I have been living in Melbourne for more than 6 years, but for the first two years I had found it challenging to penetrate into the “Australian life”. I had never strayed too far from the Indonesian bubble. It’s not that I didn’t want to blend in; it’s just that I didn’t know how.
That started to change after I befriended a small group of Australians, one of them an Australian of Macedonian descent. And then he introduced me to Australian Rules football.
As an avid (or rather, tragic) Collingwood loyal, he brought me to a Collingwood vs Carlton match. Little did I know that that sparked a journey that would set me on a path I’ve been looking for since I first arrived.
I’m not quite sure how for 20 years I had survived living a life blissfully unaware of AFL. For the past few years I have been going to at least 15 matches each season, my eyes are transfixed by Fox Footy all weekend and I can barely resist the temptation of checking Supercoach live scores every 5 minutes. This year, I’ve started working as an AFL Multicultural Community Ambassador with Richmond FC. I now live and breathe AFL.
I have always wanted to feel like I belong here, and the great game goes a long way in making me feel like I finally do.
Path to becoming a convert
The thing is though, my journey in becoming a convert is almost fully by chance. I stumbled upon it. I had to almost literally be dragged by a friend to go to a match. The AFL as an institution played virtually no part in converting me. This is both discouraging and encouraging.
It is discouraging because despite all of AFL’s effort in promoting multiculturalism and in reaching out to communities, it still had not been able to reach a most relevant target audience – international students and active members of a diaspora (and ones who are already obsessed with sport – i.e. Indonesian students).
It is encouraging because despite that, the AFL can still lure complete strangers to the game without any effort on its part. Imagine what would happen if it can tap into more target audiences.
This is not to say that they haven’t been trying. Far from it, the AFL has made a concerted effort to become a truly multicultural sport.
Reaching out to marginal communities
The AFL claims that multicultural players make up 15 per cent of the player list as it makes various overtures in promoting multiculturalism. The most public one is the Multicultural Round. It strives to celebrate “Many Cultures” as it promotes it to be “One Game – Australia’s Game”.
A key element of its work is the Multicultural Ambassadors – both Player Ambassadors and Community Ambassadors. Player Ambassadors consist of the likes of Nic Naitanui, Nick Malceski, David Zaharakis, Lin Jong and Bachar Houli, perhaps the most notable player for his work in promoting multiculturalism through Bachar Houli Academy.
Community Ambassadors, though less known to the public eye, are doing the all-important work on the ground, in collaboration with the clubs and AFL Victoria.
Richmond FC has been very supportive of my effort in introducing AFL to the Indonesian diaspora in Melbourne. The Tigers has also done valuable work in engaging with the Indian community, particularly considering the challenging times the Indian diaspora experienced several years ago.
Nasya Bahfen, last year’s Multicultural Community Ambassador of the Year, has been doing significant work with North Melbourne’s The Huddle.
The Huddle itself is an excellent example of how the AFL can help address social problems. It strives to address disengagement among youths from migrant and refugee backgrounds in North Melbourne, Flemington, Kensington and Wyndham.
This program also shows AFL’s conscious effort in reaching out to marginal communities, and it is best reflected by its significant investment in reaching out to Western Sydney.
Bahfen, a journalism lecturer at Monash Universtiy, wrote that the AFL debut of the GWS Giants is the culmination of the AFL to “make inroads into the rugby league-obsessed, poor and predominantly refugee and migrant neighbourhoods on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks in Australia’s largest city’.
She also points out that AFL has thrown “everything but the kitchen sink” at the sea by building new stadiums, and devoting resources into programs and events to get members of the community to playing the game.
One must wonder: has all of this effort paid of? Why were they doing it in the first place?
Off-field and on-field progress – artificial or substantial?
It is always challenging to measure the true success of such effort, as numbers are difficult to obtain and even when they exist, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Fifteen per cent of the entire playing list is not an insignificant chunk, but when the numbers are closely examined, it portrays a different story.
There are approximately 476.000 Muslims in Australia; Bachar Houli, the returning Saint Ahmed Saad and emerging Suns Adam Saad are the only few Muslim players in the list. The number of Australians of Asian descent and Asian migrants in Australia is even bigger, yet Lin Jong is the only player in the list with an Asian ancestry.
This raises another question in measuring progress. Which is more important: off-field or on-field? Can one really be considered a success without significant gains in the other?
As previously shown, there is not much else that the AFL can do off-field. It has made a concerted effort to encourage multicultural communities to be engaged with the game; it even attempts to be a catalyst for social progress. This needs to be commended.
To a certain extent, the progress it has made off the field makes up for whatever shortcomings it has on the field. However, if the ultimate goal is to become a ‘multicultural game’, the AFL might still have its work cut out to ensure there is a satisfiable spread of multicultural communities represented in the game.
The conundrum – Australia’s Game
The AFL can stake a legitimate claim to be Australia’s Game, despite what those above the Barassi line might say. The AFL Grand Final remains the biggest sporting event in the Australian calendar (at least in Melbourne). It is Australia’s Super Bowl.
The AFL gives you access to be part of the Australian society, as I have experienced. Just by being obsessed with the game, I have become much more accessible. The inevitable otherness that my foreign background exudes starts to erode.
As I seamlessly navigate into conversations about that ridiculous decision (or non-decision) made by the score review or share the endless frustration of the inconsistencies in applying the holding the ball rule, Australians can reasonably see me more as “one of us”.
However, the idea of AFL as Australia’s Game poses an inevitable conundrum. If it is “Australia’s” Game, can it truly be everyone’s game?
The problem with it being Australia’s game is that it also unwittingly implies that only Australians can fully engage with the game. There will be a significant element in the society who doesn’t consider them to be Australians. If this is the case, how can they embrace Australia’s Game if they’re not part of it?
These are the questions that not just the AFL needs to answer, but also for the Australian society as a whole to address. How can multicultural communities embrace Australia if they feel from the outset that they are not part of it, or sometimes worse, be rejected from it?
This, in a sense, speaks to a larger issue with the idea of multiculturalism and the idea of Australia. They are not necessarily incompatible, but they are not wholly integrated with one another. If the AFL truly wants to reinvent itself as a multicultural game, it needs to figure out how to reconcile it with the idea of AFL as Australia’s Game.
Ultimately, sport can be a powerful unifying force. If by addressing those challenging questions the AFL can bring Australia one step closer to reconciling its identity, if the AFL can help Australia celebrate the strength of its diversity, then it is a goal worth pursuing.