The air is hot, the sun has set, the crowd is tense. A small platoon’s worth of uniformed players are ready as the ball launches across the field. Sweaty shoulders crash and slide together, and everyone fights for one thing: that yellow Sherrin. It falls to the ground, followed by a mad cluster of scrambling bodies. A player takes it, rushes to drop it on his right foot, and it floats between two tall posts, standing sentinel at the end of the field. As it sails through, the crowd begins to roar, and the Singapore Sharks lift their heads high.
Over the last few years, the AFL has tried to bring footy to an international audience, playing rounds in countries such as China to bring attention to Australia’s most popular sport. This has prompted the development of many international teams and competitions.
Countries such as Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Indonesia and others now have their own AFL clubs. Some of these clubs are just getting started, but in Singapore they consider themselves way ahead.
In fact, the single biggest AFL Auskick program in the world is based right here, in one of the smallest countries in the world. The program is larger than any in Australia. AFL Auskick is almost a rite of passage, with children playing from a young age, and some barracking for one side for their whole life. With around 400-500 kids participating in the Singapore Sharks’ Auskick program every year, will the sport start to have an impact on these young lives too?
International development manager of the AFL Simon Highfield thinks it will.
“The Singapore Sharks are just a really well-organised and well-run organisation. They are so passionate, and most of the volunteers are parents of the kids involved,” he says.
The Singapore Sharks Football Club launched in 2007, and has grown significantly since then. There are currently around 120 girls in their program, and they hope to encourage more to participate.
A huge part of the growth of AFL in Singapore is around girls’ footy. As the AFLW league continues to grow in participation and quality in Australia, the Singapore Sharks have already made a large commitment to girls’ footy, and they are hoping to expand.
Houghton says the skills on display have been incredible: “The quality of our girls’ football is phenomenal. You watch them, and you just go, wow. So we are really trying to focus on our girls’ program.”
The Singapore Wombats girls’ teams are also doing very well. They are coming off a recent win at the 2022 Asian Championships. Grins were large and the energy was high as the Singapore Wombettes defeated Malaysia by 7 points in October. Their victory came after a lot of hard work all season.
Unlike teams within the AFLW, the Wombettes have to self-fund their games. Playing in a competition with no other teams in your country means having to travel overseas. The season goes from April all the way up to the big event, which is the AFL Asia championships in October. This year, the competition was held in Bangkok, Thailand.
“At champs this year there were six teams. Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand. Hong Kong also has a team, but with restrictions, they were unable to come. I know Pakistan have a team that’s developing, and same with Japan, so certainly within the region it is a growing sport,” says Australian Wombette Catherine MacLean.
The Wombettes team includes players from all over the world. Some grew up with the sport, whilst others just picked it up as a hobby.
“So I’m Irish and I’ve seen a lot of Irish girls play the sport in Australia, so I kind of had an idea of what the sport was. A couple of girls from my home club ended up playing in Australia, so I followed their journey. It came as a knock-on effect from playing Gaelic football, when I met some of the girls when I moved here who were apart of the Gaelic club and it was just a natural progression,” says Wombette Sinead Kennedy.
“We have proven that it is just not Aussies playing footy. There are so many different nationalities and expats from all over the world participating. All it takes is one Aussie to create a team and create awareness, and then you just naturally attract others. People may not identify with the sport at first, but there’s that team spirit and social aspect and also the mental and physical side,” says Singaporean Wombette Dharshini Gunnaseelan.
“It’s such an amazing community, the social aspect and the people that you meet through it are amazing. A lot of us are working away from home and away from our families and it’s like our own version of our family”Sinead Kennedy
“So in addition to the physical aspect, I think the social aspect is as equally important. We have different nationalities, different experiences and different cultures all coming together. At our 2 hours of training we are talking, laughing and supporting each other and I think that’s my favourite thing about it,” Dharshini says.
Although AFL is usually played on large ovals, this is a luxury the sport cannot afford in this city. The dominant sports are soccer and rugby, which means the rectangular oval dominates. This has created a more modified game of AFL. Singapore Sharks senior coach James McPartland says this is one of the significant differences between football in Singapore and Australia: “I think infrastructure and regular competition are two of the main differences between Singapore and Australia. We normally play on a soccer/ rugby field, so it’s an abbreviated game. Depending on numbers, we sometimes play 9 a side.”
Singapore Sharks vice president Mark Houghton explains it’s about being proactive and sometimes creative: “In juniors, we try and put a few more on the field because they are smaller and can’t kick as far. But we have to compromise with space because we are playing on a different pitch. We train at the Australian School, which has great facilities, but it’s not quite the same,” he says.
McPartland says Australia is blessed with facilities and space, whereas Singapore is very urban and space is limited. Many schools don’t even have ovals. Even though an oval might be seen as a luxury, he says the skills at this Auskick program are very high, with lots of help and connections from back home.
“We benchmark ourselves against Australia. We use a lot of resources from back home, and we have a lot of people who have connections with the AFL, AFLW, as well as local or regional football teams. The program has always strived to make it a seamless community so that the kids that play here can walk back into Australia and are not behind in terms of skill or capability,” Houghton says.
When parents have to travel for work, it sometimes means relocating the entire family. A program like Auskick in another country can help children connect back home to Australia.
“In terms of capabilities and skill levels, what we focus on is exactly the same as Australia. So with the AFL and their support next year, we’ll run a coaching clinic. So bring up coaches, and they’ll do coaching for our trainees, our volunteer coaches, which is most of our workforce. And we just want to continue to up-skill our game, through those coaches, through visits from AFL players, AFLW players, and as we engage with the Australian community to make sure we’ve got that skill set,” Houghton says.
While the program is mostly about fun, it is also the about providing a pathway for the children who want to take it further.
“With the Auskick team there’s probably like 20 per cent who have no idea what they are doing. Then there’s probably 40 per cent to 60 per cent, who understand the game well and are interested in the game and there’s that 20- 30 per cent who are really dedicated and want to get better,” McPartland says.
According to Simon Highfield, many people, including Australians, come to Singapore to work, which is one of the reasons for such a large AFL community. As well as the committee’s dedication to the club, the Singapore Sharks pride themselves on delivering an Auskick program that is just as good as Australia, with the hope it could even produce a future professional player.
But the program isn’t just for Australians, with kids from all over the world showing up to training.
“They’ve got Brits, they’ve got Americans, Europeans and Singaporeans and so many other nationalities who participate in their program. I guess that just shows the quality of the program, that they can engage so many different people with so many different backgrounds.” says Highfield.
A problem the league faces is there is currently only one other team, the Singapore Wombats, and they don’t offer a juniors program. This means that most of the time, the Sharks have to compete against themselves, rather than other opponents.
“In terms of the Auskick, the skills program traditionally runs for a 15-week period. Then there are the six weeks of the lightning carnivals. It depends on how many kids are in each age group, but most of the time, teams will have maybe 12 kids,” Houghton says.
In the lightning carnival the Sharks will play other teams from within the club. As there are so many players, there are usually enough teams to not have to play against the same team twice.
Sometimes the Sharks will participate in an annual competition against other teams from around the world, but due to travel costs this is rare. One of their premier competitions is a weekend-long carnival with Hong Kong.
“Each year will rotate. So, we will go to stay in Hong Kong this year, then Hong Kong will come to us next year. We played on the MCG as a club during our time. And then we play against local club teams on the weekend as well. So we’ve tried to give our kids that competitive spirit,” says Houghton.
AFL Asia is still developing, though every season is seeing growth in numbers and an improvement in overall quality. “AFL Asia wouldn’t be where it is today without our volunteers. We wouldn’t be an organisation delivering programs if it wasn’t for the clubs that already existed. Our participation is increasing, the quality of football being played in the Asian region is improving, but without our volunteers we simply don’t exist,” says Highfield.
After the strain and limitations of a long pandemic, footy lovers hope the sport might be the right medicine for communities looking for positive ways to reconnect.
The 2022 Curtin Journalism Singapore Study Tour was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.