Up north, footy conquers all

Posted 21st October 2014 by Clare O'Neil in Articles | 0 Comment
[caption width="200" align="alignright"]Gopu champion Cedric Marika Gopu champion Cedric Marika (in blue). Photo: Clare O’Neil[/caption]

The team huddles, black heads together, listening carefully to their coach. It’s the most important day of the year for these young men. Gopu, reining champions, will face off in a grand final against Djarrak. The two teams, representing clans that have lived on adjacent lands for many hundreds of years, are about to write another chapter in Arnhem Land’s love affair with football. It is a serious match, with serious consequences.

A funeral on a nearby island has been postponed to allow community members to attend. Patients in the local hospital have discharged themselves against medical advice so they can be there. Umpires have been flown in from Darwin, as the pressure on locals has in past years proved too intense. Passions will run high, and the boys are rightly nervous. If they win, they will be heroes and champions for the next year, lauded by their clan leaders, kings of their community. If they lose, they will raise the ire of people that do not like the taste of defeat.

The ladies, children and older men form long lines, ready to wave the men onto the ground with cheers and streamers. Teenage girls dressed in football jerseys perform a dance they have been practicing for weeks. Colourful skirts worn by the women, introduced to Arnhem Land by the Christian missions in the 1960s, sway against the red earth and scrubby bush that frame the oval. Horns toot as children with their faces painted in Gopu’s blue and white scream for their cousins, brothers and fathers.

The players gather at the boundary, where they are met by their Club President and clan leader, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who delivers some final words. They run onto the field as the crowd screams with all its might, and the match is on.

The football played in Australia’s tropical north feels a long way from the slick, big-money behemoth that is the AFL. Up here, footy is a local and indigenous game first and foremost. Throughout the season, people regularly play without shoes and teams receive impromptu pep talks from over-zealous supporters who have sunk a few too many pre-game beers. Occasionally a mangy dog will wander into the field and interrupt play. But make no mistake: football here is played and followed with a level of passion and energy that that would make any Victorian footy club green with envy.

Participation is huge. Gapuwiyak, a remote community deep within Arnhem Land of about a thousand indigenous Australians, supports a thriving seniors contest as well as competitions for under 13s, under 15s and girls. In Groote Eyelandt, a tropical island about 50kms from mainland Australia, more than 60% of men aged over 18 are involved in a football club.

Support for local teams is near-universal. Due to the large web of important relationships within indigenous families, almost everyone has a relative on the local side. And because of the strong links between football teams and clans, everyone has a stake in the game. On Saturday afternoons during finals season, small remote communities can look like ghost towns.

One reason why football is so big here is that the indigenous men are good at the game. That’s no small thing for men whose perceived failures – to work, to look after kids, to eat properly, to get out of the pub – are so routinely highlighted. Earlier in the season I saw Gopu play the Saints, the only team of white players in this league. The Saints got a complete drubbing and, I’m not ashamed to say, it was highly satisfying to watch. The indigenous side, so much the underdog in every other part of life, were fitter, prouder, stronger and better.

Most indigenous kids around Arnhem Land have never seen an Aboriginal policeman, scientist or doctor. But they can name every footballer on the Indigenous All-Stars. (Cyril Rioli, Buddy Franklin and Andrew McLeod are identified as particular favourites). Footy is one of the only careers they see as truly available to them, and local kids talk with real excitement about their dreams of one day making it professionally.

Footy also provides an important bridge between white and indigenous Australians in this divided part of our country. For most Victorians, it is hard to appreciate the chasm that exists between white Australian culture and the relatively-traditional indigenous culture of North East Arnhem Land. Family structures, political systems and social customs are radically different. There’s a huge language barrier. English is the fourth or fifth language for most local indigenous people, and most white locals only know three or four words of a local language, if any. Exposure to television and the internet is limited, so music or pop culture or news aren’t shared either. Finding common ground is difficult.

James Scanlan, a Victorian who moved to Arnhem Land a couple of years ago, sees his experience playing for Gopu as essential to him making friends and a new life here. After a few months on the team, Scanlan was given the Aboriginal name Djapana, meaning “sunset” – a reference to the six-foot redhead’s messy bright mop of hair. Over time, he has made some of his best mates through footy, and the other passion he shares with the local people, fishing.

Two seasons in, and Scanlan is now the whitefella who holds the clipboard. He was selected as Gopu’s coach, a role of significant pressure and esteem in the community the team represents. His coaching role is part of a broader picture of how football works here. Despite the vast majority of players and supporters being indigenous, most of the coaches, umpires and people running the league are white.

Those involved in local football are quick to point out that this is part of a broader problem in Arnhem Land communities. While there are great many strong indigenous leaders in Arnhem Land, life here is a bit chaotic. People are on the move pretty regularly and most don’t have cars. Organization, punctuality and reliability are a bit thin on the ground. Most organisations around here are still run, at least at an administrative level, by white people.

It’s something that an organization called Clontarf is working to change. Operating across Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, Clontarf uses the indigenous young mens’ passion for football to encourage school attendance and build leadership skills. Rob Clements and Hamish Simpson, the Clontarf leaders who work with boys at the Yirrkala School in North East Arnhem Land, see their role as mentor and friend to the kids they work with, many of whom are struggling with very serious adult issues in their home life.

Clontarf has only been operating here for a year, but has already seen a 17% increase in school attendance in participants. When I arrive at the school to chat with the boys about football, each and every young participant walks up to me with confidence, looks me in the eye and shakes my hand – an astounding feat for kids of any culture, but genuinely radical for kids who are usually extremely shy and lack confidence with English.

As with everything in this harsh part of Australia, football is not all beer and skittles. Sometimes rough play on the field can spread to violent episodes between communities after the game. After one of this years’ semi-finals, a ruckus between a group of older ladies spread and multiple people ended up in hospital. Most years, the young men hit the pub after the grand final and a few are still there two weeks later.

But after a visit to the final team training for the year, it is clear that football is a net positive influence. The men horse around, stretching and doing drills. A few players bring their kids to training and they run amok, kicking the footy in the background. The men encourage each other in a practice match, and yells of ‘manymak’ (meaning ‘well done’, ‘good’ or ‘great’ in local language) fill the air. The session ends with a positive pep talk, prepping the guys for the big match a few days away.

Back to the game and Gopu takes the lead in the early minutes. A quick, exciting first quarter is tightly fought, the crowd oscillating between panic and elation as goals are scored on both sides. Some supporters are religious with fervour, wizened grandmothers peppering their cheers with expletives that would make a hardened Collingwood supporter blush. Gopu plays a killer second quarter, and they end half time 25 points up. Djarrak puts up a spirited defense, but from the final quarter, the Gopu boys take it home and secure the 2011 championship by 20 points.

The crowd floods the field. Extended families crowd around their young men, clinging to their sons, fathers and brothers with pride. There are tears, group hugs, gleeful dances. Some of the young champions are lifted onto the shoulders of older men, and around them their community cheers.

Scanlan takes a moment alone, visibly relieved that the hopes of this community – in no small part resting on his shoulders – have been delivered. “They don’t listen to a thing that I say” he says to me grinning, “but they win”. Players bring over their wives to make an introduction, and elders hug him tightly, truly grateful for what he has helped them do.

Dusk has set in, and calipso music rings out across the oval. Kids chase each other around laughing, their facepaint now smeared. It is a golden moment.

Life for indigenous people living in Australia’s remote northern communities is tough. There is a lot to be unhappy about. Trauma, suicides, grog, gambling and violence are part of everyday life. But right now, none of that is relevant.

Today, Gopu are champions, and that’s all that matters.

Originally published October 1, 2011 in The Age

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