Africans tackling Aussie Rules

Aussie Rules, that unique brand of football only played in Australia, is charting unknown territory and trying to attract players from the ever growing African communities in South Australia.

At a national level, the Australian Football League, already has several players of African origin in its ranks: Heritier Lumumba at Collingwood; Majak Daw at North Melbourne and Tendai Mzungu at Fremantle, who although born in Australia, is of Zimbabwean descent.

Irra-HOFameThe South Australian National Football League (SANFL) has also dipped into the African talent pool, and 20-year-old Ugandan born Emmanuel Irra has become the first African born player to join an SANFL team. In fact, as well as playing for the South Adelaide Football Club, Emmanuel is also helping to broaden the reach of Aussie Rules into the new communities, as he works as a project officer in the SANFL Diversity Programs section.

SALT Magazine sat down with Emmanuel to learn more about his involvement with the game and his ambitions.  As we spoke with him, his passion for Aussie Rules became obvious, and he told us he had loved the game from the moment he first started playing it at Sacred Heart College Middle school.

He said he was 11 years old when he arrived in Australia, and had never seen or heard of the game before; “I lived in a village with no TV, and  it was  only when I got here that I saw the game on TV and at school. I knew I wanted to play that game,” he said.

“I have a very competitive nature which drives me to become the best I can at anything I do. When I started playing I had no skills or natural ability, but I knew I had to keep listening to my coaches and keep going at it.”

“Now I finally feel I am getting there. I enjoy the experience and every opportunity to be on the ground playing in front of thousands of people. It’s a good feeling to be out there being cheered by the South Adelaide supporters.  I love it,” he said with a big grin, obviously reliving some of his exploits on the field.


Emmanuel Irra playing for South Adelaide. PHOTO: Nick Hook

Emmanual is very optimistic that this might be the year his club reclaims the SANFL Premiership, their first since  1964. “Our last Grand Final appearance was in 1979, but so far this season we are going very well. We’ve won four out of five games so far, and although I’ve only played in one game, my form is good and I hope I can break into the regular team soon.”

We then spoke about his role as the SANFL Diversity project officer, tasked to reach out to the African community and raise awareness about football and its opportunities.

The response from the African community was slow at first but some multicultural schools are finally starting to show interest. In fact, just recently,  12 schoolboys of African origins were included in the group which travelled to Sydney to compete in the All Nations Cup tournament.

Emmanuel thinks the future is very promising, and can definitely see more Africans getting into the game. “Melbourne is the home of the Australian Football League (AFL) and the national centre of Aussie Rules, so is ahead of South Australia in getting Africans involved, but we are catching up.  I just hope I can be an example to other youngsters who’d like to have a try.”

Melanie Dancer, the Manager of the SANFL Diversity Program, said there are a number of school programs which work with the Port Adelaide Football Club (a power house in the SANFL)  which are aimed at identifying skills and ability in young people from new arrival or migrant backgrounds who could become involved in playing football.

“We have the ‘My Footy’ program which is about introducing very young kids to the game and learning football skills. We also run a multicultural umpiring academy where we teach young people how to be umpires so that they can actually go on to register to become an umpire and get paid to do it,” she said.

SALT Magazine is very impressed with the SANFL’s efforts to increase the involvement of African Australians in this great, national game. We encourage all aspiring young players to follow Emmanuel Irra’s lead – give it a try, listen to your coaches and aim to do the very best you can.

Someday soon we are sure Emmanuel, or someone who was inspired by him, will achieve that ultimate dream of all Aussie Rules players – to be playing on the Melbourne Cricket Ground on that last day of September in the AFL Grand Final.

SALT Magazine is an African-Australian Community News Magazine, created to provide print and online news and information on a broad range of issues of interest to the African community in Australia as well as to the wider general public. Our main aim is to act as a platform for the voice of the new and emerging African Australian communities, providing an African perspective to Australian topics. We wish to highlight African refugee success stories and encourage community development by exploring the challenges faced by new arrivals.

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