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The World Game

Posted on Monday, February 17, 2014 by ARFAI,


Publsihed: 17th June, 2012.


Fun is the key ingredient when young Indian boys play AFL in Mumbai. Photo: Kuni Takahashi

On a muddy piece of earth in the heart of Mumbai, children from the slums and India’s rapidly growing middle class pick up a grubby Sherrin, kick it to one another, then laugh.

It is a simple pastime, which many Australian youngsters have taken for granted for decades, but on the subcontinent these scratch matches mean so much more.

Australian expatriate Lincoln Harris introduced the oval ball last year to a small group of Indians in his neighbourhood.

“I started kicking the footy with a few young guys in the area where I live – middle class kids, just having a kick for fun. They really enjoyed it so I taught them the rules and .?.?. we tossed around some ideas about how we might be able to get the numbers together for a small match,” Harris said. “Then something occurred to me.”

Harris, who runs a travel company in Mumbai, said India is a divided country “in some ways” with few people from the slums and middle class interacting with one another.

He realised football had a “harmonising power” to break down this barrier, and was proven right. The kick-to-kick group has now grown to more than 40, who meet twice a week to train more or less in the dark on the edge of floodlit Shivaji Park, where a young Sachin Tendulkar cut his teeth.

“I thought that at a very local level, Aussie rules would be the perfect tool for broadening those networks by bringing together different communities in this area — the slum kids and the middle class kids – communities that normally have very little or nothing to do with each other, and literally live on opposite sides of the tracks,” he said.

“The physicality of the game, combined with the fact that everyone is learning something new, pushes everyone out of their comfort zone so they are less concerned about who they are playing with. Mix up the two groups and suddenly you have teamwork from people who otherwise don’t have much in common.”

Harris, inspired by Reclink Australia, which aims to better the lives of disadvantaged people though sport, hopes these scratch matches will grow into a small competition, which if successful could be replicated across India’s cities and become a national competition.

He said people often talked about wild dreams but unless they started living the adage of turning their words into actions, nothing would ever happen.

It is a view that is shared by the AFL’s international development manager Tony Woods.

Woods said football has long been able to bring people together since its birth more than 160 years ago. It has helped enhance the lives of people living in indigenous communities in Australia, rural localities where the only thing left standing is a wide green oval after the church, school and general store have faded away.

“The great thing about AFL and Australian rules is that it’s an inclusive game, and it’s a game that suits all shapes and sizes,” Woods said. “There is almost a paradox that we all share in the belief that it is the best game in the world and most spectacular, yet sometimes we are a little bit slow in opening our arms to letting other people play it.

“One of the keys to unlocking the [global] door is for the wider football community in Australia to embrace the concept and the belief that other people, other than Australians, can play the game and they can play it well.”

Last year, Australian rules broke the 100,000 mark in participation across 40 countries.

Woods’ passion is contagious and his voice speeds up a little when he talks about the future of the competition.

“You could theoretically, and I’m in the business of bringing the theory to reality, in the future have a forward line that goes something like a small forward that comes out of the highlands in PNG, supported by a hard-leading elite athlete that comes out of US/China, you have got two half-forward flanks that have been born and bred in the west of Sydney and they are roving of the ball of a 6’10 ruckman that was born in China,” Woods said.

“The only thing that stops you thinking about that is a limited imagination, because athletically China has won gold medals at the Olympics, PNG has, and you talk about a multicultural society in Australia where in another 15 years, 50?per cent of Australian families would have been born overseas. You only have to look at the diversity starting to come through the elite ranks of the AFL, the landscape is absolutely changing.”

While Woods recognises the work Harris is doing and the potential of tapping into the Indian market, particularly with the game able to played on the country’s many cricket grounds, the league has its sights first set on China.

“At the end of the day, AFL is played in some organised fashion, albeit small in a lot of cases, in more than 40 countries. Now, it would not be prudent for the AFL to be spreading their investment over 40 countries, so we have really got to ensure that our investment is smart and targeted and where we are getting genuine outcomes and look to build that over the coming years.”

The league held an exhibition match in Shanghai two years ago, and in February began plans for a development academy in Guangzhou in the country’s south, where about 104?million people live within a 100-kilometre radius.

Next month, those plans will become a reality when the first 30 Chinese athletes pass through the academy.

The two-week program will not only include an introduction to Australian rules football and Australian culture. It will be followed by two days of testing, with two athletes chosen to take part in the AFL’s annual draft camp this year.

Woods admitted a Chinese-born footballer might not be drafted to an AFL club next season, but believed it would happen in coming years.

“We are realistic to say that it might not be this year, but this is a tangible and genuine step to opening up that talent pathway from China into Australia,” he said.

“And that path will lead to Etihad Stadium one week after the grand final where the two Chinese athletes will test against the 110 best kids in Australia.

“We believe that if we can succeed in creating an opportunity for a Chinese-born athlete to ultimately play in the AFL, that will then help us connect our game more closely to the Chinese community in Australia. They still have a really strong connection back to mainland China and so ultimately our game is about heroes and if the community can connect to someone from their generational homeland, that is only going to help in engaging with AFL.”

But is not only in distant lands where AFL is making inroads. About 30,000 children in rugby-dominated New Zealand take part in KiwiKick, the equivalent of the Auskick program each week.

Woods stressed the league wasn’t trying to cripple rugby across the Tasman.

“At junior and grassroots level kids are really looking for an alternative to rugby. That has basically allowed soccer in New Zealand to get a foothold.

“We are not saying that we are going to take over rugby, but our position is that we are providing a genuine alternative to rugby, and the reality is some kids might be physically suited to playing rugby. If they want something a little more physical to soccer, AFL is a great middle alternative.”

It is something the South Africans have known for years. Outside the Pacific region it has the largest AFL participation.

“We have found there has been a really strong gravitation to AFL because our game, and this in the South Africans’ own words, you can use your hands and anyone gets a chance to score, and there is a lot of freedom,” Woods said. “There is a really natural synergy with the culture and the majority of the South African population.”

But escapism is not the only drawcard for Australian rules. Woods said the sport also helped instil good values in young people, particularly in Papua New Guinea, which has long struggled with violence.

“It’s a little known fact that there are over 100 football grounds in PNG,” Woods said.

“At junior level we have a very strong an enforced rule that if you partake in an act of violence in an AFL game at whatever level, not only are you suspended but you are ineligible for selection for talent squads and ultimately the national team, so it really works as a strong deterrent. The kids who are playing are seeing AFL as an opportunity to travel out of PNG and into Australia, and we are seeing that have an impact.”

As for Harris, he is happy with the progress of the Mumbai project, which he has funded himself.

“If you have a look at the Facebook page you will see the most recent post is about getting the boots. I bought these directly from the manufacturer in north India and the guys thought it was amazing. Yesterday we ordered 50 custom-made balls – in Richmond and Geelong colours – and we’ll approach the AFL or the clubs for some genuine stuff soon. We have banners, bags and drink bottles in team colours all in the works,” Harris said. “As much as anything else – and this shouldn’t be lost amid all the higher values stuff –it is about having fun.

“Indian kids know how to have fun, irrespective of their economic situation – foreigners often remark on this ‘but they are so poor, how can they be having fun’. All I am doing is giving them a better and more interesting opportunity to have fun, because not all of them get the opportunity very often.”


40 countries, 100,000 players

International cup: in 2011 23 teams took part representing 18 countries, including Japan, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, USA and a peace team comprising both Israelis and Palestinians.

Papua New Guinea: played since 1930, has more than 100 football grounds across the country.

New Zealand: 30,000 children take part in KiwiKick, the equivalent of Auskick each week.

South Africa: first played in 1899 as a result of Australian Army involvement in the Boer War. In 2008 an AFL match was played at SuperSport Park, Centurion between Carlton and Fremantle in front of about 5000 fans.

China: the AFL will open a development academy on July 9 in Guangzhou, where about 104 million people live within a 100-kilometre radius. Two Chinese athletes will be selected to take art in the AFL annual draft camp this year at Etihad Stadium.