World Footy: Expansion of footy gathers pace

By Brett Northey


For some, Australian football’s hopes of international growth are misguided, whilst for others they are almost an obsession.  Certainly throughout the 20th century the sport’s expansion had its peaks and troughs, its false dawns.  But the past decade has seen steady progress and many good news stories.

Even just focussing on the past two years, 2008 saw a record number of teams at the International Cup, including bringing in China and India, the two nations that represent over a third of the world’s population. The tournament was at its highest standard ever come the finals, justifying the new International Scholarship Lists which were made easier for clubs to use. AFL clubs also began looking more closely at Samoa and Fiji. Other highlights included continued progress in South Africa, France, England and Canada (among others), a NAB Cup match in Dubai, commencement of work on an oval in Tianjin (China), and domestically the AFL bullish towards expansion into the Gold Coast and Western Sydney.

So how could 2009 top that? And what chance for 2010 to continue the trend?

The year started and finished with Irishman Tadhg Kennelly leaving and then returning to the Swans, having completed his All-Ireland Gaelic football dream in just one season. The start of 2009 also saw Australians Ben Graham and Sav Rocca head to the NFL playoffs as specialist punters, continuing to raise the profile of the AFL in the US.

We saw the AFL commit fully to the Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney expansion clubs, a key plank in establishing the game’s Australian dominance in the longer term. Though this was at the short term expense of an AFL side out of Tasmania, the upside for the Apple Islanders was the launch of a premier statewide league which will hopefully lay the foundation for a brighter future. There were also several Federal Government announcements such as funding for indigenous programs related to footy, and there were state league changes such as with the Tasmanian league, and the Northern Territory Thunder competing in Queensland’s top comp.

There was AFL confirmation that the 4th International Cup would be staged in 2011, while AFL clubs benefited from globalisation forces, with Fremantle continuing to profit from South Africa, the Western Bulldogs signing a deal with a Mexican food company and Carlton travelling to Malaysia to promote their sponsor. The Dockers continued their South African association, staging a camp in North West Province, whilst late in the year Collingwood again returned to their US altitude training. Papua New Guinea received some long overdue attention, with the Indigenous Boomerangs squad touring there. The Australian Under 16s toured South Africa. A Victorian amateur league youth side travelled to New Zealand to play their under 20s.

The tragic Victorian bushfires prompted several international clubs and leagues to stage events to raise significant donations to the recovery, reminding us of just how big the footy community now is.

The International Scholarship List came to the fore with several of PNG’s young stars given opportunities, including Amua Pirika and Stanis Susuve at the Gold Coast, David Meli at Essendon and Peter Labi at Carlton.

Greater depth was the winner in England, Ireland, Germany and Canada, with more teams allowing more competitions or second divisions. Closer to Australia, and the inaugural AFL Middle East season was played, and the Asian Championships again grew stronger. Junior development in Indonesia accelerated and in Malaysia an Under 18 side began playing, whilst senior football returned to Nauru and things got moving in Timor-Leste. There were also positive signs in South America, with Brazil playing its first match.

Back to Europe and the Catalan league performed well, with Andorra debuting, and footy in Madrid showed positive signs of returning to health. To the north, and France staged its first ever national championships, and the Netherlands attempted to launch a 4 team league. There was growth in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Iceland and Norway. There were also renewed efforts to form AFL Europe, with the AFL appointing Leading Teams’ Gerard Murphy to play a facilitation role, though we’re yet to see concrete results, or none that people are prepared to say on the record just yet. Denmark and Sweden announced joint plans in 2010 for the inaugural full-scale European Championships with hopes for all Europe’s top nations to compete together for the first time.

Canadian Rugby convert Mike Pyke made his debut for the Sydney Swans, and Rugby League star Karmichael Hunt (of New Zealand heritage) stunned the NRL by defecting to future AFL club the Gold Coast. The year had new Irishmen making their AFL debuts and some slipping quietly back home, though not so quiet was the shock departure from the Magpies of seemingly rising star Martin Clarke.

A documentary featuring the Israel-Palestine Peace Team was shown on Australian free-to-air TV, though a key backer of the Team and former Carlton president, Richard Pratt, passed away from cancer.

If one region enjoyed greater development success than any other it was the South Pacific, led by former PNG development stalwart Andrew Cadzow at the head of AFL Oceania. An exhibition game pitted Oceanian talent against a North Queensland selection, with a win in front of political leaders from around the region who were attending the Pacific Islands Forum in Cairns – priceless promotion for the sport as it gets serious about the region.

While Fijian-Australian Nic Naitanui was wowing them for West Coast, AFL Fiji was finally born and was host to the inaugural youth Oceania Cup, with five nations competing in front of many AFL talent scouts. The result was a reinvigoration of the game across the region and the selection of a Pacific Islands squad to compete in the 2010 Australian Under 16 championships. This came on top of the announcement of the World 18 to also compete in that series, meaning there will be two international teams in Division 2 of the prestigious Australian competition. In years to come this may well become the primary route to the AFL of young international talent.

AFL powerhouse Hawthorn joined AFL New Zealand in launching HANZ UP, a program aimed at Kiwi youth. The breakthrough agreement sees the national side re-branded as the Hawks, significant funding for youth programs including the Hawks Cup for schools, and Hawthorn’s commitment to international scholarship listing of New Zealanders, starting with Kurt Heatherley.

Big news for the US was the recruitment by Collingwood of Milwaukee’s Shae McNamara. Although not developed through the USAFL system, the US governing body is still very pleased to see the former basketballer and soccer player rookie listed and hopes he’ll become an inspiration for young American footy players.

African immigrants continued their rise in Australian football reckoning, with a young Sudanese player moving up the ranks in Tasmania, and at the end of the year Majak Daw being rookie listed by North Melbourne. Four young South Africans attended the AFL AIS camp in Canberra, and spent a week with AFL clubs. There were also several moves to spread Australian Rules into Ghana and other African countries, although these are very much preliminary contacts.

There was also the steadily increasing awareness of the AFL that multicultural support is vital to the game’s domestic success. So far these programs are focussed in Victoria and Sydney, but will need to be rolled out around the country with so much of Australia’s population increase coming from immigration.

Women’s footy was again on the rise in Victoria and some other states, and this was mirrored in Canada and the US with more teams being formed. The US Freedom toured Australia making key contacts and making international women’s footy known. Although starting from a very small base, the next few years could see the mostly male international growth repeated for the female version of the game.

2009 also saw the ongoing movement of people with international footy experience into AFL roles, increasing awareness in the sport’s top body. Outspoken proponent of spreading the game, Kevin Sheedy, was appointed Western Sydney coach with assistance from Alan McConnell. Michael Voss (who previously coached the AIS squad against South Africa) leads Brisbane, and similarly Nathan Buckley moves back to Collingwood. Former international footy developers Michael Roberts (Samoa) and Sach Herceg (Croatia) both found themselves working at AFL clubs.

During the year it became increasingly clear that an AFL exhibition match will be staged in Shanghai in October 2010 as part of the World Expo being held there. This will be a significant step for the League, and if its announcement was one of the highlights for 2009 then if the match becomes a reality it will surely be an exclamation point for international Aussie Rules this year. Especially so if Chinese TV picks up AFL coverage, something that is also under discussion.

Of course it wasn’t all good news. Each year there are always some clubs that fade away, political skirmishes, problems with TV coverage (low-lighted by the loss of Setanta Sports in Europe, though replaced by ESPN), continued postponement of an AFL match in Cape Town, the off field demise of AFL India (though attempts continue to revive it), visa issues restricting player access to Australia, and the International Rules series deferred at least a year (some will see this as good news). There was also the revelation of former Gaelic footballer and VFL/AFL star and Melbourne President Jim Stynes’ battle with cancer, and the loss of Richard Pratt (mentioned above) and Rob Dickson and his son. Dickson was a former Hawthorn player and documentary maker who had previous football involvement in several countries.

Each of the problems are in themselves serious, but for international footy as a whole, it has been an outstanding season. Each region will have its favourite outcome, but perhaps overall the biggest positive issue for 2009 was the focus on Oceania talent development. Breaking down the top highlights, they would include:

  • international scholarship listing of PNG’s David Meli and Peter Labi, and New Zealand’s Kurt Heatherley
  • the inaugural youth Oceania Cup in Fiji
  • New Zealand and Hawthorn’s HANZ UP
  • announcement of the Pacific Islands team in the NAB AFL Under 16 championships
  • announcement of the World 18 team in the NAB AFL Under 16 championships
  • announcement of the inaugural full-scale European Championships for 2010
  • confirmation of an AFL match in China for 2010

After years of hope, promise and growing talent, the opportunities are now there for young international footballers to grasp. 2010 could be their year.

About Brett Northey

Chief Editor and co-founder of World Footy News, worldfootynews.com

Adelaide born and bred, I support the Adelaide Crows in the AFL, Sturt in the SANFL and Adelaide Uni in the South Australian amateurs (the club I played for). I love footy and I love travel. For Australian Rules football to survive in this global economy I think it must continue to grow – which is in part why I co-founded worldfootynews.com site to help make a positive contribution to that goal – spreading the news, encouraging all the volunteers and hopefully helping to cross-pollinate ideas and inspiration.

My travels outside of Australia have taken me to New Zealand, Singapore, England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, The Netherlands, Tonga, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, China and Mongolia.

Besides my amateur football career with Adelaide Uni I toured South Africa with “the Convicts” in 2005, have been in regular contact with most international leagues and the AFL for several years through WFN and was a keen observer/reporter/fan at the 2005 and 2008 International Cups in Victoria.

Comments

  1. Troy Thompson says:

    Great summary Brett, here’s to even more in 2010.

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