MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — There were no spectators allowed in the cavernous, 100,000-seat Melbourne Cricket Ground on Thursday for an Australian Football League game that would have drawn close to a capacity crowd in a perfect, non-coronavirus world.
Still, Aussie rules was back after a three-month shutdown due to coronavirus restrictions, and fanatical fans in Melbourne were happy to see it — even if they could only watch on television.
City rivals the Collingwood Magpies and Richmond Tigers played to a 5.6 (36), 5.6 (36) draw.
Other than the ban on spectators, the start of the game was also unique — players on both teams took a knee to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Both clubs and the league hierarchy said they wanted to support worldwide protests over the death in policy custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“Certainly both our clubs are endorsing and supportive of our players doing that and they’ll do that just before the bounce,” Magpies chief executive Mark Anderson told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. “We strongly support them doing so.”
Indigenous Australians and other black players in the AFL have been subject to racist taunts from spectators and opposing players in the past.
The AFL played one round before the season was suspended. Most of the 18 teams will play in their home states, but four – Adelaide and Port Adelaide from South Australia and West Coast and Fremantle from Western Australia – will play on the Gold Coast after the re-opening weekend because of domestic travel rules.
The AFL is the second major football code in Australia to resume since the virus restrictions were relaxed – the National Rugby League restarted two weeks ago, also with no spectators and using stadium “hubs” and charter planes to move teams around.
The NRL and AFL have asked for exemptions on a per-match basis to have some corporate clients admitted to private boxes, but the status of each was being decided on an individual basis.
Australia’s third major football code, rugby union, will begin play in a domestic Super Rugby competition with five teams on July 3 and will run over 12 consecutive weekends with a finals series beginning on Sept. 12.
But the biggest news in rugby this weekend will be the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition in New Zealand, where there will be no limit to crowd sizes following the country’s winning fight against COVID-19.