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Opinion: Can we crown the Euro champs?

  • Saturday, October 13 2007 @ 03:30 am ACST
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Europe

Australian Football in Europe has been relatively slow to develop. The United Kingdom has seen its fair share of the game over the last one hundred years, so it is no surprise a number of solid leagues have been established. Denmark then took to the game in the 1990s and has made slow by steady progress since, bringing in southern Sweden at the same time. Ireland were the obvious next choice to flex their footy muscle, but after them, there was a period where few leagues developed and a number of nations were stuck in the one-country-one-club situation.

There are signs this limitation is starting to be thrown off, and at the same time there are an increasing number of internationals being played. Clearly it's high time Europe was able to crown its own champion nation, but any undisputed mechanism to achieve that is far from settled.

If first we look quickly at the "unofficial" champions of regions other than Europe, and focus on local-only internationals, the question is reasonable simple. In Asia the winner through recent years would be Japan and in Africa it would be South Africa. In South America Argentina stood most alone, and in North America the US has generally had its nose in front of Canada. In Oceania, if we exclude Australia, it would be between PNG and NZ, with the honours shared, given PNG's wins at the Arafura Games, and New Zealand's in the 2005 International Cup Grand Final.

In the 1990s the leaders were certainly Britain and Denmark, with the Danes generally having the upper hand (you can read about some of their internationals on the DAFL site here), and in 2000 they were joined by Ireland. They had local leagues and their national representatives competed in the 2001 Atlantic Alliance Cup, which also included the United States and Canada. Ireland had burst onto the scene and won the tournament with ease. They won over Denmark in the grand final and remained undefeated through the 2002 International Cup in Australia. The Danes surprised to come fourth in the 2002 Cup, with Britain sixth. From these results an unofficial title of European Champion would go to Ireland in 2001 and 2002, with Denmark second and Britain third.

In 2003 the Danes defeated the Brits in a one-off match, and we haven't found a record of an Irish match but with such limited play across all three sides one would have to respect Ireland's previous wins.

The record appears to be very bare in 2004, so one can only call it as no champion or consider Ireland's reign to continue.

But come 2005 and the Irish Warriors were clearly not the same smooth unit teams had come to fear. They still battled manfully into the semi-finals of the second International Cup, going down to the rising power of the US Revolution, to finish fourth. But based on the performance of the newly named Warriors (though the tag Green Machine continued to stick), and the sixth placing of Britain and the withdrawal of Denmark, it would be fair to still rank the Emerald Isle first, Britain second (given their 21 point loss to Ireland later in the year at The Oval in London) and Denmark third. By this time Sweden were putting together their own national side of sorts (though geography and politics were still keeping different regions from combining). The German league was up and going though not playing internationals, and Spain also arrived at international level (mainly through the Madrid Bears club), attending their first International Cup, where they were at times competitive but ultimately went win-less. Difficult to split Spain and Sweden, but I would lean to the team that made the journey Down Under.

In 2006 the Irish again defeated Britain at The Oval in London (by 22 points), though there was evidence the gap was indeed closing, with the Bulldogs closing fast in the last quarter before a nasty injury brought the game to an early close. Meanwhile Denmark, Sweden and Germany (now with five local sides of its own) competed in their inaugural Tri-series, with the teams finishing in that order. With no cross-over games between the two trios of countries, ranking becomes difficult and declaring a de facto champion of Europe all the more difficult, though Ireland would have to remain favourites.

However during these years the number of one team countries prepared to send teams off to play internationals had steadily grown, and some of those had begun to develop their own local leagues, the crucial factor in truly establishing Australian Football in their countries. The Stockholm area of Sweden (in addition to the south), Finland and Catalonia (in Spain) have all developed multiple teams and sent representative squads to tournaments such as the Central European AFL and the EU Cup. Others are still at the one team stage, for example Croatia, Czech Republic and Austria.

How do we rank the achievements of these nations? The EU Cup is a one weekend, 9-a-side tournament that brings many of these new competitors together. Where does that stand in the hierarchy of Australian Football? Although they offer a valuable tool for developing footy, especially as the organisers' emphasis starts to move to local players ahead of expats, it's difficult to know how to integrate the results in to the overall issue of ranking teams (which is, at the end of the day, a curiosity rather than a fundamental part of growing the sport). Issues to consider are reduced time limits, squads with mixtures of Australian expats and locals and reduced number of players on the field. Let's stop right there and again emphasise that the tournament has come to play an important role in giving some of these start-up nations somewhere to play. And any footy, regardless of numbers on the field, is a positive. And there is no doubt that it is now the biggest Aussie Rules tournament in Europe, in terms of the number of nations present. The question is how do we rate countries competing in that with countries playing 18-a-side full length matches with only their nationals eligible (or very close to it)? Perhaps we can't, but a desire to paint an overall picture will drive many a mind to try, and it's the job of the media to stir some thought on such issues.

In 2006 the only matches between the stronger nations were Ireland's win over Britain, and Denmark's wins over Sweden and Germany. The status quo would seem to have been maintained, with Ireland just ahead of Britain and Denmark, with a strengthening Sweden followed by Germany. The EU Cup was cancelled and a reduced CEAFL tournament played.

Come 2007 and the number of internationals rose further. Denmark, now marshalling the troops for a return to the International Cup in 2008, lined up full internationals against Ireland, Sweden and Germany. The northern European Tri-Nations was a mixed bag indeed. Denmark had a narrow win over Sweden in Landskrona, Sweden, and a thumping 174 point defeat of Germany in Farum, Denmark. But the Germans had earlier beaten Sweden in Berlin by 5 points, and although an argument can clearly be made that Sweden had not performed to their best, when match results are there to be used one can hardly rank the Swedes ahead of the AFL Germany team. In another upset Britain travelled to Dublin and rolled the Irish Warriors. It was a double blow to Ireland, as their first loss in Europe came in their first match on home soil. No wonder that a determined group then rebounded to defeat Denmark, by 20 points, in Århus. Combining these results, it would seem the BARFL's Great Britain can for the first time claim the mantle, unofficially of course, of the 2007 Champion European country, followed by Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. But now to the task of integrating this with 9-a-side results.

It's been noticeable that the 2007 EU Cup had a handicap system against Aussie expats, had more competing teams than previously and more teams sending mostly locals. It also received more media coverage than most other Australian Football internationals in Europe. Stories in local media are typified by Newcomers to take on Europe at Aussie Rules, a story about two first year Newcastle players. This demonstrates the interesting dilemma for the sport. The interviewed players were rightly proud to be selected for ARUK's England side, but the traditional BARFL British side (made up almost entirely of England's best players) smashed them 87-1 over a shortened game in Manchester. So who does represent England? Is the problem that we're really talking about two different sports? Is the future of Australian Football in Europe 9-a-side at all levels, or traditional 18-a-side, or will there remain a mix?

Do we call Britain the champions of Europe, when clearly they are likely to beat all-comers? The EU Cup organisers might argue that their winner, Sweden (we think drawn mainly from the northern SAFF competition, please let us know if that is incorrect), rightfully deserve the title. They might also suggest Britain can't claim superiority if they aren't prepared to send a team to the EU Cup. But of course the BARFL might say that if it was 18-a-side, or expat free, or coordinated with their season, or free of other issues, then maybe they would be there.

In the end it seems a distinction needs to be drawn. If we compare with Rugby Union, much more established at international level, the champions of that sport are clearly defined. The modified Rugby 7s champions are seen as that, Rugby 7s champs. The full scale World Cup winners are seen as the champions of Rugby. Both forms are important for promoting the game, both are seen as forms of Rugby, but only one is seen as the pinnacle of the sport. At this stage one would assume the traditional 18-a-side version of Australian Football will continue to be the pinnacle of our sport, but unlike Rugby, the issue is certainly far from settled - it will depend on which countries emerge as having big numbers playing the sport and which path they choose.

In the past most of the EU Cup teams have been from one team countries, or drawn from small groups of players or clubs, not true representatives of nations drawn from the main leagues. But if the EU Cup continues to grow in competing teams and in emphasis on locals not expats, then the case will increase for that winner to be seen as European Champion of Australian Football. For the first time we saw several nations with actual domestic leagues compete, in England (through the ARUK Leagues, though not the BARFL), Sweden (through SAFF), Catalonia, Finland and host Germany. The case is still fairly clear as we near the end of 2007, but to win the PR battle at least, at some point the major leagues will need to better coordinate to find a way of declaring their own champion, or perhaps they may choose to embrace the 9-a-side lightning tournament of the EU Cup, and send their best players to that.

Ian Hill, a DAFL stalwart, suggested that the major leagues would be much more likely to attend if the competition made several changes. They include increasing the numbers to 12 per side on the field and staging it around May or June when the European weather is better and the established leagues, which have their own club and fixturing requirements, may have players in a better physical and financial position to travel. There is also the contentious issues of expats versus locals. Separate divisions was suggested, though if the organisers and competing countries keep pushing the handicap system or have local-only teams dominate in number, perhaps that issue will dissipate or easily be switched to two pools. The advances in European footy suggest that in reality the sides the top leagues could put on the field would probably have little to fear from a few expats anyway, unless they included some state league or AFL quality players.

That's for the future and up to the various officials to decide. In terms of what impact the EU Cup results should have on our attempt at an unofficial 2007 ranking, for now it would seem sensible to only use them as a guide to some of the other nations. Given the BARFL's British Bulldogs crushed the ARUK England Dragonslayers recently, and the Slayers finished third at the EU Cup behind the Swedish and German sides, it would be safe to say that none of the newcomers are a threat yet to the traditional big three of Britain, Ireland and Denmark. A Britain versus England (with Wales) rematch will also tell us more (or just confuse readers struggling to work out which team represents what!).

Beyond that, it's difficult to say whether any of the other sides should be ranked in terms of 18-a-side (or similar full field footy) local-only rules. An argument can be made either way, but it would seem fairest to make no such attempt until they have begun playing such matches, if that is the path they choose to take. We'll let the EU Cup results stand as their only history of the relative rankings of these countries.

Here's the unofficial European Champion honour roll I would argue for:

1990s to 2000

Generally Denmark over Britain

2001

Ireland
Denmark
Great Britain

2002

Ireland
Denmark
Great Britain

2003

Ireland
Denmark
Great Britain

2004

Ireland
Denmark
Great Britain

2005

Ireland
Great Britain
Denmark
Spain
Sweden

2006

Ireland
Great Britain
Denmark
Sweden
Germany

(Other competitors include e.g. at CEAFL Championships - Czech Republic, Finland, France, Austria, Croatia)

2007

Great Britain
Ireland
Denmark
Germany
Sweden

(Other competitors include e.g. at EU Cup - Spain, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Catalonia, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, Croatia)