AFL in China.


One of the most febrile twitter ‘groups’ is what has been dubbed ‘sokkahtwitter’.  Anyone who is vaguely familiar with this group knows that is not a place for the fainthearted. Opinions fly back and forth.  But woe anyone who belittle the sport.

Sokkahtwitter has been working in overdrive recently regarding the forthcoming AFL match between Port Adelaide and Gold Coast.

Somehow sometimes I think that we Association Football supporters have a bit of a chip on our shoulder.  Sometimes with good reasons considering the way that the sport has been portrayed by the media in some instances.  Sometimes I think there is also a degree of oversensitiveness.

My attitude towards Code Wars is that (1) it is important to defend the sport from inaccurate and unjustified attacks and (2) it’s also OK if it is done in the Australian spirit of ‘banter’ or ‘taking the piss’.

Usually the code wars thing is left to us punters.  Professional journalists and Association Football players tend to stay with the line ‘there is room for everyone’ which is diplomatic but not really true.

The AFL didn’t arrive at being the number one code in Australia (I am talking TV ratings attendances as a whole here, not participation) by being a shrinking violet, the AFL has been brutal in pushing its advantage in any way it can, and if it is not successful immediately they have the resources to stay for the long haul.

Perhaps this attitude originates from the game itself.  There isn’t really a ‘parking the bus’ strategy in Australian Rules football.  If you’re on top you score again and again until your opponent is buried to the ground.

This attitude means the there is no demarcation where the AFL wants its presence.  It is prepared to ‘invade’ areas that previously were the prerogative  by other sports.  Western Sydney is one of the fastest growing areas in Australia and mainly follows Association Football and Rugby League? No matter. Put a team there.  AFL disregarded woman football since its inception, and now it looks like a winner? Lets start the WAFL.

Probably the thing that irritate the Association Supporters most is that the AFL has such a great network of media allies that the message going out is that ‘Western Sydney was waiting for an AFL Team’ or it seems that before the WAFL was created there was almost no sport avenue for females.  Even sport journalists that cover AFL were taken aback by this message

The issue here is that Association Football is not the major code in Australia.  We know that.  But we have (or had) some advantages.  The popularity of Association Football in Western Sydney, the fact that at least before the WAFL, Association Football was ‘the’ football code to play for females.  And we see this AFL juggernaut not being happy to just be number one in most states, but using its might to be number one everywhere (whether it succeed or not is another matter).

One big advantage that Association Football still has over the AFL is its international dimension.   As Australian Rules Football is quintessentially Australian,  Association Football is probably the most international sport in the world.  We know that on this area the AFL cannot compete, or even try.

So when we heard that the AFL going to China sokkahtwitter knew it couldn’t lose.  Finally the AFL was on a hiding to nothing.  Initially I think most of the comments were about the AFL’s delusion of grandeur.  But then as it happened with Western Sydney and especially the WAFL the media machine started to get going.  The Port Adelaide President and TV Host David Koch hyped the event to the max.

“The AFL will become the first elite foreign competition to play a regular season game for points in China, beating the likes of the NBA, English Premier League, Major League Baseball and NFL. That is a monumental achievement in itself and speaks volumes of the strength of the relationship between our two nations.

“This is so much more significant that just playing a game for premiership points on foreign soil. This is a landmark moment in the development of Australia’s sporting, cultural, political, economic and tourism ties with China.

“The appetite for AFL football in China is even stronger than we could have imagined when Port Adelaide began forging relationships there.”

That sort of hyperbole is to expected from a president of an AFL club that wants to make some coin.  But inevitably this was echoed in sport reports.

I knew that this would have got sokkahtwitter all worked up.  But with this level of hyperbole even Association Football journalists that usually are wary commenting on AFL matters couldn’t stay silent.   Especially when A League clubs have been travelling to far flung parts of Asia for years.  The first to shoot across the bow was Van Magliaccio from the Advertiser.

THE blank faces perhaps told the entire story.

Jiangsu Suning boss Choi Yong-soo and midfielder Xiaobin Zhang looked perplexed when asked if they would follow the first AFL clash for points in China at the weekend.

Port Adelaide hosting the Gold Coast Suns in Shanghai didn’t register a mention from Jiangsu’s duo with the club’s media officer asking if the game being played was in fact rugby…

Choi and Zhang are in Adelaide preparing for the AFC Champions League clash against Adelaide United at Hindmarsh on Tuesday night with the match to be televised live to TV audiences in China, Thailand, Cambodia, the Middle East, South East Asia on the Fox network, Uzbekistan, India and Australia on Fox Sports.

Then stories transpired about players been told not to eat the food, the concern about the pollution and their safety.  Michael Lynch from the Age wrote a piece about this type of reporting.

Judging by the breathless coverage, Port Adelaide and Gold Coast might as well be heading off into outer space.

So arduous is the portrayal of their journey to China for the first AFL game for premiership points played in Asia, it’s hard to draw any other conclusion.

We have had hand-wringing concerns over the air quality in polluted Shanghai, with asthmatic players having been ruled out of contention.

We have had fears expressed over the physical strain of such a fearful long-haul flight – particularly for the Suns, who are travelling in cattle class – and the deleterious effect it will surely have on the finely toned athletes of both clubs.

We have had worries put forward over the quality and kind of food that the players may have to eat, the environment they will encounter and the reception they may get.

Come off it, please.

Either the players are such delicate flowers that their suitability to play such a robust sport as footy must be called into question, or it is yet another example of the AFL world’s tendency to navel gaze, hyper ventilate and over-emphasise even the tiniest event.

Teams from the A-League have, for the past dozen years, routinely travelled to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand and the Middle East to play competitive matches in a much bigger tournament, the Asian Champions League.

There has been little breathless commentary on the difficulties and challenges their players face, the travails they must endure, to play for their team.

Other accounts also had a bit of fun.

There was so much Sokkahtwitter action that even Ryan McGowan who plays for Association Football team Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng F.C. in the Chinese Super League started to feel embarrassed.

Ultimately if Port Adelaide and the AFL want to play in China it’s their decision and prerogative.

But once they venture outside their comfort zone that we call Australia, with reports about the ‘difficult’ situations they are encountering associated with hyperbole that almost makes out that this match is as important as Whitlam’s visit to China in 1973,  then you have to expect some backlash.

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