April 25 is a day that now evokes far greater and more significant emotions of patriotism and pride than any other day of the year. Remarkably, that includes Australian Day.
It is a day that commemorates the 1915 landing of Australian and New Zealand troops on what is now known as ANZAC Cove in Gallipoli, Turkey, during World War One.
The occasion does not remember a remarkable military victory or triumph, as is often the case with national days in other overseas countries. Rather, as most Australians know, the landing on ANZAC Cove was a complete disaster with 754 Australians and 147 New Zealanders tragically losing their lives. The Australians and New Zealanders planned to quickly knock Turkey out of the war, however, they were met with unexpectedly strong resistance in a battle that lasted eight months and resulted in thousands of deaths. Australia and New Zealand failed in their military objectives to capture the Gallipoli peninsula and were eventually forced to evacuate.
The fact that this is a day that represents such pride really encapsulates the Australian character and spirit. However, ANZAC Day represents more than the horrors of Gallipoli but remembers and commemorates all the brave service men and women who represented Australia and New Zealand in all “wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations” including those who tragically died.
April 25, 1915 is such a significant date for Australia especially because it was the moment that the Australian identity was born. Prior to World War One, Australia was simply viewed as a small country filled with misplaced British people. But the sheer bravery and courage of the Australian and New Zealand soldiers was recongised as extraordinary across all the Allied countries around the world. It put the countries on the map.
So, what has this got to do with football?
The AFL’s ANZAC Day round, particularly the traditional Essendon-Collingwood clash has helped establish ANZAC Day as the landmark day on the Australian calendar. Over the past twenty-five years, Australians have become far more educated and have a greater understanding of Australia’s wartime history, and the AFL has played a significant part of this, which is a magnificent tribute to all those who have fought for our freedoms.
Is there a better way to celebrate our Australian freedoms, whilst acknowledging those who have fallen to protect them, than a day at the MCG watching the footy?
The AFL’s involvement in the day has been so influential because the game does not override or overshadow the day, it merely amplifies its significance.
Australian Football has been played on ANZAC Day before Essendon and Collingwood took centre stage in 1995. But not in the same important and moving way. And like many things in Australian Football, we largely have Kevin Sheedy to thank for that.
Sheedy, who previously served in the army, approached Collingwood and then-coach Leigh Matthews in 1993 about establishing the now long-time tradition. Both clubs worked alongside the then Victorian RSL President Bruce Ruxton to establish the game in a way that best pays tribute to Australia and New Zealand’s service men and women.
It has been an unbridled success since that first encounter in 1995, where the Bombers and Magpies played out a famous draw in what is widely considered to be one of the greatest home and away games of all time. The crowd was an absolutely phenomenal 94,825, which remarkably surpassed the previous year’s Grand Final. That is how you establish a rivalry. It remains the second biggest non-finals crowd in football history, and the largest ANZAC Day crowd of all time, a record that today’s game may well atop. It is now difficult to imagine ANZAC Day without the Essendon-Collingwood game after a solemn and reflective morning at Dawn Services or ANZAC Day marches.
However, the AFL’s contribution to ANZAC Day, one of Australian Football’s most enduring legacies, now extends beyond the Essendon-Collingwood clash. The Richmond-Melbourne ANZAC Eve game, established in 2015, is now a powerful annual tribute that consistently attracts crowds upwards of 70,000. Port Adelaide and Fremantle have hosted ANZAC Day Round games for almost two decades in their respective states, which are always conducted as respectful and powerful tributes, across the weekend of football.
The unfathomable sacrifice of our service men and women is one that will never be repaid. It has shaped both Australia and New Zealand as nations, and touched almost all of lives and families in some way. It is something we should always remember and respect. If a game can somehow contribute to that, we are all the better for it.
Lest We Forget
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