THINK back to the first time you attempted a drop punt with an Aussie Rules football.
It didn’t spin perfectly and it probably didn’t go straight either.
But you were probably just a kid, right? Five or even younger, perhaps?
Spare a thought then for the thousands of Europeans trying to play our great game annually, many of whom have less than a years experience in our alien game, some who’ve never even seen an AFL game live.
Despite the at-times confusing nature of Aussie Rules, Europeans are gravitating to our great game in record numbers.
Clubs are popping up in exotic locations such as Iceland and Spain. Denmark, which was defeated by one point in a thrilling Euro Cup Grand Final in Edinburgh in September by Ireland, boasts one of the most highly-skilled teams outside of Australia — and the bulk of its squad is under 23.
One does not have to go far to stumble upon an Aussie Rules club in Europe. Some play in weekly competitions such as AFL London, which has a 10-week home and away season and four weeks of finals; others play when they can, like in Paris where social games are coordinated on a month-by-month basis.
That the game is now played in 60 countries outside of Australia is a statistic that would surprise many Aussies. However those involved with the game in the Northern Hemisphere are only too aware of its popularity here and its potential to grow.
The big wigs at AFL House are starting to take notice too. They have appointed a full-time administrator to run AFL Europe and help facilitate the game’s growth here.
That man, Ben MacCormack, who with his team has been working around the clock to ensure smooth running of next week’s AFL European Challenge, said the game in Europe is in such good shape that he could foresee the day when a non-Irish European would make his way onto an AFL list.
Denmark, which boasts players with a rare combination of skill, pace and size, seem best placed to serve up that offering first.
The side they sent to the Euro Cup would certainly give many Australian suburban and country clubs a run for their money.
Many of the Danes are on display in the curtain raiser at The Oval which will see AFL Europe All-Stars Islands take on the Continent lads.
Look out for Aksel Bang, a tough hard running midfielder from Denmark, who won best player in the Euro Cup in September. He’s a Brent Harvey type whose form on the day could dictate the outcome for the Continent boys.
Not surprisingly, the Islands team — made up of Great Britain and Ireland — boasts no less than eight Irishmen. The British team, which finished an impressive third at the Euro Cup, boast six representatives. Liam Corbett, who travels from Cardiff to play for West London in the AFL London competition is the sole Welsh representative, while 37-year-old Palle Finnsson has played in Iceland, Denmark and France.
The Continental team is a mix of mainland Europeans and Scandinavians. Croatia and Italy have emerged as keen enthusiasts of the game in the past five years and half a dozen players will participate next Saturday.
When you are watching the curtain raiser there is likely to be more clangers (skill errors) than you’re used to seeing. But rather than watching whether a drop punt spins perfectly off the boot or a mark is taken without fumbling, look at the two players’ eyes when they are contesting a disputed ball — then you will see that while this crazy game is alien to them, the passion and hunger for the contest is universal. Somehow, in such a short time, they’ve got the fire in the belly and the hunger to lay a tackle, put on a shepherd, score a goal and especially to celebrate.
“The curtain raiser is critical to developing our talent pathways in Europe,” AFL Europe’s Ben MacCormack said.
“It allows the best European players to showcase their skills in front of the biggest crowd they will have played in front of.
“There is some great young talent and some more experienced players that are all thrilled to get the opportunity to plan at a venue like this in the sport they love.”
First bounce in the JLT All-Starts curtain raiser match between the Continent All-Stars and Islands All-Stars, at the AFL Australian Football European Challenge this Saturday, is at 1pm.
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