AFL muddling the line between theatre of war and football


After Essendon overran Collingwood by five points in the 2009 ANZAC game, then Pies coach Mick Malthouse said: “I didn’t think we played anywhere near (well enough) to capture the spirit of the Anzacs, and I think that is what makes this one of the most disappointing games I have ever been associated with.”

He keeps the ANZAC analogy going by adding: “I can’t think of a more disappointing result in a home-and-away game. Unfortunately, I reckon we let the Anzacs down. The whole game, not just (the final four minutes), the whole game, and Essendon showed true Anzac spirit, why we play here.”

The enthusiastic Pies president Eddie McGuire also got in on the act back in 2001, saying “veterans will see the reason why they fought so hard for the Australian culture with two great tribes going at each other”.

I am not so sure about that Eddie.

And Mick, not sure how the capitulation of your team to Essendon in the tight 2009 game let down the ANZACS.

The veterans of Vietnam, the two Gulf wars and our engagement in Afghanistan, who I have had the pleasure of speaking to, have never mentioned the AFL was a motivating factor for putting their lives at risk on the battlefield.

And none of them said they had felt let down by any football team. Let down by politicians for sure, but not footballers.

Adam Treloar wrestles with Bombers Connor McKenna and Brendon Goddard during a 2016 Anzac Day clash.Credit:Justin McManus

Many footballers have been to war. Journalist and author Martin Flanagan in his excellent book The Game in Time of War refers to Alf Baud who, after captaining Carlton to the 1915 premiership, went off to fight in World War I and “was hit by a fragment of exploding shell at ANZAC Ridge in France and left with no vision on his left side and an inability to look downwards”.

This reminded Flanagan of the poem Disabled from the great British World War I poet Wilfred Owen, about a former footballer returning from war without his legs:

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,|
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;

Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Football is a tough physical game played against an opponent who wants to also win. Acts of courage are on display, such as running back with the flight of the ball when you know a pack of players are descending on you. But does that compare to the courage and risks shown in the theatre of war, against an armed enemy in a foreign land?

And if you lose a game of football what is the consequence? Four lost points and bragging rights.

The consequences of losing on the battlefield can be enduring mental and physical disabilities, or even death.

Injuries can and do occur on the football field. In the 2018 ANZAC contest, Essendon young gun Josh Begley ruptured an ACL. The injury has put him out of the game for a year but he still has his limbs, unlike the legless returned soldier in Disabled. He still has his life, unlike more than 102,000 Australians who have died during or as a result of war service, other conflicts and peacekeeping operations.

We must be vigilant against the tendency by many in the industry to equate the theatre of football with the theatre of war, for we run the danger of undermining the brutality and horror of war and the continuing suffering experienced by many of our returned soldiers.

Players from both sides take part in an ANZAC Day ceremony last season.

Players from both sides take part in an ANZAC Day ceremony last season.

War is not a recreational game. It is much more serious and deadly than a game played on an oval with a leather ball.

As noted by Paul Daley in his essay on patriotism, Private Charles Hardy of the 1st Australian Imperial Force’s 19th Battalion knew that war is not a game.

In late 1915, as the British Empire’s troops prepared to retreat from Gallipoli, Hardy wrote in his leather-bound address book:

Your King Your Country
Needs You
This is how they treat you
Oi Oi not a Game
Not a game it is
Oi Oi

Tony Buti is the state member for Armadale, an author and a keen football follower.

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