Football is a religion in Melbourne and the iconic MCG is where the locals go to worship, writes Bernard O’Riordan.
It’s the first day of winter in Melbourne and in this sport-obsessed southern city that means one thing: a day at the footy.
Every weekend, when the temperature drops and the sky turns grey, the faithful don their club colours and flock to the nation’s biggest sporting stadium, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), to shout themselves hoarse over four, nail-biting quarters.
For Melburnians, Australian Rules Football (AFL) is not just a game, or even a business, it’s a religion. And the 100,000-seat MCG, or the “G” as it is affectionately known, is the sacred cathedral where they come to worship.
It’s around midday on Saturday, and scores of fans dressed in the black and white of the hometown Collingwood Magpies slowly emerge from the city’s deserted bluestone laneways.
Wearing beanies and scarves, they spill off trains at Flinders Street Station and Southern Cross Station, and out of the bars and restaurants near the Yarra River, marching en masse towards the MCG in a tidal wave of black and white paraphernalia.
You can smell the passion and the tribalism, you can sense the excitement and you can almost taste that first pie and sauce as the MCG’s imposing light towers come into view for the first time.
Located at Yarra Park, the MCG is the largest sporting stadium in Australia and the 10th largest in the world.
Listed on the Australian National Heritage List and the Victorian Heritage Register, it’s such an iconic part of Australian life that it’s a must-see for anyone visiting Melbourne.
As well as being the home of the Melbourne Cricket Club, and the venue for the annual Boxing Day Test, it’s the home ground for four AFL football clubs: Collingwood, Melbourne, Richmond and Hawthorn.
It is here that the AFL Grand Final is contested at the end of the season as well, with the stadium always filled to capacity.
Also located at the venue is the National Sports Museum, providing a snapshot of some of Australia’s greatest sporting moments, including the 1956 Olympic Games.
There’s a Hall of Fame dedicated to stars of cricket and AFL, as well as an exhibit exploring the history of the Melbourne Cricket Club. There’s even a statue outside dedicated to arguably the MCC’s greatest leg spin bowler, Shane Warne.
Across the railway tracks is the Melbourne Park Tennis Centre and Rod Laver Arena – home of the Australian Open every January – and a short walk away is the bubble-domed AAMI Park, home of the Melbourne Storm NRL club and Melbourne Rebels rugby union team.
For the best atmosphere at an AFL match, there’s nothing quite like sitting in the stands as the passionate supporters cheer, yell, sing and curse their way through every hand ball, kick and fumble over the course of 2.5 hours.
On this day though, I’m a guest in an enclosed corporate box where the atmosphere is slightly more refined. High in the stands, it’s more suits and ties rather than beanies and scarves as guests enjoy a sit down meal with wine and beer.
There’s even party pies, sausage rolls and fluffy scones with jam and cream at the long break (half-time).
Collingwood, it seems, is the ultimate divider.
There must be at least 14 people in the box, and each and every one is a die hard Collingwood fan. That’s hardly surprising given the club has one of the largest followings of any sport in the country.
They say AFL is a great leveller, binding supporters from an eclectic mix of backgrounds. But Collingwood, it seems, is the ultimate divider.
There’s red-hot hate for this club and its working class roots, partly because of its phenomenal success in the 1920s and 1930s when it won six of its 15 premierships.
It also doesn’t help that the president of Collingwood football club is Eddie “everywhere” McGuire, the highly visible TV presenter and host of Australia’s long-running TV show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
As a rugby league-interloper from Sydney, I quickly learn that you’re either one of them or you’re not, so I keep my mouth zipped and my eyes on the game.
Last season, Collingwood went within a whisker of a sensational 16th premiership only to fall agonisingly short at the final siren.
Today, the second-placed Magpies will be praying for some divine inspiration when they take on the eighth-placed out-of-towners, the Fremantle Dockers in their purple and white.
At the end of the first quarter both teams were level-pegging with the scores locked at 3.3 (21).
The see-sawing affair continued through the second and third quarters. But in the dying seconds of the final quarter, Fremantle 3.3, 6.5, 8.6, 11.9 (75) snatched a stunning four-point victory over the more fancied Magpies 3.3, 4.4, 8.10, 11.13 (79).
It was the West Australian team’s first win against Collingwood at the MCG in 13 years, and also ended a seven-game winning streak for the home team.
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice, but tell that to the black and white army which saw its team pipped at the final siren yet again.
Heartbreak at the “G” is nothing new for Collingwood fans, it would seem, as the mood in the box turns noticeably sombre.
Some put on a brave face as others drown their sorrows in one last glass of vino before the demoralising walk home.
Fremantle fans with a calculator and a lot of self-belief are already thinking about a return to finals football for the first time in four years.
For the Collingwood faithful, there’s always next week – the traditional Queen’s Birthday blockbuster with the Melbourne Demons at the “G” on Monday.
GETTING TO THE MCG The MCG is in Yarra Park, between the suburbs of Richmond and East Melbourne - a 15 minute stroll from the city. Walk from the CBD across the William Barak Bridge to Yarra Park. Access the Great Southern Stand via gates 4 or 5, the Ponsford Stand via gate 1, and the Olympic Stand via gate 3. Climb the steps to gate 5, or use the ramp in front of gate 4. Access gate 1 via the Rod Laver Arena footbridge or ramp on the corner of Jolimont Street and Jolimont Terrace. Trains There are two train stations close to the MCG. Get off at Jolimont, otherwise known as MCG Station, and take a five-minute stroll through Yarra Park to the ground. The other station is Richmond on the south-eastern side of the MCG. It’s a slightly longer walk to the ground but you can walk past Punt Road to the Great Southern Stand side. Trams Three tram routes provide access to the MCG. > No.75 (City-Vermont South) travels along Flinders St and connects with the eastern suburbs via Wellington Parade. > No.48 (Docklands/City-North Balwyn) travels along Collins Street and connects with the eastern suburbs via Wellington Parade. Both routes stop just outside the MCG. > No.70 (Docklands/City-Wattle Park) travels along Flinders Street then detours via Melbourne Park and the tram stop is a short walk across the footbridge to the ground.
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