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An American's Guide to the Australian Football League (AFL): The Sydney Derby

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

It was one of the most exciting football games I have ever witnessed.

The final score was 107-106, and it was as close and ridiculous as the score would suggest.

I experienced the entire range of emotions alongside 31,000 fans at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia last Saturday, April 29th, 2023.

As many of you know, I have spent five weeks in Australia and Japan covering various sporting events. From Formula 1 in Melbourne to Japanese baseball at the Tokyo Dome, I have tried to sample and share sports from a world away.

However, I might have saved my best international sports moment for last.

Obviously I am a huge football fan, like many Americans, but I knew nothing about Australian-rules football.

The Australian Football League (AFL) is the premier football league in Australia, and my final weekend in Sydney just happened to feature the Sydney "derby", a grudge match between the two local AFL teams at the home of the Sydney Swans.

The Swans, whose colors are red and white, were playing their archrivals, the GSW Giants.

The Sydney Swans play at the world-famous Sydney Cricket Ground, in existence since 1851. It felt like the old Yankee Stadium but with many modern upgrades.

There are similarities and differences between American and Australian football.

Similar to football in the US, there are four quarters; however, in the AFL, each quarter is 20 minutes and there is added stoppage time, which can sometimes add up to 10 minutes to a quarter. Also different than American football and more similar to soccer, there are no clock stoppages or time outs during the quarters. Finally, there are 18 players on the field for each time at all times, and the field is a large oval, rather than the smaller, rectangular American football fields.

There is a halftime similar as in America and two lucky teams teams do play in a Super Bowl-equivalent game at the end of the season called the AFL Grand Final.

The Sydney Swans actually played in the 2022 AFL Grand Final and lost.

Here are the rules for Aussie football (affectionally called "footy" by Australians).

All I really needed to do know was this (and I acknowledge the game is much more nuanced than this simple explanation):

  • When the ball gets kicked through the middle pylons, it is called a "goal" and it is worth 6 points to the kicking team.

  • If the ball crosses the back line not by kick, it is worth 1 point to the attacking team.

  • The best way to advance the ball is by kicking it with your feet to one of your teammates, who catch it with their hands.

My assessment of the sport's fundamentals is this: it is an amalgamation of American football, rubgy and soccer, all played on an oval field, usually a cricket pitch.

The game is so understandable that by halftime, I knew what was going on enough to really get into the match.

The Saturday began with heavy rain, and I was in full rain gear.

Yet, as my friend and I arrived at the grounds, the rain stopped and we never felt a significant drop of rain after that.

As we walked through the pre-game festivities, it was as if the football gods were smiling on us after all.

The lines were not long to get inside the Sydney Crickey Ground, and within ten minutes we were at our seats.


Sydney Swans vs. GSW Giants

Saturday, April 29th, 2023


Sydney Crickey Ground

In the 1st quarter, the rival Giants started quickly and took a commanding lead via their efficient offense, which advanced the ball with ease up the sideline.

Somehow, the Swans managed to make a late push in the quarter to score two goals to go from 25-8 down to make the score close by the whistle.

Score at the end of the 1st quarter: GSW Giants 25 - 20 Sydney Swans

The missed opportunities continued in the 2nd quarter for the Swans; who went down 43-27.

Sydney then stormed back to make it 49-47 Giants with a few minutes to play.

In extra time, the Giants added 8 points to extend their margin to 10 at the half.

Halftime score: GSW Giants 57 - 47 Sydney Swans

Here is what the action on the field looks like. This was getting really exciting.

The 3rd quarter began, and the Sydney Swans had found their mojo.

Lance Franklin, Sydney's All-Star veteran key forward scored three goals over the course of the quarter to to put the Swans up by 12 points.

Score at the end of the 3rd quarter: Sydney Swans 87 - 75 GSW Giants

The crowd was buzzing at the start of the 4th quarter. Their Swans had seemingly taken all of the punches thrown by the Giants, and were sitting comfortably ahead.

As if willed on by the crowd, the Swans dominated the Giants early in the quarter, making the score 105-81 with only 10 minutes of regular time remaining. This was a dominant four goal lead.

Would it hold though?

The answer was no.

Steadily, the visiting Giants scored goal after improbable goal, and the score was Sydney leading by 106-101 with four minutes remaining.

As each final second ticked by, the entire crowd was on the edge of its seat praying that the Swans could hold off the Giants.

Their prayers would go answered.

With one minute remaining in extra time, the Giants scored a miraculous goal to move one point ahead.

The Swans got the ball at the end, but could not manage to tie the score by the final whistle.

Final Score: GSW Giants 107 - Sydney Swans 106

The palpable heartbreak of home side was only exceeded by the jubilation from the Swans' crosstown rivals, who had just accomplished the impossible, coming back from 24 points down in a period of 20 minutes.

As I streamed out of the grounds with the dejected fan base, I thought that my first experience with Australian football could not have been any more exciting.

For more of my Travel articles, click here to visit the special section on the Social Musings by Austin website.

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