The 2022 AFL Asian Championships at the Patana School Sports Complex in Bangkok were eagerly anticipated by all participants after the enforced 2-year hiatus.

In a single day lightning premiership format, 450 players from 11 countries formed 21 teams across 4 divisions. With games commencing at 7.40am across 2 ovals, all 44 matches were squeezed in by sunset thanks to a razor tight scheduling effort.

Commencing in 2000 as a predominately expatriate tournament, the Asian Championships has developed into a cross-cultural celebration of Australia’s indigenous code. The ever-expanding DNA pool is the result of local country development effort complemented by the AFL Asia’s fledgling Development Grants Program. With a sensible mix of formality and flexibility, the organisers have continued to emphasise participation, diversity and enjoyment.

The AFL’s International Development Manager Simon Highfield saw the tournament as an opportunity to reset and reinvigorate the code after a sustained period of inactivity and high player turnover in many of the jurisdictions. “The Thailand Tigers club have done a terrific job pulling the Championships together and it was great to see so many smiling faces kicking the Sherrin again”.

Always evolving, the 2022 event saw the introduction of an all-national Pakistan squad who provided the day’s overwhelming highlight. Their stirring Division 3 final triumph resulted in a joyous on-field celebration that drew in players, competitors and spectators alike. 

Other worthy winners were PNG (Div 1), Thailand (Div 2) and Singapore (AFLW), with teams from Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, HK, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines contributing to an amazing day of footy.

Most importantly, the event provided an opportunity for a unique blend of regional players to participate in a sport either ingrained or introduced.  

The Laotion miner

It was hard to miss Udone Southavong in his striking pink Laos guernsey. Udone is the proud captain of the Laos Elephants and has featured in many tournaments across Asia since 2008. With most of the 11 Lao nationals in the squad residing in Vientiane, Udone is the only team member from Pakse in the country’s south. Udone is a father of 2 who discovered footy whilst kicking with expatriate Australian miners at the world renowned Sepon copper and gold deposit which flanks the historically significant Ho Chi Minh trail. Udone is a key member of the mine’s safety and emergency team. 

Udone Southavong - The Laotian Miner

The Bagel Brother 

Nathan Milner has lived in Vietnam alongside older brother Sean for more than 10 years. Collectively known as the Bagel Brothers, the duo own commercial bakeries focusing on Cheesecakes and Bagels. Growing up in Lancefield (pop 1000), the adjustment to Ho Chi Minh City (pop 12m) was made easier upon discovering an enthusiastic and well organised Vietnam Swans AFL outfit. With their kitchens now employing 20 staff, the brothers are well progressed in the development of a socially progressive micro-franchise model that provides training and ownership opportunities to their Vietnamese team members.

Nath Milner - The Bagel Brother

The Cambodian students 

Sisters Sreymich and Sreymey Phat have become mainstays for the Cambodian Apsaras, featuring in the past three Asian Championships and Indo-China Cup tournaments. Both reside in the bustling capital of Phnom Penh where Sreymich studies fine arts and Sreymay is completing grade 12. The sisters were raised in Kandal province, where their village of 50 families is often transformed into an unique island community during the monsoon season. Sreymich has developed into a strong midfielder (named in the 2022 All Asian team) whilst Sreymey enjoys defence. Both play football for the team camaraderie and enjoyment of meeting people from other countries.

Sreymich and Sreymey Phat - The Cambodian Students

The applicant from Peshawar

Mohammed Haroon earned his position with the Pakistan Markhors the hard way. With tournament trials held in 6 Pakistani cities (including Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Multan, Swabi and Gujranwala), Haroon was one of only 4 players selected from the 450 applicants at the Swabi sessions in the country’s north-east. Haroon hails from Maneri Payan which is approximately 100km from Peshawar, the Pushtan melting pot and gateway city to Afghanistan. Pakistan coach Michael Gallus pulled together a national squad incorporating 5 language and ethnic groups including Haroon’s Swabi group. A key contributor to Pakistan’s inspirational Division 3 victory, Haroon is keen to continue playing AFL going forward.    

Mohammed Haroon - The Applicant From Peshawar

The Superbowl Running Back

Bali based Dawn Herring hails from Santa Cruz (California) and reluctantly agreed to train with the local women’s Bali Geckos outfit three years ago. Thriving under the tutelage of Essendon premiership star Ricky Olarenshaw, Dawn hasn’t missed a training since! Her rich sporting pedigree includes a stint with the Boston Militia grid-iron outfit that was successful in the IWFL World Championship (Superbowl equivalent). For the Bangkok championships, Dawn was named skipper of the Indonesian Volcanoes which featured players drawn predominately from the capital Jakarta and Bali. Dawn was also named in the All-Asian team for 2022.

Dawn Herring - The Superbowl Running Back

The MCG umpire  

Less than 2 months ago, umpire Hayden Gavine officiated in front of 91,000 fans at the exhilarating Geelong v Collingwood qualifying final at the MCG. Whilst the crowds were smaller for his first (of seven) allocated matches in Bangkok, Hayden was kept immediately busy in the bruising Vietnam v Laos Division 3 “local derby” in some stifling Bangkok morning humidity. With a keen interest in game development, Hayden was joined by AFL colleague Nathan Toner for the tournament, with both spread across a number of fixtures in partnership with the local umpiring fraternity. When not umpiring AFL finals, Hayden works as an exercise physiologist in Melbourne.  

Hayden Gavine - MCG Umpire

Rob Spurr is an AFL Asia Advisory Board member.

The article also appears in the Footy Almanac

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