SYDNEY (AFP) – Australian Rules Football is breaking new ground in the country’s Muslim community, embracing its culture and encouraging hijab-wearing women players to broaden the appeal of the country’s biggest spectator sport.
When the sun sets during the holy month of Ramadan, the Sydney suburb of Lakemba comes to life with charcoal barbecues and fried flatbread, as hundreds break their fast in one of Australia’s largest Muslim communities.
Western Sydney is among the country’s fastest growing regions and a battle is brewing there between popular sports for hearts and minds in the largely migrant neighbourhoods, as Aussie Rules seeks inroads into what is a traditional rugby league heartland.
“The vision is a generational change for young kids who are in primary school at this current moment who have got a Sherrin (Aussie Rules ball) in their hands – taking it home,” Ali Faraj from the Australian Football League’s newest club, Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Giants, said.
“In 10 to 15 years’ time they will be knowledgeable about what AFL (Australian Football League) is, who the Giants are and how to access the game.”
Almost 60 percent of people living in the region were born outside of Australia, with a rich mix of heritage from China, India, African nations and the Middle East. Lebanese represent the largest Muslim group.
The Giants, who put their potential catchment at upwards of 2.5 million people, in 2012 became Sydney’s second elite-level Aussie Rules club as the nation’s biggest spectator sport – similar to Gaelic football but played with an oval ball – continues its expansion.
Backed by a cashed-up AFL, the club has snapped up the country’s best young talent. But low match attendances have led to criticism that it is being artificially kept afloat.
The league, however, has defended the club’s existence as it focuses on a long-term goal of drawing in the region’s grassroots.
From school clinics to grooming local-level coaches of varying ethnic backgrounds and hosting an annual Iftar fast-breaking meal during Ramadan with community leaders, politicians and police – the AFL is targeting a new generation of Australians.
Rugby league is already popular in Sydney’s west, boosted during the 1990s and 2000s by local Canterbury Bulldogs’ legend Hazem El Masri, a champion Muslim player and long-time community ambassador for the sport.
Soccer also has a following.
“With any football club, or soccer club, or rugby club, the more work you do in the community the more opportunity you get to open up your footy club for a new fan,” GWS Giants’ coach Leon Cameron explained.
“There is no doubt there are a number of new fans that have come from western Sydney to look at our game that have never seen AFL football before.”
The AFL has been heavily promoting players from a range of backgrounds across the country, with the few Muslim players a prominent feature in western Sydney.
“They are the new faces from multicultural backgrounds that young kids can actually see a reflection of themselves in the sport,” community manager Faraj said.
“By seeing a reflection of yourself in the sport it gives you more hope and aspiration to one day play the sport yourself.”
Western Sydney has long been cast as being “on the other side of the bridge” – an imagined departure point from Sydney’s wealthier eastern suburbs, and communities have struggled to shake off negative stereotypes while far right groups stir anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Amna Karra-Hassan had barely even seen an Aussie Rules football before she started a local women’s team eight years ago.
“For me it was about girls having a run and having the space to play sport and that didn’t really exist in any of the (sporting) codes in my region,” she said.
Since then, numbers have swelled at the majority-Muslim Auburn Giants, where Karra-Hassan and her Hijab-wearing teammates now compete across multiple divisions, challenging stereotypes.
The 29-year-old says that after the 9/11 attacks, when she was in high school, the emergence of Australian TV crime dramas romanticising Lebanese gangsters fuelled a deep misunderstanding of her community.
“I thought everyone was having a conversation about my identity and the politics of my identity,” she said.
“I feel like footy gives us the space to not speak to it sometimes, just to exist. We can play footy and it is about my talent when I’m on the football field and it makes its statement.”