Chen_AFLAsia_Player2_0505 Zhang_AFLAsia_Player1_0505FROM: Australia Plus, by Sarah Clarke

Taking Aussie rules football to China
Updated 6 May 2015, 17:01 AEST
Sarah Clarke
A growing number of Chinese nationals are embracing Australia’s favourite sport by joining the Australian Football League in China.

He may have only been on the field for three years, but Chen Shao Ling is proud of his short but successful AFL career. He played in last year’s international cup and is the captain of Team China.

He’s also the highest goal scorer in the South China Australian football league and considered one of the “gun” players.

“I love footy,” Chen Shao Ling says. “I played basketball before AFL, but when I play footy I don’t want to play basketball anymore. Footy is more fun. It’s a real game.”

He’s one of a growing number of Chinese nationals who have signed up to the Australian Football League (AFL) in southern China. There are now six teams actively playing in the region and Australian football club Port Adelaide is leading the campaign to grow partnerships in this lucrative market.

Chen Shao Ling, Captain of Team China. (Image: ABC)
Chen Shao Ling, Captain of Team China. (Image: ABC)

The club’s CEO Keith Thomas says Port wants to invest in new and non-traditional areas through its “China strategy”.

“This partnership is about building relationships with people and businesses,” Keith says. “We want to invest in China, develop cross-cultural partnerships, and more possibilities will emerge,”

The club has sponsored the China national AFL team that tours Australia every three years. It’s also sponsored the South China and Guangdong AFL competitions.

Darren Whitfield is the President of the South China AFL. He says the players are fast and their passion for the game is driving the sport.

“There’s definitely no question the players are passionate,” he says. “Nothing makes me happier than watching these Chinese boys go hard at the ball and cheer on their mates playing Aussie rules.

“We have some players with great experience. We have others who are new to the game but young and fit. It all evens out when you’re playing in the heat of the Asian summer!”

Zhang Hao from Team China, in Hong Kong (Image: ABC)
Zhang Hao from Team China, in Hong Kong (Image: ABC)

Port Adelaide football club wants more players to join, and is running a recruitment campaign through local Chinese players like Zhang Hao. He’s from Jilin province in the north east of China. Now the manager of Team China, he has been playing Australian rules football for 7 years.

“My dream is to improve China’s ability to play in the international cup. I want to bring more good players to Australia to play footy,” Zhang Hao says.

“AFL is a man’s sport. It’s fast and all about teamwork. We want to build on the big games and make it a big league here in the future.”

Team China and Pearl River Power play in Hong Kong. (Image: ABC)
Team China and Pearl River Power play in Hong Kong. (Image: ABC)

Part of the campaign to grow the sport is to hold AFL games in different cities. Port Adelaide has organised a game between Team China and Pearl River Power in Hong Kong. Both teams of Chinese nationals are made up mainly of university students. They’re young, fit and keen to showcase the sport.

The game is played at the Hong Kong Football club on an oval surrounded by towering skyscrapers. But not even the horrendous humidity or soaring temperatures could dampen the spirits of these AFL enthusiasts.

“This sport is fantastic. There are handball skills, kicking skills, so many skills. I am not good enough but I am tough enough,” says Zhang Hao.

The audience is comprised largely of Australians, but every so often, a local walks by a little confused even intrigued by what sport is being played on this oval.

It may be a long way from Australia, but Keith Thomas, the CEO of Port Adelaide hopes that having a presence in China will see returns both on and off the field.

“We are showing the China market that we are here for the long term, and not just here to grab a sponsorship cheque,” he says.

Team China and Pearl River Power play at the Hong Kong Football Club. (Image: ABC)
Team China and Pearl River Power play at the Hong Kong Football Club. (Image: ABC)
Next year, the Port Adelaide Aboriginal academy team will play the Chinese national team in the seasons between the AFL International Cup series.

Team China’s captain Chen Shao Ling is confident that the sport has a solid future in the region.

“AFL has changed my life. I think AFL is a real game and we are growing. We win together, we lose together, we are always together. It’s showed me wonderful teamwork. That’s the spirit of the AFL.”

With players like Chen Shao Ling as an ambassador for the code, Port Adelaide’s play into China is off to a strong start.

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