A friend of mine once described playing football as a ninety minute orgasm. That might be just a slight exaggeration, but … erm … I don’t know how to finish that sentence …
In normal circumstances I'd be completely bored by the age-old debate - which is the best football code? But someone asked me the other day - at a social event (where most people were union/league aficionados) why I bothered supporting football when no-one else did.
*takes deep breath*
Let's put to one side the "no-one else" given that football is by far the most popular team sport in the world and dwarfs all other codes combined in Australia when it comes to participation.
Let's just focus on the game itself.
Similar to most other codes, football is played on a rectangular pitch and the ball must stay within those bounds. At either end there is a goalpost - twenty feet by eight feet - and both teams have eleven players defending one goal and attacking the other.
They are not allowed to use their hands (with one obvious exception).
Every game transaction requires either or both of ball skills and game intelligence.
At this point it becomes incredibly complex to describe what is going on in every moment across the field, so let's just focus on one position - left back.
There is always a right position for the left back to be. In defence, he or she must always be watching the runners, watching the ball, moving to the most advantageous defensive place in every moment, calling other players onto runners and ever-ready to become a last ditch sweeper should that be required.
When his / her team wins the ball, the left back must be in the best position to receive the ball - early - move the ball on - early - and move themselves to receive the ball again in an advanced attacking position if required.
At the same time, the left back must always be ready to snap back into defensive shape the instant the ball is lost. Which it usually is.
This is just one position, operating in concert with twenty-one others as the game transactions play out. It's like a ballet, or a chess match, while also extremely physical. (When I was playing serious football in my twenties, I lost count of the number of people who'd come to watch for the first time and said, after the game: 'I couldn't believe how violent it was!')
No other sport requires its players to move through three dimensions with such constraints. Both rugby codes face each other across a ruck line that moves in one dimension, and they're allowed to use their hands.
AFL has no constraints. The oval is huge, there's no offside, you don't have to catch the ball cleanly and you still get a point if you miss.
There is so much going through a football player's brain as he/she negotiates the field and the other team - always trying to find time and space. Those are the advantage commodities of football - time and space to do something with the ball which is harder to find the closer you get to the opposing goal. People who understand the game know this. They understand that the game itself IS the entertainment - not just the scoring.
As for goals, they are so hard to get and just one decides a match. That's why goals are memorable - they really mean something, unlike a goal in basketball or AFL. Personally, I can admire the skill and athleticism of basketball but I always find those games boring until the last quarter, and even then the game needs to be close enough for single goals to matter at the pointy end.
I still remember very clearly the first goal I ever scored in an actual match. I would've been ten years old and allowed to play up front at last (coming out of goals at half time). I hit the ball first time from the edge of the box and watched in disbelief as it flew into the top corner. But even now, in the O45Ds, the feeling of scoring a goal is simply wonderful and almost nothing compares (I've scored tries playing both league and union and, while good, they don't come near the feeling of scoring a goal).
The only thing that compares with scoring a goal is saving a goal - in extraordinary circumstances. I've had a most unusual football career - played (lower level) state league as both a striker and goalkeeper - so I can talk with some authority about how it feels to take off without even thinking - fly through the air - stretch as far as the sinews will allow and just get your fingertips to the ball and deflect it over the bar.
Then thump into Earth like a sack of shit.
Only a very small proportion of human beings know what that feels like and I would suggest that no other transaction in any other game can match it.
I could go into a lot more detail about the incomparable joys of football but I've taken up enough of your time and will leave you to reflect on this: The chap who challenged me at the social event was a former rugby league winger and wanted to bag me about the relative skills of the two games.
I simply said to him: 'When I was a teenager, I regularly ran the hundred metres in less than 12 seconds. That means I could easily do anything you could do, but you wouldn't be able to trap a ball if I hit it at you half pace. What does that tell you about relative skill?'
Apparently, I'm a smartarse.
BUT ... I do enjoy league, and I do enjoy union. We don't need to be arguing over which code is best - they all have their place and it is permissible to enjoy more than one. I really do dislike the so-called code wars but I will defend football whenever some boofhead attacks it.
Adrian's books can be purchased at any good bookstore or through ebook alchemy. His new novel, Welcome to Ord City, is now available.