The expansion of Australian Rules Football continues to grow at an astonishing rate in Europe, with 2015 seeing the inaugural AFL Europe Champions League taking place in Amsterdam. Ten countries were represented by a team demonstrating that Australian Rules Football has certainly staked its claim as sport capable of growing in such a soccer orientated continent.
This year’s AFL Europe Axios Euro Cup is hoping to involve the unveiling of the newest AFL Europe franchises – AFL Polska. The driving force behind the inclusion of Poland into the AFL scene is Australian expat, Gareth Smith whose claim to fame is keeping Brett Voss to a handful of possessions back when Gareth was 17. Since taking the reins of AFL Polska and establishing a team in Bydgoszcz, the sports awareness and interests has greatly increase and participation has reached even the “grass roots” level.
Gareth Smith is originally from Toowoomba, Queensland, a town dominated by its Rugby League presence. Gareth’s family moved north from Geelong, which was where he inherited his love for Australian Rules Football and the Geelong Cats Football Club. Coolaroo Football Club was where Gareth played his junior football, but being such a undeveloped sport in the area, Gareth often played in the under 13s, under 15s and Reserve grade side during Saturday’s competitions. Local football became part of Gareth’s life, playing each season until moving to Poland with his wife and now three children. “We had some friends in Poland and after finishing ten years working in Australia, we decided to move to Poland for an indefinite period” Gareth explains. It was in December 2014 when Gareth began his involvement with bringing this sport he loved to Poland and to get really get Futbol Australijski w Polsce developed.
In a forest clearing, on a four-degree day, Bydgoszcz hosted its first Australian Rules Football training session; the turnout of participants hailed from Australia, Denmark, Turkey and Poland. As all newcomers to the sport could relate, the players found taking to the oval ball strange and unorthodox but the passion was evident and the sport became engrained within them. Within a few days, word of this foreign sport had reached the local tabloids and a local newspaper dispatched a reporter to a training session to report. Following an interview with the players and the coach, Gareth Smith, the Futbol Australijski w Polsce FaceBook page had doubled its “likes”.
Being a massive Geelong Cats fan since he was a child, Gareth only thought it fitting to name the new team, the Bydgoszcz Wildcats. He was also lucky enough to meet a South African with connections to current a Geelong player and is hoping to use such a connection to create a partnership with the club back in Australia, as many clubs throughout Europe do maintain.
Since taking control of the establishment of the Bydgoszcz team, Gareth has taken a step back from taking trainings and has handed duties over to English/Dane, Soren Mackenzie. Gareth still takes part in the Wildcats’ coaching role, but has decided to concentrate on further development in other cities. One village not far from Bydgoszcz is Osielsko, Gareth explains “they are very forward thinking and have a good baseball team…American Football team and they are keen to have an AFL team too”. As with the development any new sport, captivating the audience and participants is the great challenge, but Gareth believes that the locals in Osielsko would be interested in trying the game he is so passionate about.
So what next for Australian Rules Football in Poland and the Bydgoszcz Wildcats? The aim is to put together a side to compete against either the Berlin Crocs or the Prague Cats. Further on from that, putting together a Polska team to compete in the 2015 AFL Europe Axios Euro Cup, which will be held in Umag, Croatia. For now Gareth just wants to keep the interest in Poland growing. Since we last checked in with him, “likes” on the Futbol Australijski w Polsce Facebook page have exceeded 300 and Gareth has also been contacted by another Australian Rules Football enthusiast with the desire to start a team in the south of Poland. Even a clinic for school children was organised to give the students a taste of the game.
As the average wage in Poland is approximately €700 per month, funding for team uniforms, goal post and footballs is very hard to come by. Gareth hopes to get in touch with teams in other countries to assist with such funding, as a way of developing a partnership between the clubs – particularly the Geelong Cats and the West London Wildcats.
For anyone interested in getting involved with Futbol Australijski w Polsce for participation, funding, general information or even a Pole residing in another country that wishes to participate as part of the AFL Polska team at the 2015 AFL Europe Axios Euro Cup, please contact AFL Europe via Sarah Ongarello.