Slightly over one year ago, the Sydney Swans won the Aussie Rules Football Grand Final by defeating the West Coast Eagles by a mere four points. It had been a low-scoring, close affair and surely a devastating blow to my home state’s morale in subsequent weeks.
All of which made the Eagles’ avenging one point victory over the Swans in this year’s final that much sweeter. This time, it was a boundary throw-in as opposed to a defender’s mark which ushered in our triumph, and the other minority blue and gold supporters and I duly screamed and shook our fists. It was another classic grand final, not nearly as tight and defensive, but equally bruising and well fought. The Eagles had amassed a sizable half-time lead, which, as my Sydney-raised colleague has predicted, steadily eroded throughout the game, down to a single point difference. But West Coast’s traditionally steely defense held the charging Swannies off, and thanks to some shot-to-the-foot kicking accuracy, the AFL cup returned to Perth for the third time in the Eagles’ impressive 20 year history.
This time, I was not at the Australian Embassy but at the RNR bar in Chinatown. Apparently, the embassy’s employees and their friends and family amount to 600 people, and the space was subsequently too small to include we lay expats. Fortunately, the Baltimore Washington Eagles—yes, of course an Aussie Rules league exists in the States—organized to have the game screened at the top floor of this American sports bar, whose crowd sported seemingly as many (if not more) ‘Yanks’ as it did Australians.
A large pack of Australians on a Contiki tour of the States were in the fold this time around, bringing with them all the charm and sweetness of a boatload of petty criminal descendents set loose upon a cheap bar and then one another. My friend was slapped in the face for supporting the other team by one such sophisticate. As a general rule of thumb, conduct was not unoften physically confrontational and particularly sloppy. And where in past years I might have shrugged off or even managed a laugh over such debauchery, I am at this point comfortable enough with my ethno-nationality to call a spade and spade and decry the crude loutishness of my compatriots that evening. In all honesty, I’ve encountered brutes and uncivilized drunks sparring over sports in bars throughout the Western world: it’s just a shame that they had to feature so prominently during this particular event, my one genuine night of Australiana in the Washington calendar year.
Indeed, at this point Australians have garnered quite the reputation as drunken troublemakers on backpacker circuit stops throughout our travels. At Oktoberfest, Australian tour buses are pelted with eggs and their traveling revelers forced to sit at separate tables, away from the rest of the crowd. So much for our once almost-universally beneficent reputation away from home. We may not be as abhorred as the hackneyed ignorant, bum bag-toting American traveler, but gone too are the days when Australian backpackers were known more for a love of adventure and goodwill than intoxicated insensitivity.
This sobering realization aside, I noticed additional changes in the way I experienced the game. I’d gone in full blue and gold clothing, bringing along my Eagles musical stubbie along for good measure (it sings the team’s theme song upon pressing its underside). But unlike last year, this time around I could not conjure up the old nerves-and-temperature passion of my childhood. As exciting and good a game of football as it was, this year’s Grand Final played out more like ‘just another sports match’ than an event which could make my life stand still. That would be the ’92 final, or the Wildcats winning their mid-90s championships, or Kieren Perkin’s 1500m gold medal swim. I ran around the living room after that fateful swim, so completely taken with and proud of Australia’s favourite son that his triumph continues to resonate as one of my archetypal underdog, hearty triumphs.
This year, when the Eagles gathered to whoop and hug in front of the cameras, the champion’s trophy nestled in the front and center, I still clapped and toasted their performance. Only it wasn’t with the full-blooded devotion and familiarity I might have imagined. It’s only to be expected. Six years ago, I lived my life alongside the Eagles on a daily basis, and through conversation and celebrity, they were intrinsically woven into my personal narrative. These days, I have no direct access to the Eagles outside of taking the time to browse their site, and I didn’t even know the final was taking place this week until my colleague (who works in Serbia) dropped the news. Part of me thinks I should feel shame at this national faux pas. But at this stage in my life, all pastimes and interests are up for re-evaluation, and even AFL doesn’t automatically win retention.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal construction. Identity, it is often argued by the sociologically-inclined (including this writer), is a social construction, a product composed entirely of the individual’s environment. Australia is certainly a large piece of my personal make-up (I’ve spent over three quarters of my life there); however, I align closer to other elements of what constitutes being Australian than a sport such as Aussie Rules (Such as cricket!). It’s fun in a very retrospective way to cheer and rag opposing sides at a game like this one, but it’s even more necessary to reflect and realistically consider the full content of the countries and cultures with which one associates. It’s just somewhat ironic that a footy game and some rowdy country kids from whoop whoop would be the ones to confirm this for me.