Why do Australians reserve their sporting adulation for the best team on one day of the year, rather than the best team throughout the whole year?
It’s a question that has puzzled me on grand final weekends for years.
I suppose it must be a cultural thing, but Australia’s way of deciding its football champions is vastly at odds with many other countries.
The best team of the season is, for others, the team that finishes on top of the ladder after all of the home and away rounds.
Yet we give them the dismissive title of ‘‘minor premiers’’, as though that counts for little.
Try telling Manchester City fans their team is England’s ‘‘minor premier’’ and you will get a serious argument.
The same applies to all the big soccer leagues of Europe. The major goal is to top the ladder and thus win the championship title. There are no finals.
They get the excitement of sudden-death matches in their cup competitions, such as England’s FA Cup, which have nothing to do with the main prize of the championship. They are separate competitions.
The distinction between minor and major premiers is an important one because they aren’t always, in fact aren’t often, one and the same. In the 14 years of the NRL, before last night’s Bulldogs-Storm grand final, only five of the minor premiers (the best team by Europe’s definition) had gone on to win the premiership.
The AFL story is similar.
Before Saturday’s Hawthorn-Sydney grand final, only four of the previous 11 minor premiers had gone on to win the grand final.
In over a century of competition a slight majority of minor premiers also won the flag, but only by a ratio of around three out of five – 63 to 39 to be exact.
There are no prizes for finishing second, they say.
But how galling must it be to finish second after really finishing first?
If you follow the footy closely you can probably name most of the premiers over the past decade. But I bet you struggle with the list of minor premiers.
The AFL and NRL do afford benefits – double chances and so on – to teams finishing higher on the ladder, but the ‘‘top’’ side is no guarantee to remain top after a month of finals. It’s the same in A-League soccer.
I wonder if this reflects a sudden-death mentality in Australia, a preference for the ephemeral, the adrenaline rush of one winner-takes-all showdown over a season-long accumulation of competition points.
Do we lust for gladiatorial combat? Is it the elimination mentality of My Kitchen Rules, Big Brother and The Voice?
Some fans are unhappy that the NRL this year followed the AFL finals’ structure, which makes it less likely that a team outside the top four will win the premiership.
But I think that’s how it should be. Otherwise there is insufficient reward for slogging your guts out all year.
Interestingly, in both the NRL and the AFL this year, the top four teams at the end of August ended up being the last four teams standing. In the NRL the top two were unchanged, and all eight finals leading up to the big one went to the higher-placed team.
Now that football is over for another year, I have all summer to work out another puzzler.
Why does the AFL spend so much time and effort picking an ‘‘All-Australian team’’ when no other nation plays the game?