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International Footy

Here is an article written by James Brunmeier from the Milwaukee Bombers - the winner of the 2005 Macquarie University Australian Football Scholarship.  James is a student at UW-Eau Claire and will spend the next several months playing Australian football and taking classes at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.  The following article briefly details the roots of Australian football and the development of international footy, particularly in the United States.

Australian Football


By James Brunmeier


There are many theories how today’s game of Australian Football developed. It usually comes down to who you are asking. The prominent Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that cricket players developed it in the 1850s to stay in shape in the off season. Some believe it was started by business men as an alternative to rugby: a game where they could show up to work on Monday without a black eye or mangled ear.


But no matter its roots, there is no arguing its impact in Australia, and in recent years, the world. Australian Football is a fast paced game played on an oval field measuring 160 by 120 yards. Eighteen players each side work to move the ball down the field with a combination of hand passes and kicks. Four posts are at each end: six points when the ball is kicked between the middle posts, one point when it is kicked through the outer posts.


A full contact sport with no off sides, games are split up into four quarters, 25 minutes each. The Australian Football League (AFL) makes a certain number of players wear a GPS tracker every game. Some of the more mobile athletes run over 12 miles in a game.


The southern states of Australia, Victoria more so than South Australia, are home of the die hard Australian Football fans. Considered fanatical by other Australians they flood the public transportation on Saturdays and Sundays on the way to games wearing team colors and singing club songs. In Melbourne alone there are 10 professional AFL teams. The six other AFL teams are spread along the coast from Perth in the west, Adelaide in the south, up to Brisbane in the north east.


Because the sport is played in many states it has a variety of names. In Victoria and South Australia it is either footy or Aussie Rules. In New South Wales or Queensland it is affectionately known as aerial ping-pong, due to the high marks and hard hits, or just AFL. 


Although the AFL is concentrating its resources and funding in Australia, Australian football has leaked progressively to the rest of the world. In the early 1900s New Zealand played the sport and even beat Australia on a few occasions. The AFL acknowledges there was competition in Scotland and South Africa before World War I. In the 1980s the United States got its first view of the hard hitting sport on ESPN. More recently Americans have seen clips of it on Fosters and Gatorade commercials.


In 1991 Australian Paul O’Keeffe moved to the United States permanently from Broken Hill, New South Wales. O’Keeffe works in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for Accenture, a management consulting company. In 1996 he formed USfooty. “I just wanted to have a kick,” says O’Keeffe. Recognizing it would become popular among Americans, he was surprised with how fast the league has grown. In its first year there were six teams, and just nine years later there are 25 operating in three different leagues.


Each year teams come together for the US Nationals tournament, where after two days of competition a national champion is crowned. This year the four-time national champion Denver Bulldogs will defend their title in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With the help of expatriates like O’Keeffe Australian Football is played in over 35 countries on six continents. Twelve international leagues have direct affiliation with the Australian Football League.


O’Keeffe admits starting an off-shore league has not been easy, “One of the biggest challenges is getting respect from Australia.” Ed Biggs, community development manager of the AFL, admits that a very small percentage of the AFL’s budget goes to international footy. The 12 leagues affiliated with the AFL are placed in three categories in terms of funding. Those that are in the highest category and receive the most funding are South Africa, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.


Biggs says leagues such as USfooty have the potential to move up but must move into the schools and develop junior leagues. The skills of the sport must be learned from an early age to be fully mastered. For now, the AFL is concentrating its funding in New South Wales and Queensland to further development and support of Australian football.


Paul Roos, coach of the Sydney Swans, experienced international footy for the first time in 1999. Roos had just finished his 356 senior games career with Sydney and Fitzroy. He made contact with O’Keeffe in the United States and spent 10 months there. Roos says that he did not know much about international footy before coming to the states, “I was really impressed with the enthusiasm and athleticism of the Americans.”


In his coaching debut Roos led the American Revolution, a team selected from the best players in USfooty, to victory over the Canada Northwind. In 2002 Roos took over the head coaching position for the Sydney Swans and in only his second year of coaching he was awarded AFL Coach of the Year.


Roos admits he does not know the AFL’s policy with international footy, but says there is merit there, “Especially in America, there are so many great athletes. With time and money, the potential is unlimited.”


In August international footy will return to Australia for the second International Cup. Twelve teams will compete in Melbourne in the 11 day tournament: Canada, Denmark, Great Britain, Ireland, Japan, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, South Africa, Spain, and the United States.


For Tom Ellis of the Denver Bulldogs this will be his second trip to Australia and the International Cup. One of Ellis’ most memorable moments was walking onto the field at the Melbourne Cricket Ground carrying the United States flag. He said the four national championships with the Bulldogs didn’t compare to what he felt then, on the field, with the flag.


The 37 year old father of two has taken it upon himself to email the Revolution squad everyday counting down the days to the first game. He includes team strategy, workout updates and sometimes words of wisdom.  “It keeps everyone’s eyes and minds on what we have to do,” Ellis says.


Once or twice every week Ellis ends the email with the quote from Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” Ellis has watched the movie many times with his children. The two main characters, Marlin and Dory are in search of Marlin’s son Nemo. The search is long and arduous and the two had to travel long distances to reach Australia and their goal of finding Nemo. Dory would chant the phrase over and over to keep them going. It is fast becoming the unofficial slogan of the American Revolution as they prepare for the International Cup: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” 


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