The Canggu Festival of the Boot: The AFL Masters Bali 9s Competition

BALI is my favourite place for a mid-year break. In fact, Bali is my favourite all-time place for any kind of break.

Before I’d ever been here, it was on my list of places to go to one day, but never filled me with a burning desire to visit. When I met my then-girlfriend (now wife) who’d been coming here since she was seven years old, there was no doubt that Bali would be our first joint holiday destination. From my first visit, I was hooked on this small, quirky island. Despite the rampant boganism on display at almost every turn (I am an elitist and make no apology for this) Bali is simply magnificent and – for mine anyway – the single most important reason we should be keeping sweet with the Indonesian government.

There are, of course, a number of different Balis.

There’s the Bintang singlet, braided hair, boardshorts and tribal tattoos Bali. There’s the retiree community, soap-dodging hippies and the Polo playing Range Rover set; people who get off the plane at Denpasar already tanned.

Then there’s the expat community. We know Australians, Spanish and Americans here who have some fantastic jobs – the kind that first year Public Relations and marketing students dream of – but who work long hard hours. In some jobs here in Bali, there’s no such thing as a ‘weekend’. The other side of the expat community are those who – for all intents and purposes – have checked out of what we call ‘society’ and are just one bad serve of magic mushrooms away from becoming a real-life Dennis Hopper greeting Captain Willard and Chef as they enter Kurtz’s compound at the head of the Nung river. It’s a mix of the good and bad, bizarre and serene and I wouldn’t change any of it.

The best time of the year to go to Bali – for mine – is around late May into mid-June. Where my wife and I are concerned, we go to Bali to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We got married at Karma Kandara in Uluwatu and we’ve decided to revisit the scene of the crime annually for obviously sentimental reasons.


Karma Kandara Beach Resort by day

Karma Kandara Beach club in Wedding set-up

Karma Kandara Beach resort in Wedding set-up

There are other reasons to visit Bali at this time of the year; it’s the tail end of the tourist low season and the weather is probably at its most temperate. You’re still looking at a daily temperature of 30 or so degrees but the humidity falls to around 78 per-cent.

There’s also the lure of the annual (It still has a few years yet to achieve ‘time-honoured’ status) AFL Masters Bali 9s tournament.

I’ve been involved with the Melbourne Superules Football Club – home of the legendary Milan Faletic – for around five years. After committing the schoolboy error of admitting the wife and I annually travelled to Bali, in each of those years, I’ve been cajoled into joining a group of guys at the club who religiously play in the Bali 9s tournament. So far I’ve resisted their very powerful entreaties to join the Dubai-Melbourne Dingoes, but this year, I took the time to go and at least watch their games.

I’d like to go into detail about the origin of the tournament, the highlights, the lowlights and everything in-between. I’d like to provide some context on the etymology of the Dubai and Melbourne link, but basically, my arse is on holiday and, well… frankly, I couldn’t be bothered. Hopefully you understand.

What I can tell you is this: I have never – in my life to date – seen Australian rules played in such an idyllic and amazing, yet bizarre setting.

Lining up for goal at the picturesque Canggu Club in Bali

Lining up for goal at the picturesque Canggu Club in Bali

Structuring up - 2014 Bali 9s, Canggu Club

Structuring up – 2014 Bali 9s, Canggu Club

‘All clear’ – 2014 Bali 9s Canggu Club

The 9s competition takes place at the Canggu (pron: Chang-goo) Club, which is anything from 15 to 30 minutes west of Denpassar airport – depending on whether you’re on a scooter or in a Taxi. The club itself is a strange beast. The ex-pats we know in Bali all agree there’s a touch of Colonial Imperialism about the Canggu Club and for them it has an ‘energy’ (a word that you hear often in Bali) that’s out of whack with Bali.

The club is situated on the coast and is, for the time being, relatively untouched by the rampant and unrestrained over-development that is afflicting Kuta, Legian, Seminyak and Petitenget. (Sidebar: If you think that planning departments are an unnecessary layer of an already out of control bureaucracy, try getting from Seminyak to Petitenget within 15 minutes in the middle of the day. The already clogged roads filled with tourists and locals alike are only going to get worse as mega-hotels are being constructed in streets about as wide as Flinders Lane in Melbourne, except they have two-way traffic using it. Traveling from Seminyak and Kerobokan is similar in distance as St Kilda to Middle Park). Membership at the Canggu Club is said to be on the expensive side and perhaps biased to some degree by the heads-up from local friends, the lobby of the Club did have the feel of a Young Liberal meeting about it. That said though, the folk at the Canggu Club have been extremely accommodating and are huge supporters of the tournament, so well played.

As well as the Dubai-Melbourne Dingoes, teams come from all over the region to have a tilt at lifting the trophy – 18 in all. There’s the ‘hosts’ for lack of a better word, the Bali Gecko’s, consisting – not surprisingly of expat Australians with a few locals having a dip at the caper. The Geckos, you may recall also had Jason McCartney go around with them for a while and Jason’s story of survival in the wake of the Bali Bombings of 2002 needs no retelling here. The Balinese kids – and I mean kids – playing for the Gecko’s show extraordinary speed, amazing balance and enthusiasm, posing the question of what’s stopping the AFL from launching into Bali as the next frontier. (A Freo vs. West Coast pre-season Challenge game in Bali – discuss).

There’s the Singapore Sharks – whose playing kit makes Hawthorn’s 1992 pre-season monstrosity positively Armani in comparison, the Singapore Wombats and Audo United. The Borneo Bears are represented, as are Dubai (natch) and there’s the teams from the top-end and northern Queensland: The Darwin Buffalos, Darwin Waratahs, the Darwin Dugongs, the Darwin Ferals and the Whitsunday Bald Eagles. For some reason, the Adelaide Phantoms didn’t get the Mr Walker jokes, the Castlemaine Magpies made sure that black and white stripes were represented and Wembley and the Melbourne Motley Men also put in a strong showing. The Vic Park Pigs, The South Coast Buccaneers, Warnbro Swans, the Northern Warriors, the Jakarta Bintangs (bintang meaning ‘star’ in Bahasa) and Expat Property Breakers were also in the field.

Perhaps inspired by Hawthorn's pre-season kit of 1992 - The immaculate playing strip of the Singapore Sharks (standing)

Perhaps inspired by Hawthorn’s pre-season kit of 1992 – The immaculate playing strip of the Singapore Sharks (standing)

The playing arena itself is usually a soccer ground for 362 days a year. However, this Queens Birthday weekend the hallowed turf of the Canggu Club becomes a makeshift Aussie Rules ground as the Bali 9s gets underway. It’s standard rules except for the obvious – it’s nine players per side. The only other exception to the normal rules are that goals can only be kicked from inside a 30 metre arc. Other than that, tackle as hard as you can, run as far and as fast as you can to create and in most cases, kick it to the big man in the square.

Track: Dead 4.

Weather: Fine (Hot).

Rail: +9m (entire)

I’m out at the Canggu Club for roughly four extremely sunny and hot hours. I enjoy catching up with some of the Dingos players who have moved on from Melbourne Supers for family and/or work reasons. While I’m there, the guys go two wins from three games – as best I can remember – and the Babi Guling rolls at the catering stand have to be tasted to be believed. In the heat – across all of the eighteen teams – there’s an oversupply of Bintangs on ice, but such is the dedication of these guys that no one is game enough to crack a beer as there’s another day of the round robin matches to be fought out. Be in no doubt how serious these lads take their preparation. Bottled water is worth its weight in gold and towels soaked in ice are in high demand after the final siren goes in every game.


Dubai-Melbourne Dingos players having a well-earned half time spell in the midday Bali heat

Geckos and Bali footy stalwart 'Hinchy' commentates the action

Geckos and Bali footy stalwart ‘Hinchy’ commentates the action

I also can’t help but be taken in by the amazing surrounds. The hazy azure sky and belting sun under which the games are played is as idyllic a scene for footy as I’ve ever come across. The grass surface is the kind of billiard table green that you see at Augusta for Golf’s Masters (although obviously not as well prepared). The palm trees at the Ubud end of the ground fiercely reminding you that you’re certainly not in footballing Kansas anymore; indeed, the ubiquitous smells of deep fried food, spilt beer and tomato sauce are replaced by the sweet smell of incense from the many Hindu prayer altars that litter the landscape and the unmistakable sea air to the west of the ground all adding to the uniqueness of environment and spirit that is uniquely Bali. I get to my hotel back in Seminyak (the Pelangi) around 5pm that day. The Pelangi is just a shuffleboard court and a 24/7 on-call doctor away from being Australia’s Florida and being 5pm local time, the majority of guests are all preparing for dinner. I collapse into the relatively empty pool and start to cool off – all the while aware that the guys are still humping it out at Canggu and I find myself feeling a little guilty.

The Pelangi Hotel Pool. Why wouldn't ya?

The Pelangi Hotel Pool. Why wouldn’t ya?

Later that night, Emma and I head to Mozaic Beach Club for sunset drinks. After the bulk of the guests leave with the sun having set, we start talking to one of the waiting staff, Made (pronounced Mar-day). Made cant wait for the World Cup to start – even though with the time difference, the games from Brazil will be screening at either 3am, 5am and 7am. In fact, although he’s a Chelsea fan, he says he’ll remember my name by calling me Steven Gerrard (thankyouverymuch). I talk to him about Australian rules. “Oh boss…” he says, his face downcast. “Aussie rules, bloody crasy. You run at person… bang!” (he simulates collision by clapping his hands together). “I watch sometimes while at work,” he continues. “I would love watching [the] games more, but I can’t understand [the] rules. Is crasy. With soccer, rules very simple.”

Tip for new players: Do NOT miss sunset drinks when in Bali - Mozaic Beach Club, Batubelig. Bali

Tip for new players: Do NOT miss sunset drinks when in Bali – Mozaic Beach Club, Batubelig. Bali

Sunset drinks pt 2: La Plancha Beach cafe, Seminyak, Bali. You know you want to.

Sunset drinks pt 2: La Plancha Beach cafe, Seminyak, Bali. You know you want to.

I’m left thinking about something one of the organisers was telling me at Canggu earlier in the day. I was asking if they (the tournament organisers) get any financial support from the AFL. “A bit,” is the reply from the person who didn’t want to be named, “but the players involved cover all of the costs of putting this on themselves.”

“And that’s okay,” he continues, “we’re all working, we can afford it and we love playing the game. Anywhere, anytime is how we look at it. There’s guys here from Singapore, Borneo and Jakarta.” he said. “I don’t know too many other sports where blokes would get on a plane and run around playing the game in this heat when the alternative is to sit around a pool or lie out on a beach and drink $2.50 Bintang’s all day,” he says. “Or get a two-hour full-body massage for fifteen bucks, but that’s the kind of blokes who love doing this.”

Indeed it is. And I still, despite knowing how fruitless a pursuit it would be, can’t get the idea of how brilliant a pre-season challenge game between the two Western Australian AFL sides played in Bali would be. One day it might happen, but for now, watching the Bali 9s will do for me.

And I’m looking forward to the Queen’s Birthday weekend of 2015 already.

About Steve Baker

"Colourful central Victorian racing identity". Recovering Essendon supporter, and sometime weekend night racing presenter on RSN Racing and Sport.

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