Cultures collide as Aussie Rules comes to China – and meat pies are off the menu, mate

As Port Adelaide and Gold Coast play a match in Shanghai, the tone of much of the coverage Down Under has been comically awful

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 May, 2017, 2:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 May, 2017, 9:26pm

Australian Rules football, or footy as it is known in Straya, is a pastime perhaps not famed for the broad erudition and man-of-the-world nature of its adherents.

Though a terrific game to watch and play, Rules aficionados have not always covered themselves in glory.

Do a quick Google to remind yourself of the top recent scandals and the number one result is about a dwarf being set on fire at St Kilda’s end-of-season celebrations in 2013. AFL’s chief executive burst out laughing when informed about the incident, although he insisted he thought it was a joke.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Port Adelaide and the Gold Coast’s trip to Shanghai to play a match this Sunday has been making for some amusing coverage Down Under.

The game – a proper league match rather than just an exhibition – is the latest attempt from sports teams and leagues to get a foothold in China, convinced that if they can persuade just a fraction of those 1.3 billion folk to fall in love with their game they’ll have it made.

Port Adelaide are behind the initiative after getting the idea at a lunch in Hong Kong. They have several initiatives to popularise the game in China, including sponsoring the South China AFL, which has four teams from Hong Kong and two from Guangzhou.

One of Port’s major sponsors is Chinese real estate tycoon Gui Guojie; not long after he appeared on the scene expressing his love for Rules, his company Shanghai CRED, in partnership with another firm, bought vast tracts of pastoral land in the country amounting to 1.3 per cent of Australia’s total land. He is understandably keen to continue fostering good relations between China and Australia.

Beating NFL and NBA to the punch: Port Adelaide bring real AFL deal to Shanghai

But not everyone in footy is as open to widening their horizons and pursuing novel ideas as those at Port.

The tone of much of the build-up to the game in Oz, not least on the AFL’s official website, has been a combination of the cringe-makingly parochial and the outright apocalyptic.

The trip has been described like an expedition to a distant planet from which the explorers might never return. If there’s a map of China in AFL HQ, you suspect it’s blank apart from a warning: “HERE BE DRAGONS”.

Among the ‘dangers’ highlighted: military activity in Korea spilling into China (if that happens I think we might have bigger problems than a postponed Aussie rules game); “Asian crime syndicates” on the streets of Shanghai; life-threatening pollution (though Shanghai’s air was better than Melbourne’s on Friday); and the near-certainty of being poisoned if you eat anything outside your hotel.

The closest many AFL players will have been to China in the past is on the kind of end-of-season blowouts that saw Western Bulldogs fighting with taxis in Hong Kong a few years ago, so perhaps that fear of the unknown is not unexpected.

Ample supplies of Victoria Bitter, the footy fan’s tipple of choice, have been imported, but forget about getting a meat pie, the traditional AFL snack.

As Channel 7 reporter Mark ‘Stevo’ Stevens explained, since the classic pie brand is Four’N Twenty, there’s no danger of getting your hands on one. Four is “linked to death over there” apparently.

Also in ‘appreciating cultural niceties’ news, there was an almighty row between both clubs over who should to get to wear a yellow-and-red jersey for the game, with the assumption that sporting the colours of China’s flag would win hordes of converts to the cause. (Gold Coast got the honours).

Meanwhile, a writer for Fox Sports helpfully explains that “the Bund, Shanghai’s most popular tourist destination, is a far cry from Adelaide’s Rundle Mall or Gold Coast’s Cavill Avenue” in his scene-setter. If you’re still struggling to get your head round it, imagine “a much bigger version of Melbourne’s Southbank”.

The intrepid footy reporters seemed mightily impressed with the venue for the launch press conference – a bar – though at the event, Port’s captain Travis Boak sparked much mockery on social media after supposedly describing the game as “the first western pro sport to play for official points in China”.

Aussie soccer teams have played three times in China in the last couple of months alone in the Asian Champions League; A-League sides Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United jumped on the Twitter mockery bandwagon that ensued.

The backlash against some of the Crocodile Dundee-style coverage has begun, with the Courier-Mail’s Greg Davis among those scoffing at the wide-eyed footy reporters. “And we have the audacity to call the Poms [English] whingers,” he wrote on Friday. “The AFL’s trip to China just keeps getting weirder,” scoffed the Huffington Post Australia.

But while it’s easy to mock, the game is at worst a fascinating experiment and at best could lead to some big opportunities. Supposedly set to be a 10,000 sell-out at Jiangwan Stadium, it will be broadcast on CCTV and Shanghai and Guangdong provincial TV.

If it’s unlikely to turn millions of Chinese into Aussie Rules fans, the opportunities for building networking and business ties certainly seem to be there.

Port say they’ve already made about AU$6 million from China tie-ups, with more in the offing. They have a whole section on their website labelled ‘China Strategy’ and a ‘China Power Club’ which aims to connect Chinese and Australian companies.

They even managed to get China’s premier Li Keqiang along to a game in Sydney during his trip to Australia in March. “I am sure there will be fans of this great sport in China,” said Li, according to Fox Sports.

No doubt – if only we can sort out that pie situation ...