Football fever is not just a foray into fantasy and fun, but heralds profound insights into the psychology of hysteria that permeates our personalities beyond the boundary (and not always of the favourable kind!). We pursue our passion for the game with great gusto, celebrating every goal with a colourful call for more of the same to take our team to victory. Our vociferous vocalising ventures into a voice almost unbeknown to us in other spheres of our social milieu; in the arena of football, we unleash a verbal aggression and occasionally, angry abuse that belies our benevolent demeanour at most other times. Indeed, football engenders the best and the worst in us- the ecstasy of manic madness as we explode with excitement and the sickness of our sadistic impulses as we scream out to “get him” with a tight tackle that will render him helpless. (Who cares if he’s concussed as long as he’s out of the game? Maybe we’re all football thugs in disguise!) Moreover, we cheat mild mannered behavioural codes when we urge our stars to bury the opposition, massacre them and rub them into the ground as we’re consumed by a hatred that reflects a malice and evil we would otherwise condemn, our nasty cruelty in full flight. (It’s not meant to be taken literally, of course! Footballspeak is a unique language invented by its imaginative fans!) And we love it – the elated highs and the despairing lows; the inspiring encouragement we echo to keep going and not give up as well as the dismissive dejection we deliver as we decry defeat.

With thousands in our midst, we generate a mass hysteria that binds us boldly together; united in our glory or misery as long as we’re sporting the same colours on our scarves. It can be joyous; it can be frightening; the cacophony of hysterical happiness as it resounds in the ground can quickly turn into a horrifying howl of hostility within seconds. There’s no fascist dictator except the bounce of the ball and the men with a whistle calling the shots (now garbed in all manner of luminous colours – did the AFL think umpire whites were too pure for the contest?), but there are times the crowd resembles no less than a rabid political rally with all its heated intensity. It’s a scary sight to see men, women and children metamorphose from sanguine, sane individuals into obstreporous ogres, their faces distorted by nothing more than an erroneous free kick. The abuse hurled across the fence makes for fanciful football; but it’s ugly nonetheless. I can laugh at a supporter’s antics (and my own!) as it just vanishes into the air and at least, normalcy is restored as the final siren rings. Words of abuse can be harmless, the players are usually deaf to our rage, unable to hear the brunt of our verbal bravado as well as our joy, but the support we yell out can help inspire them on to greater things as they have oft said. Certainly, there are skirmishes in the crowd, fisticuffs as people display their own fighting spirit, but our violence bares little in common with the rampages that rattle soccer around the world. (I attended many soccer games when I lived in England many years ago and the crowd at those games was more eerie and ominous (a pervading threat of violence always seemed to hang in the air) than anything I’ve ever seen at Australian Rules!) Maybe because our game involves so much physical contact, we can project our frustrations onto the field in a way soccer defies, but in over four decades at the football, I’ve witnessed few scraps. And thankfully, most of us leave our antipathies in the arena when we depart.

From a positive perspective, football can be our refuge, where we escape from the rigours of our routines and indulge in a few hours of refreshing therapy, also at a much cheaper cost than any couch can provide. Venting our spleen in a venue where no one’s really listening to our raucous rant (and in a place that’s comparatively safe and secure), can reap great rewards for our psyche. We toss out a lot of aggro that otherwise we might visit on our nearest and dearest, offering us a valid excuse to let go. It calms our nerves and eases our anxiety as the game unfolds, enriching us with a well being, albeit exhausted, sense of self. It’s an energetic exercise in a therapy I use to destroy my demons, feeling relaxed as I rejoice in my team’s win. When they lose, and there’s been lots of losses over the past few years, it’s an opportunity to meet other like-minded supporters who are also bored with the beating.

For football is the great leveller, we talk to total strangers we meet as if we’re long, lost friends enjoined in moments of merriment as we share and applaud our team’s success. Or console each other in loss. We have no idea who is really sitting next to us or what sort of person he or she may be, but in the couple of hours we’re together, we develop an intimate rapport that fosters a friendship week after week in the freezing clime of winter. Wherever we come from and whatever we do, whether we’ve got millions in the bank or are on the dole, we have a common purpose that transcends the reality we live once we’re out of the ground. It is the great melting pot; a mix of people from diverse backgrounds and of all ages, who engage in enthusiasm and euphoria as if we’re all on a drug that provides us with a high on a regular basis. (So why do some footballers need drugs of the more expensive kind when us ordinary folk get our fix for less than $20!) There is a loyalty of support that surpasses success; teams languishing at the bottom of the ladder are still popular with the diehard (specially the Magpie faithful who are a breed like no other!), who trek to watch their team even when they lose too often! It’s an addiction all right (albeit of a natural kind!) as we live in eternal hope; oblivious to the football forecasts and fanning our fantasies with idealistic inspiration for the week to come. It plays havoc with our common sense; abandoning our practical, sensible side that on other occasions, rules our lives.

For some people, football is a violent game that can deliver dastardly injuries and
select young men for a star status they do not deserve. To them, it only brings out the very worst in avid followers of the game, argumentative aggression and uncontrolled punches, too often chastising the code as akin to boxing.(Now there’s a sport I really loathe!) It is a game full of lunatic louts who simply get high on brutish behaviour on the field, singing the praise of soccer as a far more skilful game. For me, the raw emotions I feel so profoundly at the AFL enliven my spirits even when I’m feeling blue, able to blot out all other problems of the day to enjoy an excursion in excitement. That’s the kind of therapy we all need from time to time, to feel good and uplifted by a real contest where brain and brawn are on display for us to appreciate. Yes, the game can get violent and ugly, and so can we in our seats, but mostly, it provides a welcome intimacy between people, enabling us to participate, albeit as spectators, in what I believe is the GREATEST game of all.