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(originally published in 2008 to Helium writing site, now gone)
Australian rules football is becoming increasingly popular in a number of other countries. This is mainly due to expatriate Australians living overseas as well as the media and others promoting the game internationally. Leagues exist in at least 25 countries in all continents.
The first overseas countries to play Australian football were New Zealand and South Africa by Victorian gold miners who had been attracted to these countries by gold rushes. By 1900, New Zealand had 115 clubs. At the Jubilee Australasian Football Carnival in 1908, the New Zealand team beat two Australian states, New South Wales and Queensland, although rugby was very much the predominant code in those states at the time. During World War I (1914-1918), Australian servicemen played the game in England, France, Belgium and Egypt. Overseas games then almost disappeared, with the notable exception of the annual match between England’s Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Gradually, other overseas countries began playing Australian rules football. Nauru, an island nation north-east of Australia, adopted it in the 1930s after Nauruan children returned from stints in Australian schools. It soon became the national sport. Nauru has 12 teams and a match can attract up to 3,000 spectators, or 30 per cent of the island’s population, making it the only country outside Australia where the game is a major spectator sport.
Australian servicemen played the game in a number of countries during World War II (1939-1945), including Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt and Algiers. Servicemen played in Vietnam in the 1960s against local residents. The popularity of the game in Papua New Guinea has grown rapidly since the 1960s, with various international games and tours in the 1970s. They have 2,000 senior players in 46 clubs in seven competitions, and 8,000 juniors. The biggest crowd to see a game in Papua New Guinea was 5,000 at their 1999 grand final at Port Moresby. Matches from Australia are shown live on television. Their national team, the Mosquitoes, beat New Zealand in the 2008 Australian Football International Cup.
Overseas exhibition matches started in 1963, attracting large crowds and doing much to boost the sport’s popularity. The first match in Honolulu on 20 October drew a crowd of 1,500 to see Melbourne play Geelong. A game in San Francisco six days later attracted 3,500 people. The largest crowd to attend an Australian football match overseas was 32,789 at B.C. Place, Toronto where Melbourne played Sydney on 9 October 1987. Other good crowds to exhibition games include 25,000 in 1986 at Yokohama, 24,639 in 1989 at Toronto, and 18,884 in 2005 at London. Other countries to host these games have been India, Singapore, Greece, New Zealand, South Africa, and United Arab Emirates. The matches resulted in leagues being formed in many of these countries.
Australian rules football in neighboring New Zealand was revived in 1974. A national team, the Falcons, was formed in 1995 and has performed well in international competitions. About 600 senior players compete in four leagues, while junior participation has exploded to 16,000. Four exhibition matches between 1991 and 2001 attracted an average of about 9,000 spectators. Live coverage in New Zealand of Australian Football League (AFL) matches started in 2006.
Competitions started in Japan, England, Denmark and Canada in the 1980s. Australian football in Japan goes back to 1910 when it was played in four high schools. Interest was revived in the late 1980s after two exhibition matches. Japan has four leagues, 15 clubs and 600 adult players, with over 80 per cent being Japanese nationals. In England, the game had been played by Australian expatriates, servicemen and visiting teams since about 1870. It now has 600 senior players in 20 clubs, and 3,000 juniors. Local grand finals attract up to 1,500 people. English fans see three live matches from Australia a week. Canada had more than 500 seniors and 300 juniors in 21 clubs in 2007, with participation up 70 cent on 2006 and 95 per cent on 2005. Live matches from Australia are seen on television.
In the 1990s, Australian football leagues commenced in Sweden, Germany, the United States, Argentina, Spain, Samoa, South Africa, and some south-east Asian countries. The United States has 2,000 registered adult players in 28 clubs in several leagues, with participation more than doubling in two years. Most players are American. The largest crowd to see an Australian football match in the Unites States was 14,787 at Portland in 1990. Americans see regular matches from Australia on television. South Africa has 2,000 adult players and 4,000 juniors in 100 clubs. An exhibition match at Cape Town in 1998 attracted more than 10,000 spectators.
Since 2000, league competition has begun in Ireland, Tonga, Scotland, France, China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Catalonia, Croatia, Norway, Bermuda and East Timor. Most players in Indonesia, China and Pakistan are nationals. In China, while only 70 adults play, 9,000 juniors attended clinics and 18 schools added Australian football as a sport. Popularity of the game is Ireland has been boosted by the annual series of hybrid rules games between the Australian national team and the Irish Gaelic football national team since 1967, often bringing in crowds of over 20,000 in both Ireland and Australia.
Other international competitions include the Arafura Games which are an international sporting event held in Darwin and have included Australian football matches since 1995. The Australian Football International Cup has been held in Victoria every three years since 2002 between overseas countries. In 2008, 16 nations competed.
Junior development and competitions in Australian football are conducted in a number of countries, including Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Denmark, United States, Canada, Nauru, Tonga and Samoa. The Barassi International Australian Football Youth Tournament began in 1998 and is held in Canberra with countries such as New Zealand, South Africa, United States, Denmark, Nauru and Samoa competing.
Potential barriers to the spread of Australian football in other countries are several. The game is played on a large oval field that also usually serves as a cricket ground in summer. These grounds are up to twice as long as a soccer, rugby or gridiron field and suitable venues can be hard to find in many countries. A team has 18 players on the field at any one time, more than other football codes. A successful compromise to these problems has been nine-a-side games on soccer and rugby grounds. Another issue is that other football codes are firmly entrenched in most countries and people can be reluctant to support a code they know little or nothing about.
Despite these hurdles, the number of Australian football players in other countries increased from 16,000 in 2006 to about 35,000 in 2007, although none play professionally. While participation has increased rapidly in recent years, the game remains a major sport in Australia only, with 600,000 registered players. This may change in the years ahead, with international competitions, junior programs, and media coverage expanding all the time.