When football had no rules

Statue of Tom Wills umpiring a football match in 1858, believed to be one of the defining moments in the history of Australian rules football (Wikipedia) If you enjoy violent chaos… no, no, I’m not doing yet another battle. I’m celebrating the first ever Australian Lack of Rules Football match, played on August 7 of 1358. I mean 1858.

It could have been medieval. I recently learned that what the English call football originated with unstructured contests between villages in which participants tried to kick an inflated pig’s bladder all the way to the other team’s village and then nyah nyah in the door of its church. Dozens, even hundreds could play, it took place over miles of countryside, there were no timekeepers or referees and injuries were common and deaths not unknown.

So back to the Aussie game in 1858. There were 40 people on each side, it took days, and actually had umpires. Unlike earlier proto-ARF games with trees for goalposts and a mix of half-remembered rugby rules and none at all.

To this day the game appears to be the opposite of cricket, which has an enormous number of incomprehensible rules. Instead a large group of rowdies (now 18 people per side) riots over the information-age equivalent of a pig’s bladder, advancing it by virtually any means possible although you do have to sort of dribble it if running forward, fleeing the opposing scrum or doing both at once. And it’s a free-for-all in other ways too including that the ball is almost always up for grabs. Even American football, not the most decorous of games, requires you sometimes to wait your turn.

There are things you can’t do in ARF including shoving from behind, biting and so forth. Oh, and throwing the ball for some reason. But it does maintain that frontier spirit of chaotic physicality. It has a certain primal quality. And despite what you might think, I do mean that in a good way.

I liked the Middle Ages. I like rowdiness provided it’s not aggression. And everybody in the game is there on purpose. So have at it, mates.