During general play, players may position themselves anywhere on the field and use any part of their bodies to move the ball. The primary methods are kicking, handballing and running with the ball. There are rules on how the ball can be handled: for example, players running with the ball must intermittently bounce or touch it on the ground. Throwing the ball is not allowed and players must not get caught holding the ball. A distinctive feature of the game is the mark, where players anywhere on the field who catch the ball from a kick (with specific conditions) are awarded possession. Possession of the ball is in dispute at all times except when a free kick or mark is paid. Players can tackle using their hands or use their whole body to obstruct opponents. Dangerous physical contact (such as pushing an opponent in the back), interference when marking and deliberately slowing the play are discouraged with free kicks, distance penalties or suspension for a certain number of matches, depending on the seriousness of the infringement. The game features frequent physical contests, spectacular marking, fast movement of both players and the ball and high scoring.
The sport's origins can be traced to football matches played in Melbourne, Victoria in 1858, inspired by English public school football games. Seeking to develop a game more suited to adults and Australian conditions, the Melbourne Football Club published the first laws of Australian football in May 1859, making it the oldest of the world's major football codes.
Australian football has the highest spectator attendance and television viewership of all sports in Australia, while the Australian Football League (AFL), the sport's only fully professional competition, is the nation's wealthiest sporting body. Its annual grand final is the highest attended club championship event in the world. The sport is also played at amateur level in many countries and in several variations. The game's rules are governed by the AFL Commission with the advice of the AFL's Laws of the Game Committee.
Australian rules football is known by several nicknames, including Aussie rules, football and footy. In some regions, it is marketed as AFL after the Australian Football League.
There is evidence of football being played sporadically in the Australian colonies in the first half of the 19th century. Compared to cricket and horse racing, football was viewed as a minor "amusement" at the time, and while little is known about these early one-off games, it is clear they share no causal link with Australian football. In 1858, in a move that would help to shape Australian football in its formative years, public schools in Melbourne, Victoria began organising football games inspired by precedents at English public schools. The earliest such match, held in St Kilda on 15 June, was between Melbourne Grammar and St Kilda Grammar.