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Sacred ground

One hundred and nine years is a long time in football; no really, it is. A Carlton supporter in the Australian Football League, I learned long ago not to expect sympathy. But on 21 May at Princes Park I witnessed–was part of–an act of collective grieving. The occasion: the last game of football at the ground, which has been home to one of the foundational teams of the league since 1897. The AFL, without a trace of irony, had chosen Round 9–Community Weekend–as the moment to lower the curtain on this, the last of Melbourne’s ‘village ovals’ used for competition fixtures. Coverage the following day of Geelong locals celebrating an avalanche of their team’s final-quarter goals from the sunny terraces of their new grandstand at Kardinia Park–with its capacity of just over 20,000–had me coveting my neighbours’ parochial suburban sporting cauldron.

What struck me most on that melancholy Saturday afternoon, as 30,000 Carlton faithful and 52 brave Melbourne fans watched the inevitable unfold (Carlton lost to Melbourne by three goals), was the pastoral function of ritual. This comes as no surprise to a cleric, but it’s always fascinating to see how others do it–a sort of professional curiosity.

The key liturgical elements were all there: preparation of the space (the 50m arc had a fresh line of paint); gathering the people (Gate 1 opened at 8am for those with an acute sense of the tragic–I, of course, arrived much later, at 9.50am); an order of service (a collector’s edition of the footy Record); storytelling (the club’s 16 premiership cups and flags, including the trophy from the 1945 Grand Final played at the ground, were paraded, and past players made the objects of hagiography, if not eulogy); singing (defiant strains of We Are the Navy Blues–normally reserved for victory celebrations–rose around the ground during the last quarter despite the score); and oh yes, there was a wake (getting to the bar in the Social Club afterwards required more skill and sheer physical presence than had been demonstrated by several of the Carlton players earlier in the day).

Perhaps the AFL was more prescient than cynical in its timing, for there was a coming together after the match that was–as Bruce McAvaney might have said, were he commentating–‘special’. In addition to the usual race to the centre circle after the second siren, and the dangerously congested kick-to-kick exhibition which follows on soon after as kids and their dads wander onto the playing surface, a spontaneous act of reverence took place. Several thousand spectators collected in the middle of the ground–filling much of the centre square area–not quite hugging, but pressed together for mutual comfort. Some stood staring silently straight up into the thin, late autumnal evening sky, as though acknowledging an element of transcendence in what some people think is only a game.

I know that Christians have no abiding city, but the incarnation suggests that particular times and places matter, as, in a sacramental view of the world, do all the sights, sounds, and smells savoured longingly one last time. Pushing tearfully through the turnstiles I appreciated the salty self-indulgence of Lot’s wife. And if lukewarmness about the ‘postmodern anywhere’ of the Docklands stadium as a new home ground represents a lapse of catholicity, then I happily acknowledge that there’s a little Congregational revivalist in all of us!

Richard Treloar is Chaplain of Trinity College, the University of Melbourne, and teaches in the United Faculty of Theology.

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