x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Wheels in motion to bring Australian Rules Football back to UAE

If Emirates-sponsored Collingwood return for an official match, it could mean big things for local league, says Paul Radley.

Dane Swan and his Collingwood teammates could make the trip from Australia to play an actual AFL match in the UAE soon. Michael Dodge / Getty Images
Dane Swan and his Collingwood teammates could make the trip from Australia to play an actual AFL match in the UAE soon. Michael Dodge / Getty Images

Leading administrators in Australian Rules football are expected to meet next week to discuss the possibility of extending their domestic season, which could increase the prospect of staging a competitive fixture in Dubai.

Collingwood, the club with the biggest supporter base in the sport, hope to return to these shores to play a match, possibly as soon as next season.

The Emirates-sponsored team played against Adelaide at the Ghantoot Polo Club five years ago, in the Nab Cup, the competition that acts as the curtain-raiser to the Australian Football League (AFL) season proper.

Eddie McGuire, the club's president, has raised the idea of returning to Dubai to play a regular-season fixture as a way of showcasing both the sport and his club to an international audience.

He acknowledges the proposal is "in its infancy" at present, not least because of the upheaval it would cause the AFL calendar. However, he insists it is feasible.

"There is very much an appetite to take the game internationally," McGuire said yesterday.

"Back in 2008, we had a really good crowd for a match that was basically a glorified practice match.

"If that competition [the Nab Cup] remains, we could do one of those matches again without any trouble.

"But if that competition sees its demise and the [regular] season is extended, then it opens up the possibility of playing a full-blooded game for [Premiership] points.

"That will lift the intensity of not just the game but the occasion for everyone involved in it."

The idea of playing matches away from a sport's traditional centre has been tried with varying degrees of success in recent years.

In 2008, the English Premier League (EPL) met with staunch resistance from the footballing public in the UK when it floated the idea of playing a "39th game".

Five years on, the international round, which was planned to be staged in January each season in a foreign city that would bid for the privilege, appears no closer to fruition.

However, American football has met with success by staging regular-season National Football League (NFL) games at a sold-out Wembley Stadium. Two NFL regular-season matches are scheduled to be played in London in September and October this year.

The AFL itself had its first competitive match overseas at the end of last month, when St Kilda played the Sydney Swans in New Zealand on Anzac Day.

"We were aware of the EPL suggestion and it is one that still stands," McGuire said.

"We are all used to touring matches, friendlies, exhibition games, et cetera, but if you are playing for the real deal, you are seeing a real game in your back yard.

"If the season was to change then it would be like that '39th round' and it gives you an opportunity to look at playing one of those extra games in an expansion territory.

"At the very least, we want to get people interested in watching it. Just as the NFL is a massive domestic product, so is the AFL in Australia."

The additional league matches would likely take place at the start of March, when McGuire says many of the leading AFL grounds are out of commission due to cricket.

It would also coincide with the culmination of the UAE's own Australian Rules season, the AFL Middle East.

In McGuire's vision for the match, the event would imitate the festival atmosphere of an international rugby union sevens tournament.

The Dubai Rugby Sevens, for example, owes much of its success to the fact domestic club and social tournaments take place alongside the main event.

When the Nab Cup game was played here in 2008, it was preceded by local amateur players competing in the grand final of the domestic competition.

Walid Melhem, the president of AFL Middle East, hopes the same thing could happen again if Collingwood do return.

"We had our grand final as the curtain-raiser for the Collingwood-Adelaide game," said Melhem, who played for the Dubai Dingoes in that match five years ago. It would be big boost for the local league here. [AFL Middle East] basically kicked off because of that game in 2008.

"If Collingwood could come back again it would excellent. You would have to market it very well and find the right venue as well."

The logistics of staging the match would include finding a ground with a large-enough playing area, and either with existing stands or room for temporary constructions, as happened at Ghantoot last time.

Furthermore, the club proposing the venture have to consider bearing more than just the costs of transposing the fixture to the UAE.

"Because at Collingwood our matches are so valuable in Australia, we would need to find a team to partner with us and possibly buy out their home game," McGuire said.

"Also, the AFL would have to change the length of the season and that is a major departure from where we are at the moment, but it is an idea that will be considered.

"There are the infrastructure issues in Dubai, as well. [But] none of these things are insurmountable."

pradley@thenational.ae

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