‘It was more than just teaching football’


AFL coach Andrew Clarke describes his journey with the Shaheens Pakistani team for the last year

AFL coach, writer, journalist and Hawthorn´s follower Andrew Clarke says his passion for Australian Rules goes further than to lead the Shaheens into the AFL International Cup 2014. It has been about his learning process of how to overcome the difficulties of cultural differences while engaging with mainstream Australian culture.

For Clarke, Footy is like soccer with rugby and American football together. “Then you throw in the strategy aspects and understand that you need to kick goals, stop goals, you can be run down from behind, the side and in front. It is not linear like most football codes… there is no game like it anywhere in the world,” he says.

As an accredited AFL Coach, for the past year, he has led the Pakistan Shaheens towards the Grand Finals. It is the first Pakistani National Australian football team ever. Shaheens was formed in Melbourne to take part in the recently concluded AFL’s International Cup 2014. The 18-team competition included countries from Oceania, Asia, Europe, Africa and North America. For that, it was ticked off as a milestone achievement and a symbol of determination and hard work. “My role as a coach is as an educator, to take the things I know and teach it to others. I do not know everything, so from the coach’s side of the team it was another small team,” Clarke says.

The Pakistan experience


Clarke’s journey with the Shaheens has, however, been more than just a football experience. It has been about the merging of two cultures and specifically about him learning more about Pakistan, its cultures, traditions and beliefs while teaching them about Melbourne’s most important culture – footy.  “For me, it was more than just teaching football to more than 150 Pakistani future footballers. It was about their culture with ours. Our jumpers for instance had yellow as well as the traditional green and white. This was to represent their future as Australians and well as their heritage as Pakistanis. The boys put in so much hard work, and to get that first win against India was an amazing feeling,” he says.

Research submits that people born in English-speaking countries have the highest participation rate in organised physical activity, such as sporting clubs (70 per cent), compared with only 50 per cent of people born overseas. But for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CaLD) groups and individuals there are difficulties understanding the concept of structured sporting activities after a lifetime of living in countries without the opportunities. Also problems engaging with mainstream Australians — some react adversely to perceived ‘cultural differences’ — and the lack of family support due to challenges and pressures of resettlement, lead them to participate in sport but at a social level, in local parks, with youth groups or friends after school.

For Clarke, sport is created from many languages, and he thinks you need to be able to talk in one when competing. “To see players from Pakistan embracing players from India at the end of a game brings me hope for the future,” he says, and adds that he remembers when in 2011 there was even a team made of up of residents from Palestine and Israel called the “Peace Team” and wishes the message had been shared in a broader sense.

As an emergent community leader and diversity advocate, Clarke recognized that the multicultural youth in this country needed new opportunities of interactions with the wider Australian community. “Sport is such a positive thing for young people. They get to understand being part of something bigger than just their own little world. As part of a team, for instance, to understand that success in anything comes as much from hard work as it does talent, and that generally leading a healthy life is better than playing on the computer,” he says.

Talking about some attributes of his players that make the Coach smile, he adds, “I love it when I see them doing something contrary to logic. I believe the great footballers are defined by what they do when they don’t have the ball in their hands as much as when they do. It is how they read the play to get involved in the next piece of play rather than chase the ball at their feet,” he says.

Through his time with the Shaheens he has met a number of footballers in AFL lists who started playing Aussie Rules outside of their cultural roots. As an example, a player Lin Jong with East Timorese and Taiwanese ancestry, didn’t start playing football until he was 15 or 16 and then a couple of years later he was on the Western Bulldogs list. “These sorts of stories, to me, are inspiring and I hope being able to write about each one,” he says, referring to the work done by organizations like the AFL in terms of stamping out racism and providing opportunities for groups within CaLD communities to ensure appropriate cultural and gender issues are addressed when developing programs and policies.

In the past few years’ women involvement in the AFL has been sky-rocketing, and that growth will continue. The women’s game is good to watch, it is not as tough and as physical as the men’s game, but it is competitive and the contest is great. “AFL is a hard sport that requires an amazing aerobic capacity and a set of skills that is broader than any sport I can think of… You need to be able to run 10km in a game, kick, mark (catch), handball, bounce the ball, tackle, bump… the whole lot.”

The AFL Grand Final

Clarke says he try to get to the AFL Grand Final every year with the membership that allows him to do that. “It is a big thing for me and my family especially given we are Hawthorn supporters and have played in the last two Grand Finals. I had my children at the ground in 2008 when Hawthorn won, but not last year,” he says.

He looks at his good players in a different light to many. He likes players like Jordan Lewis from Hawthorn who just play the ball, are hard bodied and get the ball out of the pack. “He wears the same number as my childhood hero, Leigh Matthews, who is rated as the greatest footballer of the 20th century.” But outside of his team, he admires Nat Fyfe from Fremantle has had the best season, and Patrick Dangerfield from Adelaide. “But we should never forget the unsung heroes down in the backline, like Scott Thompson at North Melbourne and Josh Gibson at Hawthorn who has missed a lot of games to injury this season. For the record, I think the best forward in the land is Jarryd Roughead from Hawthorn because he can play any role and for a bloke of his capacity to run is just amazing,” he says.

The writer´s side


A collection of Andrew´s work is in the media and describes the ongoing work of his multifaceted profession as a writer. He believes that the secret of his success lies in his ability to understand his readers. “There is a very big difference in how you face the business compared with a footballing or motorsport audience. They have different needs. As a writer this is much easier, you know what publication your story is for and from that can assume the knowledge base that the reader is coming from, and you create your content based in that. For my business marketing, the biggest task is getting the client to understand their client and to step away from their pre-conceived ideas. It has made for some interesting discussions, particularly with lawyers,” says Clarke who worked for Aitken Partners, promoting principles of fairness and integrity as a marketing communications specialist, for six years.

Andrew stumbled into writing as a career. In both of his first two jobs he did a lot of ghost writing, which meant he learnt early on how to think like someone else, other of his great strengths. So to quickly get the runs he did was important to both personally and professionally. “I had my first book published for Bison Books in New York before I had even finished my second job, so essentially 3 years into my career. I was very proud of my book, but I don’t think I quite realized the significance of it at the time. I finished the manuscript and had submitted all the photos on the morning of my first wedding, so it was all a blur. But when you get your first set of proofs to approve and then get the hard copies it is a very special feeling. Then you get to see your book in the stores, and the feeling of pride is indescribable. I still get that today with 18 more books down the track,” he says.

“At the bottom of every great achievement is a person or a group of persons. From that there is a story to tell. My next goal is always my next book. There is one of the history of strategy in AFL that is the one I really want to do… just need to fund it,” he adds.