Ben had worked with the AFL in NSW and ACT in development, as well as the ACT Government, before moving to Europe with the intent of working with the Olympics. He found out about the AFL Europe job through contacts and now works as the only full time Australian football officer in Europe.
AFL Europe was set up by the Australian football playing nations in Europe. It is responsible for the organisation of international tournaments including the 9 a side Euro Cup, the AIS Easter tours and the 18 a side European Championships. AFL Europe also assists with start up grants for new clubs, as well as general information and coaching and umpiring development.
AFL Europe is composed of 21 nations. There are 127 male teams and 5 female teams in the zone. There are around 50 youth teams, mostly based in the United Kingdom.
There are a number of new teams coming on board throughout Europe, including Wearside in England, as well as the Kingdom Kangaroos in the Scottish league. AFL Europe maintains a start up grant and assistance program that includes things like goal posts, footies, and donated equipment like jumpers from clubs back in Australia.
The number of expats – and thus the influence of the Australians on the game in Europe – is lessening as more and more Europeans get involved in the game. Some countries, like Croatia have no Australians involved, while the French have about 10-12 Australians out of 200 players.
Ben says that the big international tourneys are vital to the the running of the competition, because some leagues are so far apart that its very easy to feel isolated and being able to gather together with like minded individuals who are having the same troubles and fighting the same fights.
The Axios Euro Cup this year was held in Bordeaux, France. England played France in the final before almost 2000 non football playing or coaching personnel. Eleven nations were featured in the tournament, and the Crusaders (an amalgamated side from countries who couldnt send a team).
The European Championship is an 18 a side competition, that is held every three years, typically the year before the International Cup to get the sides some prerparation. This year only six sides competed in Dublin, with a number of sides unable to make it due to numbers withdrawing. Ben says all things favourable, there are probably 10 -12 countries that could put together a full 18 a side team.
At last count, Ben says the number of Australian football players in Europe has cleared five thousand registered participants, with a lot of those in the United Kingdom, and that the numbers have grown year on year since they began to be collected a couple of years ago.
The United Kingdom has several junior programs, Ben tells me that activities are held in Newcastle, Wolverhampton and Huddersfield.
Ben says that junior footy in Europe has other little programs running all over Europe without their being a singe Europe wide program (like Auskick/Kiwikick/footywild/footykids). Iinvesting in junior footy is time, finance and resource intensive, and one of the challenges for AFL Europe is to set up a self sustaining and viable program, as well as balancing the demands of 21 different countries.
The biggest barriers to growth according to Ben, are the lack of development officers who can focus on promotion and development. AFL Europe believes the game is strong and has a great product, but it likes the money to be able to really make a strong case.
Ben also mentions that AFL Europe is talking with a company called AussieX which has had some success in Canada which is self funding and self reliant. It delivers an Australian experience – cricket, australian football and netball to thousands of children in Canada. AFL Europe is examining whether this kind of program could work in Europe.
Ben hopes to see the game develop a stable base. He’s realistic saying that radical shifts are unlikely – he doesnt expect the game to take over Europe in the next few years, but does believe that its a generational thing. He wants people to have a great experience playing footy, and have that experience shared with their children. With that in mind, Ben says that it could be twenty years before we see any kind of wide shift.
If you would like to be involved in Australian footy in Europe, please visit the website at ww.afleurope.org. The site has a list of countries with clubs you can join, or if you are moving to a country with no footy, get in touch with AFL Europe. Ben says that clubs and eventually leagues have gotten started simply from a couple of guys going down to the park for a kick.
Finally, Ben says that the following countries are in need of assistance for the International Cup – France, Great Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Germany, Austria, Iceland, Ireland Women, European Crusaders Women (team with French, Swedish, Italians, Swiss, English and Scottish players). Whether it be sponsorship, hosting or other assistance, if you are interested please contact AFL Europe through their website