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Germany - potential powerhouse of European footy?

  • Monday, September 12 2005 @ 03:23 am ACST
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The Australian Football League Germany grew to 5 clubs in 2004 with the commencement of the Düsseldorf Lions, and in that year over 120 players pulled on the boots in the course of the season. This year they're on track for as many as 150 having played at least one match and have at least two potential new clubs for the coming seasons. However, despite having more players actually playing than Spain (who attended the International Cup) and Sweden (who've started playing internationals against Denmark), the Germans have generally kept to themselves, with only 'scratch' national teams having played any outside opposition.

World Footy News spoke with German footy pioneer Malte Schudlich about how the scene is developing in this relatively reclusive footy nation.

Schudlich discovered Australian Rules while on student exchange in Melbourne in the 1990s. Returning to Germany, he and some German friends started the Frankfurt Redbacks in 1995, wearing the red and black of Melbourne club Elsternwick where Schudlich had played, as well as those of his beloved Bombers. The Redbacks were one of the first two clubs established in Germany, the others being the Munich Kangaroos established by a group of mainly Australian expatriates, also in late 1995.

For the rest of the decade, the Redbacks and Kangaroos were the only two clubs, playing each other semi-regularly. Efforts were made to start clubs in the central German cities of Kassel and Göttingen, but it wasn't until a Frankfurt player moved to capital and founded the Berlin Crocodiles that another lasting side was created. In 2003, exchange students returning from Australia and New Zealand started the Hamburg Dockers and real league play could begin, followed by the entry of the Düsseldorf Lions in 2004 - a team in the process of moving to Cologne and renaming itself to attract players from across the region without inciting the traditional inter-city rivalries of the Rheinland.

"Since then, clubs have grown dramatically" Schudlich says, "in Frankfurt for example our player list exploded over the summer break. We now have about 30-odd players, and at least 15-20 per training session. Most of them are locals... I remember training runs with less than 10 only 12 months ago. Hamburg has attracted a lot of new players too, compared to last year, most seem to be Aussie expats". Playing lists seem to be a good mix of locals and expats, ranging from around 30% to 70% Australians, clubs generally having a larger percentage of Germans the longer they've been in existence.

Germany has probably the most travel-heavy amateur league anywhere in the world, with the exception of North America. The season includes a full home-and-away schedule with a grand final day (this year held in Frankfurt) and a pre-season nationwide training camp. Munich, the team with the biggest distances to cover, will travel around 6,500km this year. The league has considered dividing into north and south conferences to lessen travelling expenses, but as yet the number of teams hasn't been able to allow this. They are also hopeful of securing sponsorship to lessen the costs. Clubs help each other out with home teams providing accommodation for the visitors - helping costs and building rapport between players nation-wide.

Possible entries to the league in the near future are French club Strasbourg (Strassburg in German) on the French-German border and Bielefeld-Hannover in the north-western state of Lower Saxony. "Bielefeld and Strassburg definitely have potential. Both clubs are started by locals. This usually means they have access to other locals and know how things are run in their region regarding bureaucracy, etc. when it comes to establishing a club. Also, they are more likely to stay in the region. With expats, the problem is they usually move on after a couple of years".

Strasbourg Kangaroos founder Marc Jund is still uncertain as to whether they would be able to make this a reality. "There are 18 regular players and all are French. Malte Schudlich told me there are two guys in Offenburg in Germany, about 20 km from Strasbourg, who played footy in Australia who could add our team. He proposed also to join the AFLG next year, but our problem is money. At the moment, we have no financial help, no sponsor".

There have also at times been rumours that clubs from other neighbouring countries could join, creating a European league. Asked whether this would be a possible direction for the AFLG, Schudlich has a mixed response; "in theory yes, but practically it depends on the travel factor. Strassburg for example is in France, but since it's right on the German border they are within a reasonable distance to all other clubs. Strassburg to Berlin or Hamburg however is already over 700 km one way. If we consider Amsterdam or Vienna, our travelling easily hits 10,000km per year. Vienna is roughly the same distance to Frankfurt as Frankfurt is to London. The only way this would pobably make sense is to split the league into a western and eastern division. But then we are talking about an european league, and that's a whole different story".

When quizzed why the Germans haven't yet played many international matches, Schudlich has a straightforward answer. "Again, the travelling factor. This plays an even greater role here. Most expats (that I have met) in Europe and Asia are in relatively well-paid jobs. They can afford to finance their hobbies more easily than most of our German players, who are mostly uni and school students. So far there is only a German scratch team, made out of those Germans who are willing to travel for example to Denmark and are able to pay for it. Since we have introduced the full season this year, we cancelled all other cups, such as the Oktoberfest Cup, etc".

"The International Cup is a bit of a difficult issue. First of all, I think It's great to have such an event in general. Also personally I think it would be great to go to Melbourne for a couple of weeks and play at these magnificent venues and meet other league's players, and so on. However, I have some second thoughts on how this is going to help the international development of Australian Football. I know from other teams that expenditure for these cups is well over 100,000 euros. Currently, there is no sponsorship available in Germany to finance such a huge project. Even if we had the funds, I am not sure if I could recommend going to Melbourne. First of all, it would cost us at least half the season, and therefore valuable advertisement possibilities for our League. Further, with 100,000 euros sponsorship, we could run a full-scale Germany-wide promotion campaign, including footy clinics and providing schools with starter kits. Going to Melbourne however creates zero attention over here.

"If the organizers want to help international football development, it might be worth considering staging it in a development area, such as America, Asia or Europe, where the attention can actually be used to increase awareness. I doubt that you need to show Melbournians how great footy is. Obviously, this would not change much of the finance problem, but at least it would go towards a development project. Now, that's all from a German point of view. Maybe it's different for the British or American leagues, and their development actually benefits from the International Cup. I just cannot see the how the cost-benefit relationship can work".

Asked whether other national sides coming to Germany to play against the Germans would be a boost for local media or sponsorship opportunities, Schudlich's response is "a definite no. The media is quite aware of the state of these national teams. Therefore they do not pay much attention. Basically, you are where you play: public park - low level amateur, large stadium - potential new super sport. What we aim at is giving the media some consistency through a proper league schedule. So far this has worked quite well, especially in Frankfurt. People in the street sometimes recognize your Redbacks shirt as the local Australian Football team, even though they have never seen a game, or have any idea what it is. So I think we are on the right track there".