Matthews urges support for international footy

The AFL's General Manager of National and International Development, David Matthews, has written a piece for the Melbourne newspaper the Sunday Age, urging (and thus effectively justifying) support for international Australian football. He notes that "People tend not to remember opportunities missed as much as opportunities that failed", which is an acceptance that by promoting international footy there is a risk of criticism if it fails - but that the football community should try anyway.

It's a continuing theme from Matthews, who has put forward a strong case on several occasions, and has over-seen the AFL's practical efforts. Although the support so far rolled out by the AFL remains somewhat uneven, there's no doubt the last three or four years have seen a tremendous increase in their commitment to international football. Although the article has nothing new to our regular readers, it's great to see the message in such a major Australian paper.

The article is AFL needs to seize opportunities to make inroads at home and abroad and is also re-produced below.

AFL needs to seize opportunities to make inroads at home and abroad

They were leading the grand final on the MCG by two points when the siren sounded. But their young star wasn't finished just yet. He'd marked the ball on a tight angle, and with his excited teammates gathering around him, why not complete every childhood dream and casually slot a banana goal ? Margin extended to eight points and pandemonium set in.

Nothing unusual about the script but the players were not Australian — 17-year-old, 190-centimetre Amua Pirika and his teammates were from Papua New Guinea and their opponents from New Zealand. The third Australian Football International Cup culminated in a great final, a spectacle that gave us all another reason to consider the question: what are the future possibilities for this great game?

Those who were fortunate enough to witness the excitement of the International Cup and the enthusiasm of its participants in Melbourne or Warrnambool will appreciate this question. Having had more than 750 foreign visitors, representing 16 countries, come to tell us they love the game is compelling. Before the International Cup competition started, the captains of the 16 teams were invited to lunch with the AFL Commission and executive. The lunch was scheduled as a break in an AFL meeting — and after four hours of strategy and finance, it provided a welcome contrast.

As each captain introduced himself, he was asked to speak about why he loved the game. The responses were simple, yet insightful: "the freedom to go anywhere, to be faced with so many alternatives", "the creativity, the opportunity to use your hands and feet", and "the spectacular nature of it". The Indian captain was most poetic in saying: "You have given us a beautiful baby and we will grow it."

What was clear is that these visitors have adopted the game as their own, it is not a case of it being imposed on them. It is bottom-up growth — much of it initiated by expatriate Australians but increasingly carried forward by locals. The game overseas is owned by the participants and engendered by local enthusiasts, just as it is in Australia. There are now more than 40,000 players in 34 countries outside Australia to complement the 650,000 players here — they are the game's messengers and advocates. They challenge us to match their enthusiasm and we must help them consolidate and nurture their opportunities.

And it is timely. The 150th birthday of the game of Australian football is a celebration of its history, but also the right time to consider the future. You can't manage through the rear-view mirror. While it is important those in the game at all levels consider what has made it successful, it is more important for us all to now consider what will keep it successful. And should we define success only by what happens in Australia? The answer has to be no.

While our continued push and focus is to strengthen the game at all levels in a domestic sense, as the keeper of the code, we increasingly have an eye for overseas opportunities. Federal trade minister Simon Crean has identified the game as an Australian export. Austrade was instrumental in creating the Dubai match — involving Collingwood and Adelaide — as a platform for trade and more such events will follow. Essendon is building links with India and Japan and hosted both their International Cup teams along with recent trade delegations. Opportunities grow in China — supporting Australia's long-term cultural and business activities — and have included local groups building our first purpose-built football venue in Tianjin, China's third-largest city and sister city to Melbourne.

Geelong's Jimmy Bartel visited Denmark, Sweden and Finland last year and last month welcomed those teams to Australia.

The USAFL comprises 48 clubs and Geelong coach Mark Thompson is a special guest at their coming national championships in Colorado. Four AFL clubs are supporting development in South Africa — Fremantle leading the way with West Coast, Carlton and Collingwood. Joel Kelly, an Australian working in South Africa, adapted NAB AFL Auskick for the locals as FootyWild with Geelong president Frank Costa's company being the major sponsor.

By the end of this year, 14,000 South Africans will be playing the game. The 2008 AFL grand final will be broadcast in more than 140 countries.

An international plan requires innovation such as this, coupled with a long-term vision. While many organisations, including sporting bodies, tend to plan in three- to five-year increments, the reality is that can serve to limit your vision, to lower your eyes. The AFL has been making long-term investments in NSW and Queensland for the past 10 years to build generational support.

But we will never be complacent about the traditional heartland regions because in my view development of all regions is in everyone's best interests.

In 2007, research by Street Ryan revealed that 14.9 million people attended football matches — 50.5% of them attended community football, 49.5% attended AFL competition. Almost 2524 community clubs and 2913 NAB AFL Auskick centres provide participation opportunities for more than 650,000 players across Australia. Each club and centre is vital to the game and to the fabric of its community. Because our focus is not only about the AFL competition, it is about all Australian football competitions. It is about the game.

People tend not to remember opportunities missed as much as opportunities that failed.

We can't be afraid to fail in pursuing any opportunity to expand this great game. To the cynics who might question international development, I say we should share it and support those who do.

We may seem to be embarking late in international terms, but as Kevin Sheedy constantly reminds us, "it took 2000 years to put wheels on suitcases".

The 750 visitors who came to the International Cup saw Hawthorn's Lance Franklin play up close twice. He kicked 12 goals in four hours.

I am sure they went home even more enthused than before in the knowledge that it is the most spectacular game in the world.

David Matthews is the AFL's general manager-national and international development.


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