Footy in South-East Asia

By Graeme Patterson

The AFL code of football is played in many parts of the world, but not a great deal is known about its presence in South-East Asia. The following account is provided by Adam McDonald, who is currently the General Manager of the Intercontinental Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam. As a boundary umpire, Adam officiated in the 178 AFL matches between 1998 and 2009, including 3 finals. He also umpired 94 AFL reserves matches, 28 VFL games, 30 VFL reserve games, 11 TAC Cup and one VFA Under 19 game between 1990 and 2004. Since living in Hanoi, he has regularly officiated in local matches as a field umpire. Here is his story:

“Playing and umpiring AFL in Asia is alive and well as there are teams in most countries. Since leaving Australia almost four years ago, I have had involvement with the Bali Geckos, Malaysian Warriors and now with the Vietnam Swans. You need to initiate initial communication with these groups as they do not come to you. All clubs are happy to welcome you, either as a player or umpire. There is a genuine interest in your history in umpiring, as most of the locals have never spoken to anyone from an umpiring background. To have someone with this experience who is happy to umpire games is a great help to the local clubs. My wife cannot believe that I continue to put myself in a situation where I can cop abuse, but it keeps me involved in football. In the past, I always thought that I knew better than my field umpire mates, but my current role as a field umpire proves I was wrong.

There are games throughout the year and some of them require travel as the away matches are in another country. This gives you the chance to visit different places and it does tend to become a “footy trip” but that is OK as it is all in good spirit. Footy brings many people together and although everyone involved is keen and competitive, they are mindful that the games are played in the right spirit. The games are played on ovals, which most of the time are makeshift. You learn to make do. – goal posts are luxuries and line markings are inconsistent, but that is not important. What footy does in Asia is bring people together to be involved and play the sport they love. The skills and fitness may not always be there, but you pretty quickly see the guys who could play at one stage in their lives – they do not lose their ability, just the fitness to execute it consistently. You will find that many of them are from other sports – lots of Irishmen who just want a run and rugby boys who may not gain possession of the football but they sure can tackle.

Last year I attended the Asian championships in Pattaya in Thailand, a lightning carnival in which nine countries from Asia competed. I ended up umpiring eight games for the day. Apparently, umpires from Perth used to fly up for the games, but this time they wanted all expenses paid and Asian footy is not flush with money as the game is played for fun. There is some support from the AFL and interest in what is going on – Mike Fitzpatrick recently wrote for the ANZAC record. While there is no financial support, it is great to have their interest and acknowledgement.

The highlight for me clearly has been my involvement with the ANZAC games. Each year, the Vietnam Swans play a friendship game against another team – this year it was the Jakarta Bintangs. The game is played on the same site where during the conflict the Diggers played in a league organised by themselves for about five years. The ground is located in the middle of a greyhound track in the town of Vungtau, about 60 km. south of Saigon. This is where the Diggers went for R&R and it is not far from where the Battle of Long Tan took place. Many Vietnam veterans live in the area, have made their lives there and come to be a part of it. Each year you see many of them return with their families. We have all the things ANZAC Day has – national anthems, a minute of silence, a big crowd (for Asian footy) and a highly competitive, spirited contest. It is an honour to be part of this special occasion and there are similar games played at other locations in Asia where Australians fought during difficult conflicts.

While nothing will ever make up for being part of the AFL, it is great to be part of it in some way. During your time in the AFL it becomes a part of you. I used to live and breathe umpiring. Footy never leaves you if you keep involved, even if it is in a place where the locals have no idea what you are on about or what the game is about.”

Adam’s story highlights a number of matters associated with participating in our great Australian game, especially in international environments:

  • The spread of the AFL code beyond our shores – alongside the growth of AFL competitions in Europe, North America and elsewhere, there is continuing interest closer to home in south-east Asia.
  • Expat participation – clearly, many expats in the region, and particularly, ex-servicemen who have made a new life there, are keen to continue to play and support the game.
  • Football and War – there is considerable historical evidence that wherever Australian service personnel were stationed during both World Wars and more recent conflicts, they were keen to play the game whenever they could and it is heartening to learn that this initiative was embraced in Vietnam.
  • The ANZAC spirit – this has been incorporated in AFL matches here and, more recently, New Zealand therefore it is uplifting to learn that it is alive and well in Vietnam on an annual basis.
  • AFL financial support – it would be hoped that the organisation responsible for the management, administration and development of our national game would be able to provide some financial support for the fledgling competition in south-east Asia.

We are appreciative of Adam McDonald keeping us in touch about lesser known aspects of AFL football in our nearby international region.




  1. Rocket Nguyen says

    Adam is a terrific umpire! He umpires with a great feel and sense for the game.
    He is a common-sense umpire. A special ingredient many modern day umpires lack.

    Graeme – you have neglected Adam’s Sydney umpiring accomplishments that were also substanial…

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