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Visa changes bad news for footy growth

  • Saturday, August 08 2009 @ 01:40 pm ACST
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General News

After the significant success of the AFL Oceania match at the Pacific Islands Leaders' Forum in Cairns it is unfortunate to have to report on a setbackl for the game's growth. Two of Australian football's great recent success stories have been the return to football by Nauru and the surge of talented Papua New Guineans playing in Australian leagues. Sadly both endeavours have suffered major setbacks in 2009 as Australia's visa system has changed to restrict visitors working.

The change has completely stopped the program that saw many Nauruans play in country Victoria in 2008, which was a key to their dramatic improvement and helped them re-start the game at home. For AFLPNG the setback saw some of their most talented young players sent back to Papua New Guinea, potentially hurting their chances of being drafted.

The AFL, AFL Oceania and the Australian Government have been in discussions to find a way to reduce the undoubted damage these changes have caused, and the Cairns match shows there is plenty of goodwill towards Australia's indigenous game, but to the best of our knowledge an ideal solution has yet to be found.

worldfootynews.com has sat on the story at the request of our contacts while the negotiations continued. That in itself was a difficult issue, but obviously this site exists to promote and report on Australian football, so we have to balance breaking stories with not damaging the sport - burning bridges can prevent a lot of good work occuring. Our understanding is that any changes are now settled, although we don't have all the details yet.

The primary ways of coming to Australia on a visa are through a sporting visa or a working visa. Both have restrictions and can be difficult to obtain, especially for people from developing countries. Australia has suffered far less from the recent global economic downturn than most countries, even avoiding a technical recession thus far. But with rising unemployment locally access to Australia's labour market has been made more difficult through visa changes (possible just a more strict interpretation of the regulations).

The highest profile players affected thus far have been Gold Coast Football Club recruit from PNG, Stanis Susuve and countryman Emmaus Wartovo, who was starring for East Davenport in the Northern Tasmania Football League. Both players, along with numerous other Papuans, were forced to return home and hope a new arrangement could be reached. In the meantime they have missed crucial matches, potentially damaging their future prospects and the "brand" of international football, at a time when Aussie clubs are only just starting to see the potential.

This development was particularly surprising and disappointing given the apparent good relationship between the AFL and the new Federal Government, and the declaration of Australian football as an export product. worldfootynews.com understands that the AFL, primarily through AFL Oceania, have worked hard to find a compromise arrangement to allow international footballers to continue to come to Australia. Any such result is still likely to curtail the number of players able to enter the country. Proposals included the concept of an AFL-approved list of under 23 year old possible future AFL draftees, although that would clearly limit opportunities for lower level players who are still vital to growing the game back home.

Happily Stanis Susuve and Emmaus Wartovo are back in Australia. It's believed Susuve and teammate Amua Pirika have had their experience limited by both injury (Pirika), the visa issue (Susuve) and the need to rotate many players through the GC side as the coaching staff learn what their players have to offer - 2010 will see a huge influx of some of the nation's best talent so holding a spot will be enormously difficult.

Wartovo has proved to be such a success in Tasmania that the local media featured an article noting how sorely he was missed during his over two month absence:

"Most of East Devonport's early success can be put down to the exciting import as he took the game to a whole new level, taking his team-mates along for the ride. Since Wartovo's departure the Swans have won only once, including a 96-point thumping by Smithton and the embarrassing stat of only managing one goal for the entire game against Latrobe. They are third on the ladder but their percentage will not help them if they continue on their slide".

For the Nauruans the experience has once again been very difficult, and the 2009 changes are by no means their first hassles with the system after difficulties in previous years. The Chiefs' 2008 International Cup coach, Australian Wes Illig, voiced his frustrations to WFN.

"The impact on Nauru footy was that the pathway or representative chance was taken away. Nauruans played firstly on a 3 month visitors visa, they were told that this could not happen again and would be blacklisted form Australian visas if they did. Then we all applied for sporting visas which were knocked back on the grounds of elite representation. Must be at International standard which we argued we were because we were competing in an international event. After the International Cup ministers from each country began talks on how best to improve the situation, however once again all four clubs who tried to get visas were knocked back, despite following the best advice. The Department of Immigration simply keep shifting the goalposts on us.

The situation with Nauru is as it stands coming to standstill. The clubs down here have had enough of trying to fight through the red tape and frankly may not pursue the idea in the future. If I went through the issue for all the clubs they would once again come on board because they love these people, both on and off the field".

Our limited enquiries thus far have not uncovered any other countries suffering similar problems to PNG and Nauru, in some cases because no players have attempted to make the journey. AFL Oceania have informed WFN that the situation is looking better although we still wonder what the future holds for exchanges of players that aren't likely AFL draft prospects.

At the end of the day the Australian Government has to run the visa program how it sees fit, and if unemployment is rising and they feel that international visitors playing football and taking on local jobs to support themselves will damage the economy then that is something they and the people who vote for them have to weigh up. It may not be an issue about football as such, more the precedent it would set for other industries. But from Australian football's perspective, hopefully the long term picture of the sport being a product that can grow to benefit Australia will not be forgotten. Again, the Pacific Islands Leaders Forum was a very good sign, let's hope there are more positives to come.