypnosis. Despite urban sprawl, an ever-growing divide between rich and poor and the potential challenges of being the most multicultural city in the country, footy crosses class and cultural lines so we all stick side by side, no matter our allegiances. Footy brings us together, and always has.

My grandparents were proud Collingwood supporters all their lives. Grandma grew up in Abbotsford and from that point on, the rest of us didn't have much of a choice -- barracking for the mighty 'Pies was in our blood. When people make jibes in mock surprise that I have all of my teeth, I can chuckle along (and roll my eyes) knowing that the history of our game is interwoven within the fabric and history of our city. Footy is the language we use to express our discomfort about the class divides we pretend don't exist in Australia. We Collingwood supporters are proud of our working class roots and there's nothing we love more than hating our natural enemies: the Carlton Football Club.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself happily cheering on the women wearing the navy blue last Friday night as they ran rings around the Pies. Seeing Darcy Vescio in action was like seeing fallen hero James Hird play for the first time. Vescio, a 23-year old superstar from Wangaratta, was living the dream of booting four goals in her debut and proving too much spark for the Collingwood defenders.

Getty Images
No blues for this Navy Blue.

Many of the 24,500 supporters that filled Princes Park to bursting last Friday felt the same emotional reaction to witnessing history being made as I did. It wasn't a close game by any stretch, and if you judged it by the score line or the stats, you're missing the point. The atmosphere was electric because something really special was unfolding. We all shared a moving and meaningful moment in the history of this city, and of our game. I felt immense pride for the women on the field, and for the people who had worked hard over many years to make this moment a reality. But it was more than that.

The "footy as great social equaliser" narrative has finally been realised now that women have been truly let into the club. Women have played footy forever, we've supported footy forever, but when the official AFLW season kicked off, something went 'click' in our hearts and in our heads. It was the feeling of acceptance in our own town.

Women have played footy forever, we've supported footy forever, but when the official AFLW season kicked off, something went 'click' in our hearts and in our heads.

We footy-loving women make up half of the population, and yet up until now, when we've watched or talked about footy, it's always been about men. The shift in focus is more than the joy of seeing mums taking their daughters to the game in droves. It's not just about young women who play footy having role models and a pathway to play the game they love throughout their childhood, adolescence and into adulthood for the first time.

The powerful symbolism of women playing AFL -- our own prime-time spectacle -- will have reverberations in every aspect of our lives. In this place, in this town, the humble game of football has the power to help our society and our culture to value women, to respect women and to elevate women. Don't underestimate the ripple effect this seemingly small step will have on equality, women's rights and stopping violence against women.

It seems like a weighty responsibility for the women pulling on their boots this weekend. But I know they've "got this". The community is ready.

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