Black Magic? White muddle more like it

Calling indigenous footballers “magic” denies their hard work. Flickr/witness1

Let me begin by asking a question. Why is it when we think of Indigenous footballers we do so in a way that sets them apart? To put it simply, why do many of us think that there is an inherent genetic code that enables Blackfellas to play Australian Football?

As a counterpoint to this, why is it when Brendon Fevola kicked some truly amazing goals no Carlton supporter held up a banner that read “Italian Magic” or “The Italian Wizard”? Why is it that James Hird was never known as the “White Wizard”?

I vividly recall the tutorials I took following my lecture on Indigenous footballers in the interdisciplinary foundation unit at the University of Melbourne back in 2008.

I was trying to tease out this exact point. Some people got it but many did not. One student took offence to what I was suggesting saying “of course Indigenous people can play football” he scoffed “That’s what they do.” I don’t think he had done the reading that week.

Some foreheads started to furrow. I had to draw the bow a bit longer to qualify myself. “If an Indigenous man was whisked away by aliens for twenty years and then returned to his mob, at say Alice Springs, would he be able to kick a goal on the run from deep in the MCG pocket”?

Many of us are guilty of over-generalising when it comes to football ability and skill. Notions of sporting magic are seemingly the exclusive domain of Indigenous Australians (read: men). They are not.

This is despite a great deal having been written about black magic which adheres to the theory that if it is said often enough it will be believed. For example there are many famous football names that help support this very phenomenon: Krakouer Magic (Jim and Phil Krakouer), Phil “Magic” Narkle, Micahel “Mago” McLean, The Wizard (Jeff Farmer), the Walpiri Wizard (Liam Jurrah), Mr Magic (Maurice Rioli).

As the Krakouer brothers, Jim and Phil, are close to my heart let me explore a few of these ideas using them to do so. The Krakouers stand out in many respects because with their coming to the VFL in 1982 they literally set the football world on fire.

The main reason for this is for the first time in football history they are “the” cohort that is recruited to play complimentary roles for one side, North Melbourne. This had never been done before. Maurice Rioli, who played against Jim in the WAFL grand final the year before, rounds out the triumvirate with his coming to Richmond in the same year.

What the Krakouers, Noongars from the South West of Western Australia, and Rioli, a Melville Islander from the Tiwis, brought to the game for the first time was a serious concentration of skill, poise, speed, timing, and professionalism, that was bound up in their identity, their Aboriginality.

This identity was soon reframed by the Melbourne media and explained away by using such terms as wizardry and black magic, and it strongly alluded to the perceived mysterious powers and exotic otherness of Indigenous footballers. One of the reasons for this was the Melbourne media had never seen anything like the Krakouers, or indeed Rioli, on a football field before.

However, in most instances, instead of appreciating that the qualities these players brought to the game had been produced by time, process and training it was far easier and intriguing to understand their skills as being directly linked to their ethnicity, their Aboriginality.

So why did the Krakouers, in football terms, stand out? On the surface there appeared to be this ability to combine in a seamless way, confounding but heightening, people’s appreciation of the game. Everyone I spoke to throughout my interview process for the PhD on them, and even people I spoke to generally, mentioned Jim and Phil’s ability to find one another by using the ball effectively in very congested and fast passages of play.

In my interview with Rioli for the project, he said Phillip could play in a telephone box, because his style seemed to defy a reasonable explanation. Descriptions of Jim and Phillip’s innate sense of where the other one was hardly varied from, “You’d be looking and the ball would come out of nowhere and like lightning they’d be off.”

Jim and Phillip had played football together since childhood and had developed a deep understanding of one another’s responses, rhythms and use of space and time. They called it confidence. However, people viewed their skills from the outside - even team-mates. Their skills were so enmeshed and complementary that the Krakouers’ seamless play confounded many.

It seems that for many people it was easier to understand their play in terms of their skin colour rather than it being the outcome of a long and intimate process. Their play was described, or explained away on many occasions, as Krakouer magic.

Their “mysterious” abilities became aligned with their “mysterious” Blackness and thus with an essentialist notion of “black magic.” A deeper reading, one that took into account the hard work and commitment of Jim and Phillip’s football, was therefore denied. People watched the hat and cheered the rabbit, never considering the real genesis of the magician’s tricks.

This all comes down to one of perspective. For the Krakouers, their new approach to the game was looking at the action as they are playing it. So instead of it being the viewers perspective of “how did they do that?” it shifts to an interpersonal “what can we do?”

Having intimate knowledge of one another’s game gave Jim and Phillip a distinct advantage in positioning themselves in accordance with the ball, the action and the other players.

This is why, unlike Rioli, who was a brilliant player in his own right, they stood out because there were two of them and they tacitly complimented each other’s style, abilities and positions on the field.

Jim and Phillip were individually mindful of the imagined football drill that they had actualised a thousand times since early childhood.

Sometimes the combined effect did not work but on many occasions it did and when it did people scratched their heads because it was a phenomena that the VFL had never seen before. It is even more remarkable that it has not been seen since.