Almanac Life: How to establish footy on a continent (in three parts)

 

by Rob Spurr

 

 

Part 1    Pablo meets Julie

 

We arrived in Santiago in 2005, the sprawling but organised Chilean plateau capital of 5 million, tucked into a magnificent Andean amphitheatre.

 

The contrast couldn’t have been starker to our six long years in Jakarta, a time punctuated by political upheavals, East Timor’s separation, hotel bombings and religious tensions in the tropical megacity known affectionately as the ‘Big Durian’.

 

Our salvation in Indo was being part of a sporting community and in my case, playing footy for the Jakarta AFL club that was well run, financially secure and progressing a fledgling local development program. Regaining fitness and playing competitive footy were the ticket to some lifelong friendships, mental well-being and regular travel around the patch for tournaments.

 

Some initial due diligence on Chile turned up no active signs of a footy presence in country or indeed, anywhere on the South American continent. On arrival, the reasons became pretty self-evident; a limited Australian footprint, a lack of televised footy and a continent that was infatuated with a round ball version of the game.

 

We settled in, welcomed our first baby onto Chilean soil and attended regular weekend asados where bolshie BBQ discussions about forming a footy club would usually be forgotten by the next day in the fog of sleep deprivation, nappies and the occasional Paceña induced hangover.

 

Work got busy and winter weekends were dominated by a new found love of hitting the ski fields, just an hour from town. Footy could always wait another year.

 

The pattern of mañana, mañana needed a circuit breaker moment and ours came with the serendipitous meeting of Julie and Pablo.

 

Julie was a cracking type from Shepparton who worked in the Australian consulate in the business precinct of Isidora Goyenechea. We had known each other pretty well from her prior posting in Indonesia where Julie and her partner Wally were terrific supporters of the Jakarta footy club. An Indo to Chile move is an unusual job pathway meaning we were surprised and delighted to have some familiar faces hit town.

 

Pablo was an established Adelaide DJ who had just moved to Chile to study and reconnect with his ancestral roots. He was stocky, enthusiastic and loved his footy.

 

On a sunny morning in early 2008, Pablo visited the consulate to sort out a visa issue, whereby he nonchalantly asked Julie if there was “any footy happening in Chile?”.

 

Julie, recalling the endless BBQ bullshit, informed Pablo that “there’s a guy setting up footy and he is working just across the road,” pointing at my office tower.

 

Minutes later, the receptionist dialled to alert me to a visitor in who wanted to talk about ‘Futbol Australiano’.

 

Pablo quickly got down to business. He told me he had played at Port Adelaide, spoke fluent Spanish, had a coaching certificate and most importantly, had a heap of Chilean cousins.

 

We shook hands and he was appointed coach on the spot.

 

Of what I wasn’t sure. We needed a club, a team, a ground and some opponents.

 

 

 

Part 2                  Los Santos

 

The Jakarta experience made it evident that to launch a successful club, some formal committee structures would be required to make things sustainable.

 

I tracked down a Chilean guy named Adrian Barrazza who had arranged some casual kick-to-kick in years gone by. Adrian was a passionate Bombers fan who had fallen in love with the game after stumbling across it on cable TV many years before. His surname sounded like Barassi and he had a footy siren as his ringtone. On that basis, ‘Barrass’ was invited to join the committee as Vice President and accepted immediately.

 

Other foundation members included ‘el chancho’ Hoggie from Perth, ‘Crazy Horse’ Keddie, a Saints fan sporting an impressive mane of red locks and a nice Chilean bloke who had studied in Australia, had plenty of good ideas but made himself uncontactable after one meeting.

 

The committee’s first decision was to name the club. As Santiago is a derivation of Saint Tiago, this took less than 5 minutes. The Santiago Saints or ‘Los Santos’ was duly minuted and South America had its first footy club just like that.

 

The first training run was set for a public park outside Santiago’s modern shopping centre Parque Arauco. To our surprise, twelve guys showed up on a Sunday morning and Pablo put us through some drills designed to shake off some of the chorizo induced puppy fat. One vomit was recorded amongst the kicks and marks that morning. Footy had truly arrived.

 

 

 

First training session 2008

 

 

A more permanent venue was then found a half hour out of town over the first steep valley that divides Santiago and its sprawling outer communities of La Dehesa. With the new venue came new players and a noticeable change of DNA.

 

Along with Pablo’s cousins, a number of the Chilean-Australian student diaspora had received word that there was team in town, with training numbers hitting 25 plus on occasions. The ‘Johnnos’ were quickly becoming outnumbered by the ‘Fernandos’, with training becoming a joyous cacophony of footy Spanglish.

 

With training going well, a formal launch night quickly sold out at a flash Kiwi owned joint. Pacific Hydro, KPMG and Orica all tipped in to become foundation sponsors and Australian Ambassador Conroy provided the surprise of the night by modelling the club’s new playing kit to the delight of the noisy packed house. Pablo’s design of the Chilean red, white and blue on a Saints style three striper jersey certainly made for a striking foundation strip.

 

‘Jack’ Yacoub was a popular choice when announced as our foundation skipper. Jack had grown up a drop punt from VFL Park and his sweet command of both the Sherrin and Spanish made him the perfect leader for our multinational equipo.

 

We had a club, a coach, a captain, a ground, a team, a kit and some decent sponsorship coin.

 

We needed to play some footy.

 

 

Part 3                  Time to play

 

With a growing squad carving it up on the training parque, the semi-regular Chile v Australia scratch matches were only going to cut it for so long. We needed an opponent.

 

Argentina, Chile’s political and sporting nemesis were a quick flight over the Andes which made them the obvious target. Unfortunately, crippling economic circumstances had long depleted their Australian expatriate stocks, with embassy staff appearing ambivalent to the concept. After some digging around, contact was made with the Organización Internacional de Deportes Alternativo, an independent sports body concentrating on alternative sports and run by an indomitable dynamo Ricardo Acuña.

 

Ricardo was aware of AFL footy and advised that he could get a team together. Within weeks, things were set in motion for South America’s foundation game to be played in the stunning capital of Buenos Aires.

 

On a freezing winter weekend, a large squad of players and supporters jumped on flights to BA, where Ricardo had assembled a large squad of bulked up Argentineans whom, whilst keen to taste some AFL action, were clearly built for and schooled in the art of rugby.

 

Things got off to a bad start with the news that our skipper’s flight had been diverted due to fog. Jack was hopelessly marooned in an airport terminal across the water in Montevideo, Uruguay.

 

With the game underway, the physical approach of the Argentineans became quickly evident with Brissy boy Dave Mac copping a set of broken ribs in his AFL debut, officially retiring soon after without recording a career stat.

 

A more skilful Santos squad with six months of match training were able to withstand the Argie tackling onslaught however and head into the sheds with a comfortable victory in the inaugural Andes Cup.

 

Captain Jack finally touched down and joined us for what was one of the great after match functions in memory. An open fire, Argentinean asado, buckets of shared fernet and plenty of joyous singing with the hosts rounded out a fitting end to the birth of AFL on South American soil.

 

 

Los Santos in Buenos Aires 2008

 

 

With a 100% winning record under our belt, Los Santos were keen to set their sights elsewhere for 2009.

 

Northern neighbours Peru were the next logical target however a chance meeting with Greg Wallis at a business dinner in Sao Paulo set things on a different course. Greg was the Australian Consul General for Brazil and a keen footy man from Adelaide. During dinner, discussions turned to the Argentinean game, whereby Greg, perhaps buoyed by the pre-dinner caipirinha, declared he could pull a Brazil squad together within six months if we were up to the challenge.

 

Scheduling the game in Rio de Janeiro proved to be a winner, with an enthusiastic squad donning stunning new sponsors’ polo shirts for the Friday LAN flight heading north east.

 

The Copacabana Cup was fought out on a large field across Rio’s stunning bay in Niteroi. The famous ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue loomed large in the background, a fitting sight to match the catching image emblazoned on Brazil’s new guernseys.

 

Greg had combed the length and breadth of Brazil to put together an imposing squad that would challenge the well drilled Saints who were touring with six Chilean nationals in the squad.

 

Captain Jack got things rolling for Los Santos with a passionate pre-match spray that he had no doubt rehearsed for the Argentina game. In a tough opening quarter, Brazil’s ‘Chopper’ Handley copped a broken ankle courtesy of a ‘Crazy Horse’ Keddie tackle. School mates in Melbourne, they found themselves dishing it out for opposing countries on the other side of the world.

 

 

Crazy Horse laying a shepherd for Kiwi Sammy.

 

Towering Brazilian ruck work with Dan “the difference” crumbing.

 

 

With many struggling in the stifling tropical humidity, some class performances by new recruit Chapman and a lovely cameo by Australian tourist Dan ‘the difference’ saw the Chilean tourists get home for a narrow last quarter win. The ability to recruit last minute ring-ins has always a feature of international footy fixtures and dragging Dan away from the surf for the day had proved to be a decisive move.

 

This victory felt different to the Argentina clash. A close game against solid opposition, with a team that had trained together for two years. A real club now. A real win.

 

With the sun setting on a blazing Rio day, bandaged teammates shared stories and cold Bohemias in the quaint bars of Ipanema. Exhaustion blended in with the quiet satisfaction that maybe, just maybe, something had been started.

 

 

 

 

The Copacabana Cup 2009

 

 

Postscript:

 

The Santiago Saints continue to play footy in Chile and also play cricket under the Saints banner during the summer. Their last AFL international was against the Bogota Bulldogs from Columbia in Santiago 2019. Read a report of the match in the SMH HERE.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Craig Harris says

    Great article Rob, hopefully the Almanac can get you back to South America for a regular league round up. Top story!

  2. I loved this Rob, familiar to me having encountered the game in SEA and the Pacific, but also new and exciting as someone who has never been to South America but has always wanted to do so. Those Brazilian jumpers are outstanding too!

  3. Greg Wallis says

    Great article Rob and what a day that was! We thought that we could sabotage the Saints by loading you with caipirinhas the night before In Rio but you just took them in your stride. Great game, we had the edge early but couldn’t hang on. We’re still filthy on your ring-in though because he lived in Brazil! All in all a great weekend and one of the highlights of my years in Brazil ??. Thanks for the memory! Cheers, Greg

  4. Rob Spurr – thanks for sharing your magnificent tale of pan global proselytising.
    And expat carry-on.
    I should disclose here a pre-existing relationship with Captain Jack (no slang intended).
    Very happy to read of these exploits.
    Love the photos.

    I’ve never lived outside of Australia so can only imagine the value of familiarity and the extra value of spotting someone with a footy.
    Carna Santiago Saints.
    Keep writing.

  5. Julie Shiels says

    Great article Rob. Amazing times and everlasting memories.

  6. Just fantastic, Rob.
    A wonderful tale, well told.

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