AFL International Cup Day One: Dancing and smiling, wind and rain

International footy is rare. The ovals of Royal Park lack the glamour you might find at a FIFA World Cup, but in the wind and the rain on Sunday, the visiting nations provided the sort of diversity of culture and style that befits a global event.

 

My favourite game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup was between Japan and the Ivory Coast in the group stage. It summarised perfectly what you want from an international contest – a clash of styles, as well as a meeting of cultures.

 

The Japanese side are an OCD sufferer’s dream. They are technically wonderful and superbly disciplined. Their defensive line moves in perfect sync, as if the players are actually on a foosball table, bound together by a cold steel rod. I imagine that their wardrobes are perfectly coloured coded.

 

The Ivorians, on the other hand, are flamboyant and free, exuberant at times and exasperated at others. Their players often attack alone, arms and feet moving this way and that, luring their Japanese defenders into a merry dance. They would be comfortable playing anywhere, in any numbers, on the street or at the World Cup.

 

When I arrive at Royal Park, the South African Lions and the GB Bulldogs are already warming up, ready to open the Division 1 Men’s tournament.

 

The all-black South African side begins singing and dancing well before the national anthems. Their hips and arms move in sync, without music but with style and grace. Everything they do is enthusiastic. Even the windy Melbourne morning can’t dim their exuberance.

 

It brought back memories of a scene in When We Were Kings, where Muhammad Ali dances with the children of Kinshasa in the streets the morning after knocking out George Foreman. I imagine Ali was a touch warmer, though.

 

Their opponents, the well-named GB Bulldogs, are too busy trying to hit their targets lace out to dance. In a thick northern accent, someone bellows “Let’s f***ing go, lads”. Each to their own!

 

The British establish an early three-goal lead and the South African coach, Benjamin Motuba, is left searching for answers. He’s confronted by the same issue all coaches face – he can’t run onto the field and do it himself. Instead, he is compelled to do something, anything, to sooth his frustration. He paces. He moves magnets. He talks quickly and urgently to players as they come off the ground.

 

He’s also searching for warmth, by the look of his outfit – beanie, hoodie, and another jacket over the top.

 

His runner, an Australian, doesn’t have extra layers for Mobuta, but he does have answers for the Lions early on-field woes.

 

“It’s the wind,” he says. “We’re kicking into the wind.”

 

Within moments, he’s measured it as a three-goal breeze. A couple of the South African players look perplexed. How many knots is three goals? The answer gets lost in translation as the quarter-time hooter goes.

 

Walking around the respective huddles, I’m even more astonished by the contrasting sizes of the two teams. None of the South Africans are close to my height (195cm). The majority would look natural in the kit of the Bafana Bafana.

 

 

The Brits, on the other hand, look rough and meaty. Tattoos are everywhere and their two gangly ruckmen tower over all the South Africans.

 

But the size differential doesn’t matter in the second quarter. South Africa claw back to be down by 7 points at the main break. With the wind helping again, the British extend their lead to 19 points at the final change, but the South Africans have improved significantly and a close finish looks likely.

 

The Lions get going and reduce the lead to just 3 points, but the Bulldogs lift. They find their cleanest patch of footy when it matters most. All the fancy footwork, speed and energy the South Africans can muster does nothing to help them match the kicking game of the Brits in the final term.

 

A string of late goals pushes the margin out to 37 points, which doesn’t reflect how close the game actually was. I loved the unorthodox footy the South Africans played. They were often intent on slapping the ball to a teammate instead of taking possession and handballing, and occasionally went up for a mark, only to decide to palm the ball to a teammate rushing past.

 

Turning around, I catch the final moments of a thrilling encounter between the Fijian women and the Canadian women. I’ve had half an eye on the game, and it’s now 15-all and into golden point time in the final quarter.

 

The Fijians hit hard, like rugby players, and some of the collisions they cause make me wince. With the rain falling, the Canadians force the ball forward and take any chance they can to punch the ball towards goal. At one point, someone tries to slap a point from 20 metres out.

 

They eventually use the territory and take a dubious mark. The set shot is good enough, but they seem unsure of whether they should celebrate. It’s odd to celebrate a point. But it wins them the game and eventually, the screams of victory float around the oval on the chilly wind.

 

The final game I catch is the PNG Mossies against Ireland, a rematch of the Men’s Grand Final in 2014. Like the South Africans, the PNG side have a contagious energy to their game. They’re undersized, but the leap on their ruckman is truly something to behold.

 

 

Emmaus Wartovo, who wears the number 12 for PNG, is the figure I’m most drawn to. Wartovo is known to the entire PNG camp, coaches included, as “Fat Boy”. He’s stocky and built like a powerful front rower, but to actually call him fat is a bit of a stretch. On the field, he hits hard, as hard as anyone on either side. When he surfaces between hits, he’s always smiling, his white teeth popping out from the midst of his thick, black beard.

 

On the bench, his teammates are dancing in the cold, like small children who need the loo. When he joins them, still smiling, you can quickly forget he’s just run through someone on the wing. He looks ready to hug his freezing teammates, ready to share some warmth.

 

He’s the only PNG player in a long-sleeved jumper. This alone suggest he’s experienced the Melbourne chill before, so it’s unsurprising that he’s the oldest PNG player.

 

The Irish eventually win a really skilful but physical encounter that sea-sawed.

 

I leave the parklands and head for the ‘G.

 

Fat Boy is still smiling.

 

 

***For more about the International Cup, including full match reports, standings and team profiles, pop over to our friends at World Footy News – http://www.worldfootynews.com. ***

About Jack Banister

Journalism student @ Melbourne Uni, Brunswick Hockey Club Men's Coach, tortured Tigers fan.

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