AFL Football – An Expat’s Guide to Australia’s Game

Guest blog by Sports Journalist – Sean Mortell

There comes a time in the life of every person who decides to make the trek down under when they discover AFL football. It could be on at a party when new friends point you to the TV screen and begin shouting at adults chasing an oval ball around on grass. It could be when sightseeing in the city centre, seeing specks of bright colours on beanies, scarves, and jumpers. Wherever you see it, confusion is the most common side effect to discovering Australia’s most popular winter pastime. From a footy-mad young adult, here’s a little insight that’ll make it easy to follow the game, especially with the Grand Final right on the horizon.

AFL Football - An Expat’s Guide to Australia’s Game.
An oval red AFL football being handballed away, against a black background.

So, what is AFL Football?

Invented in 1859 by Thomas Wentworth Wills and a group of six other members who helped draft the rules, Australian rules football was created as a means of keeping skillful cricketers fit during the off-season winter months. 

By October 1896 the leisure activity became an official league when the Victorian Football League started. The rules, although having been debated and tweaked over time, remain largely the same as they were upon creation.

The footy, or the Sherrin (the brand that makes the AFL’s official match balls), is an oval-shaped ball similar to a rugby ball. Teams kick and handball (done by balling your fist and punching the football out of your other hand) to each other to keep possession and work the ball up the field, where they aim to kick goals and points at their end. 

After a toss decides which end of the ground they kick to, each team will go for their separate ends’ goals. I’m sure you’ll see the four white poles at each end and wonder what happens; to put it simply – if it goes between the big two posts, it’s a goal (worth six points), and it if goes either side of the goals, in between the two smaller poles, it’s a behind (worth one point). If a team scores a point, the other side gets to kick the ball back into play from the goal square. If the ball goes wider of these poles, it is either out of bounds on the full (when the ball is kicked untouched on the full out of the ground) or out of bounds (when the ball bounces or is touched over the line, resulting in boundary umpires throwing the ball back into play), and no score is registered.

AFL Football - An Expat’s Guide to Australia’s Game.
AFL football goals in a stadium with empty stands behind them.
Here are the AFL goals, standing lonely without a loud crowd behind them (Photo – 

It all sounds well and good, with many new viewers to the game laughing at how players and teams can get rewarded with a point for missing the main target of the goals. But in the modern game of footy, it can be hard enough to score, primarily due to the ability of players to tackle. The full-on contact brings a whole new element to the sport and makes the high-paced game both thrilling and sometimes dangerous. Players can tackle any opposition player who has possession of the ball. They can only tackle above the knees or below the shoulders without giving away a free-kick. If the tackler successfully tackles an opponent with the ball while they had prior opportunity to dispose of it before getting tackled, then all fans will yell out ‘BALL’, causing you to jump in fright and be fearful of those scary, loud Australians. This translates to ‘holding the ball’, which is the free-kick given to the tackler who can successfully catch the player in possession of the ball. If there’s no prior opportunity, then the umpire will stop play and throw the ball up.

How does an AFL football game start?

Known as throwing the ball up, or just a ball up, the umpires start any passages of play, including the beginning of each quarter and after every goal that is scored, by throwing the ball up into the air. If the ball up occurs in the centre circle, then the umpire will bounce the ball so that it flies up for each team’s ruckman to contest in the opening ruck contest. The rucks will try to jump higher and tap the ball down to their team so that they get possession. 

When the ball goes out of bounds, boundary umpires will throw the ball back into play over their heads for the two ruckmen to contest the tap. They are allowed to grab the ball if they get both hands on it, but most of the time they only palm it down to moving teammates.

What’s a mark?

Many foreign viewers will first hear of AFL players taking a good mark and will be confused. A mark is the term given when a player catches the footy after it has been kicked by another player. To be deemed a mark, the ball must travel at least 15 metres from the kicker’s foot to the marker, or else play on will be called. If it is called a mark by the umpire, the player can step back and take their time to dispose of the footy or have a shot for goal if they are in range without being tackled by an opponent. 

What are the positions?

Now you are down pat with a lot of the basic rules, finish off with some positions and you’ll be yelling at your TV screen in no time on Grand Final day. 

So you already know the ruckman, usually the two tallest players on the field who jump into each other at every ruck contest and lumber around slowly trying to catch up with the play. If you’re watching next weekend’s Grand Final, Melbourne’s ruckman Max Gawn will be easy to spot due to his massive beard and bald head.

AFL Football - An Expat’s Guide to Australia’s Game.
Melbourne AFL football team captain Max Gawn.
Melbourne captain Max Gawn is incredibly recognisable on a footy field (Photo – ABC)

Around the ruckman, who also start the game in at the centre circle, are the midfielders. They are usually the fittest and most important players to each side, as they run around the entire field and attend every ruck contest they can get to. Each team usually has three midfielders alongside the ruckman, while players also start on the wing on either side of the centre circle. 

When a team wins the football and kicks it inside their forward 50 metres arc, they will ideally have six forwards to kick to. The forwards can be tall marking players or small, quick ground-level players who look to capitalise when the footy isn’t marked or is ‘spoiled’ (or punched away) by a defender. They will be met by six defenders who seek to stop them from kicking goals and rebound the ball back down to their attacking end. Players can roam anywhere in the game and don’t always stick loosely to their positions – the only rule is the six defenders and forwards on each team must start each centre bounce in their 50-metre arc at each end. 

So now you’re set to go when Grand Final day comes around and you’re looking to take in the spectacle that is AFL’s biggest day. This year you’ll be treated to a beauty of a contest (use this exact terminology to impress Australian friends) when two Victorian teams in Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs play. Basically – cheer at any goals that are scored (you’ll be able to tell) and yell out ‘BALL’ each time someone gets tackled, and you’ll be ok. Sit back and enjoy – hopefully, this gives you a little more understanding of our confusing national game.

To learn more about AFL football and to see more of Sean’s work go to:

Instagram: @seanmortell

Facebook: Sean Mortell

The Melbourne Mum

Thinking of emigrating to Australia? Already moved to Melbourne? Find out what it's really like to make the big move Down Under.

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3 Responses

  1. Andy Davies says:

    Great article again Melbourne Mom

  2. Andy Davies says:

    Sean really knows his stuff well done again

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