Saturday, September 6, 2008

Playing For Peace

At the bottom of this post are links to two of the most inspiring articles I've read for a while. Australian readers may want to go straight there. Anyone from overseas might need a little background to make sense of them.

Australian Rules Football is an odd sport. Until about 30 years ago it was only really played in southern and north-western Australia, areas that include about half the national population. Americans sometimes describe it as a mix of basketball and soccer, although its more accurately a mix of soccer, rugby and a game played by the Indigenous population of Western Victoria. It's most similar modern sport is Gaelic football, which appears to be a derivative created by Irish gold diggers returning from the Victorian gold rush.

In the late 70s the people who ran the major leagues decided a little local game would not survive as more than a curiosity in the face of competition with global sports like rugby and what most of the world considers football. So they started an aggressive expansion campaign, joining up all the state-based leagues and making a push into the rugby playing north-east of Australia. Now they're moving on, trying to spark interest overseas.

Where this really gets interesting is that some of their expansion strategies have caused them to act in ways that are having some remarkable spin-offs. Football is something of a religion in many Aboriginal Indigenous communities, and the league realised that the skills of players from some of these areas form one of the game's greatest attractions. They've set up coaching programs in places that have been desperately under-resourced by the government. Children are only allowed to play if they attended school the previous week, and this has been the most successful program in Australian history in addressing truancy in remote communities.

More suprisingly, the league singled out South Africa as the best prospects for growth. They've approached schools in some of the poorest townships offering to supply sporting gear and administration money on the condition the schools teach Australian rules. For these schools battling parental unemployment over 50%, soaring rates of HIV and drastic underfunding this is a godsend. Some inspirational and hilarious stories have come out of this program.

One aspect of the international push is the creation of an international cup for all nations playing our rules other than Australia. None of these nations are remotely competitive with the local teams, although there is an on-again, off-again competition with Ireland in a hybrid of Aussie rules and Gaelic football. However, for teenagers and young adults from many developing nations getting a flight to Australia paid to come and play is pretty exciting. Soon, the AFL hopes, we'll have players from these countries playing at the highest level.

A joint Israeli/Palastinian team has been created to compete in the cup. Most of the players had never heard of Australian rules football before they were invited to play, let alone seen a game. They'd probably be thrashed by a weak team in an outback country league. One might think that you'd be better off doing the same thing with soccer or basketball teams. I believe such things are happening too, but as one of these articles makes clear, the very fact that the sport is new to the players can be a strength not a weakness, and of course the assistance from the League might be harder to obtain for an established sport.

When your team loses as badly as mine did this weekend its easy to hate football for a few days. But reading these pieces was as good as the best wins.

Ready. Here they are.