Footy Diplomacy

*Many fans of Australian rules football like to think of it as the world’s greatest game. Yet this grand assertion is often accompanied by an awareness that it is a professional sport, in only one, sparsely-populated country in which it competes directly against the rugby codes for interest during winter. The dominant administrative body of Australian rules, AFL, is aware of the global pull and power of (association) football, and even a cricket resurgence in the 20-20 guise.  As such, the AFL is continually looking to expand both its pool of potential players as well as to reach a new audience. China is the latest big adventure for the head honchos of the AFL, see Shanghai Surprise. Below, Tim Flicker writes of links that have been established and strengthened through footy.

Footy Diplomacy, AFL Indonesia and IC14

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has recently developed an Australian sports diplomacy strategy between 2015-2018. In the strategy they note, “Sport is a universal language and plays a unique role in showcasing and shaping Australia’s identity, values and culture.” To this point, over 2,000 Indonesians have been exposed to Aussie rules in local schools, organisations and community groups. Iain Shearer, a footy-advocate and former resident in Indonesia, wants to see Indonesians become as passionate about Aussie rules as Australians. He believes Aussie rules is a great way to get people interested in Australian culture and to build a stronger relationship between the two countries.

Boy Pasaribu1

Australians and Indonesians already share a common love for (association) football. Yet, there are very few cross-overs between Indonesian and Australian footballers and teams (see Robbie Gaspar’s article, here). There are rarely friendlies between the two nations and there are no Indonesian footballers playing in the A-League. Many opportunities exist for developing stronger football links between the two nations, just as there are opportunities to broaden the market and interest of Australian rules football.

Over the past two decades, footy in Indonesia has expanded and is fulfilling its mission of bringing the game of Aussie rules to Indonesia. Initially, this began through the Jakarta Bintangs conducting local development programs with Indonesians. In 2007, a more structured approach was sought with the assistance of the Australia-Indonesia Institute. This allowed the Bintangs to apply for a volunteer through the Australian government’s Australia-Youth Ambassador Development (AYAD now known as AVID) program. In 2009, after approaching the AFL, and showing them the work that had been undertaken, the branding of AFL Indonesia was created.


Bayu Pratama moved to Australia from Indonesia while still at high school. For Bayu, sport and indeed footy have been life changing and helped him feel at home in Australia.

“Sport changed my life here. I grew up with soccer until the age of 14, never had any ambition to play soccer seriously as a career. After coming to Melbourne, sports settled me down and (made me) able to interact with others. I remember back in English Language Centre, some of my friends taught me how to play footy. In year 10, I started to take footy seriously and I felt so incompetent when I couldn’t kick a drop punt. I want(ed) to become part of that and after a few years playing I can pretty much say they acknowledge me and I feel accepted. Sports play a big part in my life so far and they really helped me settle in Australia.”

In 2014, the Indonesia Garudas competed for the first time at the International Cup (IC14), an international AFL competition held in Melbourne every three years. Despite ending the competition with one win from five matches, Iain saw the tournament as a huge success for Indonesia and Australia.

The Garudas played five pool games in an 18-nation competition. The first two games were against Nauru and Fiji, who are very experienced and successful AFL nations. The less experienced and smaller Garudas won a lot of respect and praise for their fearless performance despite being easily beaten. The third game was against more experienced middle-tier France. This game was played at Diggers Rest Football Club and Indonesia played very competitively, but couldn’t translate that into a winning score. Sweden was next, with Indonesia leading at half time only to fall just short in the end. The Garudas beat India in their final game. But, to Iain IC14 was as much about repaying the efforts of the Garudas, who had stuck with footy despite family pressures to give up playing the sport. To him the sacrifices these players make to represent their country need to be recognised. “I cannot think of any other country that plays AFL where players travel for two hours in a rickety old bus every week just for training without shoes. That level of commitment needs respect.”

Iain identifies Bombok Hariyanto and Boy Sabar Pasaribu as two of the success stories of AFL Indonesia. At IC14 Bombok competed as a player while Boy was one of the Garudas coaches. Both men were first introduced to the sport via AFL Indonesia’s programs in schools and have continued to play the sport and are now lifelong AFL fans.

Bayu was a member of the Indonesia Garudas team for IC14. For him the tournament was an unforgettable experience, “My experience from IC14 is beyond my expectations, the thrill and also the pride of representing my country, there’s nothing [that] can beat that. We (the team) had good times even when we lost against other teams by big margins. We knew we had the ability, our resilience and the willingness to win paid off in the last game against India.”

Iain hopes that the Garudas will be back for IC17, but this is largely dependent on being able to obtain funding and sponsorship. As Iain points out, the costs for accommodation, airfares and visas really add up and when you are trying to send 40 players. In the meantime, Iain wants to try and find Indonesian talent such as Bayu living in Australia to also join the team. The answer was along with the help of Nasya Bahfen and Ghian Muhammad to form the Krakatoas, AFL Indonesia’s first team based in Melbourne.

The Krakatoas- An Intercultural Experiment

The Krakatoas is an AFL 9’s team founded in 2015. The team features a mixture of Indonesian and Australian players both female and male. The primary objective of the team is to introduce Indonesians to footy and to make new friends with Australians.

Co-founder of the Krakatoas Nasya Bahfen says there was actually several reasons behind the formation of the Krakatoas including the fact that Indonesia had previously competed in the Harmony Cup, the Garuda’s successful IC14 campaign and the fact that four Indonesia community members were already acting as AFL multicultural ambassadors. “The founders of the Krakatoas were Iain Shearer from AFL Indonesia, and Ghian Muhammad who is my colleague based at Monash, at the Australia-Indonesia Centre, and me – and we all kind of thought it was a good time and a good way to tap into the sports mad, twenty thousand plus Indonesian community in Melbourne, and to develop the Indonesia-Australia relationship through sport.”

Nasya also volunteers as the cultural ambassador for the North Melbourne Football Club. For her sport plays an important role in bringing people together. “Sport is such a great leveler, and part of my work as an academic and as a volunteer with the North Melbourne Football Club involves working in the space of sport and social cohesion.” She sees sport as a way to help improve mental well-being and particularly wants to see more women get involved in sport, “the benefits of playing sport particularly for women are well researched, in terms of the physical and emotional well-being that comes with playing regular sport. But there are also indications that involvement with organised sport through either playing or supporting a team helps with inclusion, and with things like overcoming feelings of marginalisation.”

To Nasya, footy provides a great way to bring Indonesians together with Australians. “In the case of Indonesians in Australia, footy has been a great way of bringing together Indonesians and Australians, and we’ve done this by starting a small with the Krakatoas, but we want to build on it and introduce more Indonesians to Aussie rules.”

“Focusing on what our team is doing, we want to expand on the Krakatoas possibly being inspired by clubs like the Shaheens who are from the Pakistani community here in Melbourne. They’re a multi-sport organisation, and while the Krakatoas want to continue developing their footy, they also want to branch out into sports like netball and futsal. A lot of the Indonesian Krakatoas players are actually Indonesian citizens and the coach, Iain, worked closely with the last national side to compete in the AFL International Cup, the Garudas in 2014. So there will be lots more from Indonesians and footy to come.”

Too Much Idealism?

It might be a little idealistic to think that arguing over interchange-caps and deliberate-out-of-bounds decisions will help cool intense and parochial slanging matches between foreign and domestic affairs ministers regarding refugees or the execution of drug traffickers. The willingness of many Indonesians both in Australia and Indonesia to engage and play ‘the Australian game’ is evidence of an openness to this often over-hyped element of Australian culture. What remains to be seen is whether Australians are also willing to take that step to meet Indonesians and engage with them  on their own terms.


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