Business consultant Grant Fitzgerald is the coach and Friends International web designer Al Soutaris is the captain of the Cambodian Eagles, Phnom Penh’s Australian Rules football team.
A worthy metaphor for Australia’s national character, the sport tends to invite ridicule or confusion from other countries—18 players per side, a 150 metre oval-shaped playing field, no offside rules, six points for a goal and one point for trying—and polarises opinion domestically, with the north-eastern states traditionally favouring rugby league. In this city, however, Fitzgerald and Soutaris have bolstered their ranks with enthusiastic locals and rugby apostates…
Are there many opportunities to get involved in sport here?
GF: It’s definitely developing, because when I was here before, it wasn’t obvious that there were any organised sporting events or sporting teams. I used to play badminton back home—in Asia you see people playing badminton but you look around and there’s no organised tennis tournaments or anything like that, where you can play at a certain level, everyone just plays on the street. There’s quite a lot of soccer, but I’ve never played soccer, never really got into it. Now I’ve started playing a bit of rugby, there’s touch rugby as well, a netball competition’s started up, as well as basketball at Beeline Arena. So it’s developing.
Is there much overlap between rugby and Aussie Rules in Phnom Penh?
GF: There is. We’ve got a couple of guys from England who are ex-rugby. We’ve got the ex-national rugby coach who’s coming to Vietnam with us in a couple of weeks. A few of us are trying to get involved with the rugby just to get a bit of overlap, because we can get them down to our social events if we go down to theirs, which is good for the community.
Do you have any Cambodians on your side?
GF: Our one Cambodian stalwart, C, has been playing with us since we started. We got another guy who’s a boxing coach who used to train him up for kickboxing fights, so he’s used to that kind of contact. I think the kind of contact is a bit more appealing for him than say, playing soccer. Now we’ve also got five Khmer kids, they’re about 18 or 19, and they’ve been training with us the last six or eight months.
AS: They come down to train every Saturday. They’re part of the NGO New Hope Cambodia, their families live on the garbage site just out of town, so they have the option of coming out and training with us. They haven’t missed a session.
GF: They enjoy it. If we put them in a game now they wouldn’t be quite ready but next year we’ll throw them in.
Are there any other NGOs involved with the Eagles?
GF: There’s an Australian guy here called Denzel who’s started a school out at Kandal, and there’s about 300 kids there, we go there once a month to run a training session for them. Our last one was two weeks ago and we bussed them out to the ground, Denzel organised uniforms for them and put on lunch for them afterwards.
How does the club finance itself?
GF: ANZ’s our major sponsor. The West Coast Eagles [a Perth-based AFL club] don’t sponsor us financially at the moment but that’s something that’ll happen soon. Basically how that relationship started was the Eagles send over players on an end of season trip, usually some volunteer work and building some houses.
AS: At the end of 2010, they had [star player] Nic Natanui, [coach] John Worsfold and the whole coaching panel come out. They came to the club and stayed with us for five days to help build it up, mainly as a way of team bonding. Steve Morrish, the president of the Cambodian Eagles, organised a meeting with them and said ‘we’re the local AFL team, would you be interested in us?’
Do other regional clubs have a close relationship with AFL teams in Australia?
AS: I think we were the first. When it happened, we had a big banner at that year’s Asian Champs tournament with our partnership with the West Coast Eagles, and we had a couple of board members from the other clubs come and say ‘how the hell did you do that?’ It’s probably something the other clubs are looking at now.
What’s the Aussie Rules scene like regionally?
GF: There’s teams in Bangkok, Saigon, Hanoi and Laos. Then outside of that you’ve got Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, Jakarta and Bali—that makes up another competition called the Asian Champs. There’s one big carnival with four round robin matches and then finals.
AS: If you make the finals you can play six or seven games in a day, which in this heat is pretty intense.