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AFLG growing towards the future

  • Tuesday, February 07 2012 @ 08:26 pm ACDT
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Australian expatriate Kate O'Halloran is currently in Berlin, juggling her work as a journalist with completion of a PhD through Sydney University. She also recently came onboard to cover the Australian Football League Germany for World Footy News - read on for her latest article on the AFLG's origins and more recent developments which have seen the national league grow to six teams and the creation of local leagues in three separate cities.

AFL and Germany. Two terms barely used in combination, and not without reason. The game that has captured the heart of a nation in Australia barely registers a blip on the German media radar. This year saw one small exception: Andrew Walker’s spectacular grab over Essendon’s Jake Carlisle made its way onto popular news portal web.de, prompting an influx of comments asking what this ‘crazy’ sport was.

This small bit of publicity was a dream for the organisers and players in the AFLG (AFL Germany) league. For them, establishing an AFL following and competition in Germany is difficult, but not impossible, and much progress has been made. In October last year, the AFLG played its 9th grand final – between the Berlin Crocodiles and Rheinland Lions - in front of a crowd of around 500, and recorded its greatest ever participation numbers of around 300.

Julien Kann, vice-president of the league, is astonished at how far the AFLG has come. While the league began in 1995, it was really nothing more than a social game between some ex-pat Aussies.

‘It was more of a kick and giggle with a handful of ex-pats and a couple of Irish,’ he said.

‘They were very social events. Football was perhaps secondary!’

Julien Kann grew up in Australia and has a long history of involvement with the AFL. His father, Brian Kann, played for Hawthorn, is a board and life member, and social club president. Julien grew up one of four sons in a Hawks-mad family, but now devotes his time to being president of one of the founding clubs of the AFLG, The Munich Kangaroos. The Kangaroos were the first AFLG team to be established, quickly followed by the Frankfurt Redbacks. While games remained mostly social, this paved the way for more serious expansion to start. In 2011, the AFLG had six teams, with one more – the Leverkusen Wombats – likely to join in 2013. It has also spawned 3 metro leagues (in Munich, Berlin and Stuttgart) and contributed to the national German team’s steady rise up the international ranks (now ranked 13th overall).

Troy Pedder, who coached the national side in the Euro Cup in Belfast late last year, has personally witnessed the transformation in numbers and interest in AFL in Germany. ‘When I started I had 10 players that wanted to play and now we have over 40 top players trying to make the squad,’ he said.

Pedder played both junior and senior footy in Australia, but lost his spark for the game and eventually quit. Since coming to Germany however, the travel and friendship opportunities offered by the AFLG have drawn him back in. In 2011, he coached the national team, took the Berlin Crocodiles to their maiden AFLG Grand Final and founded the local, 4-team competition in Berlin. Pedder engaged in a fierce sponsorship drive to make the competition sustainable, and won the logistical support of 4 AFL clubs: the Dockers, Crows, Eagles and Demons after whom the Berlin teams are named.

On their best night for the season, the Berlin League was able to attract 55 players, none of which belong to the Crocodiles team affiliated with the AFLG. The league is competitive, but in such a foreign market, recruitment is key.

‘Winning is important but development is the driving body behind this league,’ Pedder said.

Although participation numbers in the AFLG have increased by 5-10% each year, recruitment remains an issue.

There are several reasons why recruitment is difficult, including quality and availability of grounds, difficulty in translating the rules to spectators, competition from more ‘traditional’ European sports, playing costs and risk of injury. Some progress has been made in all of these areas, but there is work still to be done. The Stuttgart Emus still play with a baseball mound on the wing of their field, for example. Nonetheless, one of the most persistent barriers – having mostly transient ex-pat players fill the teams – is slowly being eroded.

The Rheinland Lions - AFLG premiers for 4 out of the last 5 years - are testament to this fact. Coach and player Anthony Garland believes that their contingent of local German players (which at 75% is the highest in the league) is the secret to their success. Garland himself lived in Germany for 10 years before he even knew the AFLG existed. Having been involved with the AFLG for just two years, he has nonetheless seen vast changes in recruiting and promotion.

In his time, all sorts of strategies have been employed to get Germans into the game, but success is hit and miss. Garland noted that ‘almost 50%’ of Rheinland’s AFL team also play soccer, even though Kann argued that soccer players are often ‘intimidated’ by the physical nature of the AFL. For Kann, it is therefore difficult to decide on which European sports to target for AFLG recruitment, although popular contact sports like Handball and Ice Hockey have so far yielded promising results.

Although players enter the AFLG aware that it is a contact sport, many are shocked by the extent of injury. ‘In Australia there is a common knowledge that injury is just part of the game. It’s definitely not the case here, as we have had a couple of promising German players injured in their first or second game and they have never returned,’ Kann noted. Garland agreed that the risk of injury is a problem.

‘Medical care in Germany is fantastic, however at the games it is not good, usually players have to wait a long time for an ambulance to come if a serious injury occurs,’ he said.

Despite these dangers, the growing participation numbers testify to the fact that more locals are slowly catching the AFL bug.

It is quite an achievement given the sacrifices many make to participate. Germany is not much bigger than Victoria in land mass, but the costs to travel across the country can be huge. Kann estimates that it costs around AUD$1600-2700 to send a team across the country for an away game.

As seems to be necessary in such a fledgling market, those involved are doing whatever they can to ensure the game grows.

‘The good-will between the clubs is great and usually beds are made available when needed,’ Garland said. Players will often offer up their houses to players from opposition teams, although as the competition becomes more fierce, offers have started to dry up.

Nonetheless, greater competition means greater numbers and investment in the game. For the growth of the AFLG, one can only hope it continues.