by Domenic Favata

“The man who has no imagination has no wings” Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali’s words of inspiration, our team motto, flashed repeatedly before my eye as I led my teammates up the race and on to the lush, green grass of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  I spun the bright yellow football through the tips of my fingers, turning it end over end without thought. The smooth leather provided the familiar reassurance that everything was going to be fine. Tonight, the most important night of my life.

“Ladies and gentleman,” blared the announcer. “Tonight, we are gathered here in this magnificent coliseum to witness the 2022 World Rules Final. We are here celebrating the wonderful expansion of our game to all corners of the planet. I say this with great joy as we welcome the visiting finalist tonight, led by their captain David Li, from China… The “Shanghai Dragons!”

It really is a coliseum, one like no other in the world. The rumbles of the crowd corresponded with the rumbles of my stomach; I was nervous, but excited at the same time.  I looked down at the canary yellow strip on the front of my jersey with its embedded with a red dragon, calling upon its power and strength to defeat our opponents, the Richmond Tigers. Like their namesake, the Tigers were intimidating as they prowled out on to the ground, greeted by a sea of yellow and black. A battle between two classic Chinese symbols loomed, and is I walked to the middle of the ground for the coin toss I reflected on how I came to love this magnificent game.


I witnessed Aussie Rules football for the first time at an exhibition game being played in my home city of Shanghai. It was October 2010, and I remember the falling red leaves that signalled the approach of another bitterly cold winter. The Melbourne Demons and the Brisbane Lions were the teams, cities that were as foreign to me as the game itself. At first, the game was rather confusing, the skills were strange, the ball was oval-shaped and the goals were unfamiliar sets of posts. Many people failed to understand the complex rules and skills of the game, but one thing that made up for all the confusion was the pure excitement ‘footy’ generated.

I had figured out the basics of the game by the last quarter – six points through the taller posts, one point for a near miss. Players could kick and catch but not throw, and while they could vigorously hurl each other around like rag dolls, there seemed to be strict limits as to the extent of physical force applied. By the time the game had finished, the Demons reigned supreme. In just a few hours, I had come to enjoy this game, to enjoy the skill, pace and atmosphere it created around the stadium. A few in the crowd were confused by the exhibition, frustrated because they could not understand this ‘strange’ game, but I just wanted to see more.


With the roars of the crowd over my shoulder, my heart began to beat increasingly faster as I walked to the middle of the crowd.  I shook the opposing captain’s hand and as we exchanged words, he said, “Good luck mate.” ‘Mate,’ the word I had come to love, along with the game itself, once a foreign word, but now so closely associated with my passions and ambitions.


The exhibition had come to a close and Shanghai stadium was buzzing with talk of ‘Aussie Rules.’ I moved down to the boundary hoping to get a glimpse of the players. A footballer ambled over and handed me a ball. ‘There ya go mate, have a good one’.  The word ‘mate,’ as crazy as it sounded, assured me that this game was not all about winning and losing, but about compassion and ‘mateship’ with your teammates.

The football then became my source of passion and motivation for the game, as it encompassed the one main thing that I loved about Aussie Rules, its uniqueness. I ate with it, I slept with and I even started to learn how to use it. The way the ball was kicked, handballed and marked from the exhibition became my source of tuition. My room became my sanctuary, with the internet used as a source for all information about AFL. Pictures, posters and diagrams of AFL teams, players and skills blanketed my walls.  It took time, but eventually my skills developed and so did my physique. Talking about AFL was all I wanted to do, even if it frustrated my friends at first. But my passion was infectious and they soon became my teammates, opponents and fellow footy heads.  I soon discovered that scattered Aussie Rules clubs existed in China and one was only twenty minutes away from my home province. It was in Shanghai.


“AFL GOING GLOBAL”                  


Today marks a historic occasion for the AFL with the announcement of the global expansion of Australian Rules football.

Chief Executive Andrew Demetriou described the prospect of AFL going global as ‘amazing’ and ‘an exciting prospect for all AFL fans.’

In a history making press-conference, Demetriou announced the creation of  international ‘zones,’ with professional teams playing across countries in Europe, the Americas , Asia and The Pacific. “The AFL will fund these locations and provide them with the necessary coaching, equipment and assistance,” Demetriou added.

“We understand that there are already many international teams scattered around the world, this initiative however, will help turn these scattered teams into professionals and provide for a more complete competition”.

Matches are set to begin at various stages throughout 2013, at different times of the year due to each zone’s different seasonal conditions. This move by the AFL marks a bold attempt to challenge soccer as the ‘World Game.’

The AFL also announced that it has started plans for an ‘AFL World Rules’  series, similar to the FIFA World Cup, to be held every 4 years . Rumoured to kick-start in 2018, one team from each zone would qualify for a thirty-two team tournament to be held in Australia. 


That article amazed me; it turned my dream of playing professional AFL into an achievable reality. All I wanted to do was to go to Shanghai and join the club immediately, before the new season would begin. That very next day, I eagerly made my way to Shanghai and the ‘Dragons Football Club’. My first thoughts of the club were positive. There was a large, square-shaped field that looked like a giant soccer field, but with AFL line markings on it. There was a small grandstand and the boundaries were lined with seating. The clubhouse appeared welcoming with Dragons colours everywhere. It felt heart-warming to be there, that was until a tall, stern looking Chinese man walked over to me.

“What are you doing here, this club is for men. Aussie Rules is a man’s game, a game for warriors who are prepared to go out on that field and work hard for each other and sacrifice for the good of the team. You’re just a kid. ”

 I didn’t know what to say, I was gobsmacked. Without thought I replied, “I’m happy to do anything, just let me be here so I can watch the games.”

“Okay,” he grunted, “you can help out at training.” I acknowledged him with a nod and a smile, quickly taking off for home before he revoked the offer.


The noise of the crowd momentarily hushed my thoughts. I looked deep into my heart for a speech that would capture the enormity of the moment. The words of sacrifice and hardship sprang to mind like they were embedded deep inside me. Arm in arm, united as one, we were prepared to sacrifice and work hard for each other in the single, most important game of our lives.


AFL spread like wildfire in China, rapidly becoming one of the nation’s most popular sports. Like many other teams during that time, the Shanghai Dragons made huge leaps off the field, building a bigger stadium, strong support base and huge inroads regarding coaching. A distinctly Chinese style of play developed based on speed and daring risk-taking, eventually drawing the interest of coaches from the game’s home country. The Dragons endured mixed fortunes but unfortunately for me, I still hadn’t played a game for the team and was restricted to running water. Through all of this I refused to give up on my dreams; I kept practising with that footy that I received all those years ago. Then the day that I always knew would come finally arrived.

It was on a wintery night in June 2017, the frosty conditions a striking reflection of my situation. I was enduring my normal work, pumping up the footies, re-filling the water and occasionally participating in the drills when I was called over to the coach.  I thought I had done something wrong and expected a ‘spray.’

“Li,” he began.

Here we go again, I thought.

“I’ve been watching you very closely and seen that you’ve not only worked hard for this club for a while now. I’ve seen you sneak in to some of the training drills and have noticed your talent with the ball. You’re 18 now, am I right?”

“Yes coach,” I replied, hoping for the best.

“I’m going to give you a shot on the weekend. Forget about your old job, you’re a footballer – for now.”

Words could not describe how I felt at that moment. All the hard work seemed to have finally paid off and had led to my imagination finally becoming a reality. My heart beat uncontrollably as I contemplated the very notion of pulling on the ‘Dragons’ jersey. Having achieved the impossible, I resolved to make it my dream to take the Shanghai Dragons from last in the conference to the representative team from the Chinese zone of the 2022 World Rules.


We took our positions around the ground, the noise once again rising to a deafening pitch. My excitement had overcome my nervousness; it was now time to lead from the front. The MCG was alive with thunderous roars which became louder and louder until the preliminary siren hushed the crowd. The moment of truth was upon us.


The siren had sounded, we had won, and we were going to Australia! We had hung on by just a single point and the siren was like music to my ears.  It was brilliant; the crowd had gone ecstatic and really resembled a ‘nineteenth’ man. It was a historic day for football in China and a historic day for us, the Shanghai Dragons. It was an honour to lead this team to a World Rules series and the fact that our whole country would be behind us was something that I’d only ever dreamed of.


The sound of the opening siren marks the beginning of the most important game of my life and brings my attention into sharp focus. I leap forward as the umpire bounces the ball high into the air, carried by the wings of my imagination.



  1. JB, JTH and Gigs. It’s a bit rough filing this under fiction…surely it belongs under prophecy. Nice one , Dom.

  2. It worries me Dom.

    There are many places in China where they eat cats……with great gusto (and black bean sauce)

  3. Dave, I think you’ll find it’s filed under fiction as Richmond is in the Grand Final…

  4. Jamie Simmons says

    Dom, put me out of my misery mate, I have to know….is Wallsy still commentating in 2022? There’s a lot riding on this.

  5. Spot on, Litza!

    The Richmond reference aside, a fair chunk of this will happen. Not by 2022, and not as part of a ‘World’ revolution – but it makes sense that our sport gets serious about the linkages with Aust’s major trading partners.

    Great to see talk of playing a match for premiership points in China, but ultimately, to really make inroads, it needs player production up there. The talk of establishing a player academy in Guangzhou and exploiting Melbourne’s sister-city relationship with Tianjin are perhaps the most important initiatives.

    It’ll take time, but worth the AFL seeding Dom’s vision.

  6. Mark Doyle says

    Dom, I would add fantasy to your headline. Aussie rules football will never become a popular international sport. Soccer will always dominate and when the Chinese soccer comp. becomes properly organised and well managed, Asian soccer will dominate the world of all football codes. There is also potential for huge growth of soccer in India.
    The only reason that the AFL is spending money internationally is to market the game for a niche access to the multinational business of TV sports entertainment. This marketing strategy is hopeful of sponsorship and increased sales of sponsors products, The AFL should develop partnerships with the Australian government tourist authority similar to what the French government has done with Tour De France cycling body ASO.

  7. John Garnaut says

    This is Gold, even if I am a little late in finding it. I was at that game in Shangers and remember Mr Li fondly. He’s coming on just fine. I fear, however, that by 2022 the Dragons will be regularly slain by the Beijing Bombers.

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