Let the fact be acknowledged that the first Australians, the oldest living culture on earth of which we are immensely proud, played football.
3 Jun 2013 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2014 - 4:59 PM

(Image: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

For National Reconciliation Week 2013, with indigenous Australians playing at A-League, W-League, Socceroos and Matildas level, John Moriarty’s fabulous program making tremendous strides in the Northern Territory and a strong community devotion to accelerate football’s contribution to indigenous Australia, it's time for an official recognition that football is Australia’s true, indigenous game.

The simple but profound historical fact is that, of any ball sport in Australia that exists today, the earliest depiction of Aboriginal Australians at play with a ball most closely resembles football.

Other sports have created an entire narrative around a desire to possess a connection with the first Australians but, the evidence is clear and irrefutable that a round ball was used to play a game that every child, in every corner of the world today still plays and which forms the very nucleus of the world game, keeping the ball in the air using just the feet.

Firstly, some background on the illustration.

It is the earliest recorded example of an indigenous ball game in Australia, witnessed in 1857, by a Polish naturalist, William Blandowski, that was reproduced by a Gustav Mutzel in Germany from drawings and photographs.

Blandowski led a Victorian Government expedition to the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers during 1856 and 1857, which led to his publication in 1862 of an important historical work, Australien in 142 photographischen Abbildungen nach zehnjärigen Erfahrungen (Australia in 142 Photographic illustrations from 10 years experience).

In this work, lies the only 19th century depiction of the Nyeri Nyeri people of central Victoria, an illustration that places the first Australians firmly in line with their brethren worldwide, captured playing the nucleus of football.

Looking back through history, every corner of the world has produced similar artwork of people keeping the ball in the air with the feet, sometimes over a crude form of net, others within a group such as the Nyeri Nyeri, still others kicking a ball through some form of target or goal.


(Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Football)

A Song Dynasty painting depicting Chinese children:

(Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Football)

Mesoamerican ballgame played since 1,400BC by peoples of Mexico and Central America that still exists today within the indigenous population, known as 'ulama’:

(Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Football)

The presence, therefore, of Blandowski’s print of the Nyeri Nyeri links the indigenous Australians with similar populations worldwide. It is natural to assume that, like every other corner of the planet, the Aboriginals found pleasure in keeping the ball aloft, a test of coordination and dexterity that forms part of every training session for young players in Australia today.

Not only does it make perfect sense, however, Blandowski made this very clear in his written explanation of the ritual.

"A group of children is playing with a ball; the ball is made out of Typha roots; it is not thrown or hit with a bat but it is kicked up in the air with the foot. Aim of the game: never let the ball hit the ground."

Clear, and irrefutable.

(Image: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

Therefore, what is certain is that the first ever, recorded example of Aboriginal Australians playing with a ball is directly akin to football.

This makes football Australia’s true, indigenous game.

Several anecdotal and eyewitness accounts of the mid-19th century talk of a variety of ball games being played in Aboriginal communities with a mix of kicking and catching, known collectively as 'Marn Grook’ or 'game-ball’ yet, interestingly, despite a decade-long presence in this region of Victoria in which these games are said to have taken place, Blandowski mentioned not one of them, only the Nyeri Nyeri.

What is beyond supposition or anecdotal presumption, though, is that Marn Grook is factually represented only once by any scientific authority in all of the 19th century, as football.

This print, belonging to the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, forms the cover of Australia: William Blandowski’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia.

Having realized that football is Australia's real indigenous game, I travelled to Brazil in late 2011 with a copy of the book to meet with, and interview, the most famous athlete and footballer in history, Pele.

After the interview, I presented the book to the athlete of the 20th century on behalf of Australia’s professional footballers for his contribution to the game and explained to him that the cover picture is of our own, indigenous Australians playing the same game as Brazil, and that tens of millions of Brazilian children still play every day.

His face lit up, and he sent his best wishes to football in Australia, and to the indigenous countrymen.

Subsequently, I was delighted to secure permission from Cambridge to print a copy to present to Pele.

It's important to recognize, then, that John Moriarty Football is not introducing football to indigenous Australia, but reintroducing, and giving it back its own game.

In recognition of this historical fact at this nationally significant time, I would propose an indigenous round of the A-League next season in honour of the Nyeri Nyeri people, official recognition of the Blandowski print with a copy to take pride of place at Football Federation Australia headquarters and a copy sent to the AFC and FIFA for the official archives of the game, and indigenous representation on the Board of the National governing body, as a priority.

Australia’s indigenous game.