Whenever people who haven’t previously been exposed to Australian Rules Football hear about the sport, they invariably ask, ‘What other sport is it like?’ Most fans of the AFL would say that it’s completely unique, but it does have at least some common points with other sports. Soccer is a starting point for comparison because it is played and watched all around the globe, so what are the similarities between AFL and soccer, and what are the differences?
Let’s keep things simple to start — the most obvious similarities between AFL and soccer are that they are both team sports, and ball sports. The way in which the ball moves around the field varies significantly as do the scoring systems, but at the end of the day success in each is largely predicated on a team’s ability to control the ball and execute the fundamental skills of the game under pressure.
Another feature of both sports is the importance of fitness. In the AFL, players regularly run up to and even exceed 15 kilometres over the course of a match. Soccer is not dissimilar. Though the field is smaller and the game time a little shorter, the distances most of these players run is over 10 kilometres and often up to 15 as well. The way in which these players cover the field isn’t identical — Australian Rules requires a lot more stop-start running while soccer requires more constant movement and jogging — but regardless, being an elite athlete in fitness terms is imperative at the top level for both sports.
Of course, while there’s no doubt there are a couple of superficial similarities between the two sports and athletes in both need an enormous fitness base, as fans of both AFL and soccer will tell you, the likeness ends there.
Probably the most notable two differences, at least for those with minimal knowledge of the two sports, is the fact that you can use your hands in AFL. Getting an oval-shaped ball up and down a 160-metre-long oval without them would be pretty arduous, but of course in soccer, players are restricted to their feet and heads — with the exception of the goalkeeper.
Another major distinction between soccer and footy is that one is a contact sport, and the other is not. Soccer fans might argue that there’s plenty of contact in their game, and while that’s true, it’s nothing like the physicality which is such a defining feature of the AFL.
There are also certain differences at the professional level. Soccer, of course, is played all over the world, so there are a multitude of different leagues and tournaments. In contrast, the AFL is the top level of Australian Rules Football, and that’s it. And while it’s not true for all soccer leagues, there are huge differences in how many of the world’s biggest leagues run compared to the AFL. Leagues like the EPL and La Liga see the same handful of teams dominate year in, year out — in contrast, the AFL prides itself on the equalisation measures which theoretically give all teams an equal chance to compete, even if the Tigers are currently the AFL Premiership favourites as they search for a fourth flag in five years.
As with any team sport, there are certain similarities you can find when comparing AFL vs soccer if you search hard enough. On the whole, however, the differences comfortably outweigh these. They are both unique sports that are popular for a reason, and perhaps the most significant thing that they share is that each of their respective fanbases call them football.