FOR MANY, the 2017 AFL International Cup was a step into the unknown. For some, the carnival opened the door to Melbourne and its historic football fields for the first time. For everyone involved, it was an unforgettable two weeks and a monumental win for Aussie Rules around the world.
Twenty-six male and female teams representing 21 nations descended upon Melbourne, united by a passion and energy for football. Through colour, smiles, tears, pain and pride – and the city’s most unpredictable weather – 65 matches and off-the-field opportunities have left an indelible mark on the lives of those it touched.
Victorian students, local footy fans and AFL organisers were treated to the cultural bonanza that has become synonymous with the event. Over five rounds at Royal Park, school grounds, community ovals – and the MCG and Etihad Stadium – more than 850 players, team entourages and supporters generated unprecedented intercontinental spirit in the name of football.
From a first bounce in competitive football for Pakistan’s women, to Colleen Quinn’s fourth-quarter Grand Final winner at Etihad Stadium, Australia’s code was played with precisely the soul, zest and resolve to which it was designed.
Quinn and her teammates celebrated with the 2017 AFL International Cup after Ireland showed tremendous heart to outmanoeuvre a highly talented and tenacious band of Canadians.
"It’s been awesome", said Canada captain Aimee Legault, who has had a huge impact on women’s footy worldwide through all three women’s International Cup competitions.
"I feel so grateful to be able to cherish these moments with all the players from different countries. It’s amazing to have so much support, especially from all those umpires and officials who volunteered.
"Players have also sacrificed a lot just to be here and I love to hear about the path people have travelled just to take part."
Just hours before the women’s Grand Final, Papua New Guinea left New Zealand’s warriors scattered across the MCG as they celebrated back-to-back men’s competition titles with compatriots after winning by a point.
"I am so proud for all the boys and our supporters here and back home," said 15-year-old Hewago Oea, who kicked a decisive goal after the half-time siren and was later named best on ground. Oea, who is known as ‘Ace’ is likely to join the Gold Coast Suns academy.
"It puts us on the map and shows how far our young players can go," added Amua Muzza Pirika who kicked two goals on the way to his third AFL International Cup triumph [2008, 2014, 2017].
"We want to see more of our boys having a chance in the AFL. I’ll be back for more in 2020."
The Croatia Knights were riding a jubilant wave when they held the men’s division two trophy aloft on Friday afternoon and celebrations continued into the International Cup gala function at Crown Palladium that night.
In the very room that legends of the game have risen to collect Brownlow medals and been inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame, 48 male and female players – and four coaches – were awarded 2017 World Team places.
One woman in particular completed a different journey to most in pulling on that coveted jersey.
Pakistan captain Myra Ahmed did not know what Australian Football was until six months prior to the tournament. After helping to facilitate 26 visas for women who shared zero knowledge of the game, Ahmed and her team arrived in Melbourne’s winter – from 44-degree heat.
It took five games of football for them to register a first score, but that first goal encapsulated the very essence of the tournament. It came in the final quarter of their competition against the European Crusaders, and all 36 players celebrated together.
Germany, Croatia and Sri Lanka were competing for the first time in the men’s divisions, with the European Crusaders, Great Britain, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea new to the women’s competition.
The Sri Lankan men (division two) and Papua New Guinean women came desperately close to claiming huge scalps on their odysseys to remarkable fifth-place finishes.
Teams from South Africa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea sang hymns from launch to final round and France, Croatia and China were among the most uproarious in victory – and defeat.
From When the Saints in Japanese to Germany singing Their defence is terrified ‘cos Germany’s on fire (to Gala’s Freed from Desire), singing played its part in preparation and conviviality.
Others chose to dye hair or deck themselves in patriotic regalia to fly the flag.
"When in Rome," replied USA Revolution captain, Kyle Johnson, when asked why he was growing a moustache and encouraging his team – who were outstanding on and off the oval – to do the same.
It was agreed in all quarters that the standard of football and the carnival atmosphere both reached new heights. The sound of the final siren will ring loud and long, resonating around the world and spreading the Sherrin far and wide.
Luke Matias, who claims the game has changed his life, has played in all six men’s AFL International Cup competitions. He featured as Great Britain lost to the brilliant Nauru in this year’s fifth-place play-off, before announcing his retirement from international football.
"It was poetic to lose to Nauru. If I was to go out on a loss, it had to be them," he said.
"I have been part of a Great Britain team playing against Nauru in every International Cup and we have lost every time. I am incredibly proud to say that I have great relationships with some of the Nauruan boys – and that is because of this game. It’s just a marvellous carnival."