Contributed by: Brett Northey
It appears the Australian Football League and the nations likely to attend the 2008 International Cup are considering whether to loosen the criteria that controls which players are eligible to represent a nation at the tournament. In the first two Cups the definition was very strict, though not always enforced as rigorously as intended. Options are now being considered which could widen the net considerably, to allow players who are simply passport holders for a given country. This has the potential to be a major issue with some countries likely to favour a free-for-all and others keen to maintain the status quo. Changes to the overall structure of the event are also on the cards.
The original rules for 2002 (and we think 2005) stated that:
8.3 (a) A Player is eligible for selection by a League if:
(i) the Player was predominantly resident in the country of the League between 10 and 16 years of age, subject to the qualification in sub-clause 8.3(b);
(ii) the Player is a citizen of the country of the League at the time when the Competition is conducted, subject to the qualification in sub-clause 8.3(b); and
(iii) the Player is not under suspension in that Player’s local competition during the period of the Competition.
8.3 (b) The AFL may, on a case by case basis, waive the eligibility requirements contained in sub-clause 8.3(a) and (b) if it is satisfied that a Player is a bona fide resident in the country of the League and his participation would be in the best interests of the Competition. Submissions in this regard must be made by lodging the Player Eligibility form attached as Appendix II before the commencement of the Competition.
This was designed to encourage development of locals in each country, rather than having the national sides dominated by players who could be described as mostly Aussies with a heritage from another country. Rugby League springs to mind as having the somewhat farcical situation in its World Cup whereby countries that don't play the game can field a competitive side of Australians and others. The rule for Australian Football appears to have been largely successful so far, though there have been exceptions made, and plenty of cases where teams have questioned the credentials of their opponents. This occurred as recently as the 2005 Cup, such as when the United States queried whether New Zealand's star James Bowden should be playing (the AFL's Ed Biggs ruled he was all clear). There was also an issue over a Samoan player, and indeed we've heard complaints about various players from Samoa, Japan and more (as it was after the fact we considered it non-productive to spend a great deal of time investigating further).
Football's marquee international event consists of locals not expat Aussies. The AFL has been keen to emphasise that fact. However there have been calls for the rules to be relaxed for reasons such as expanding the number of countries that have the numbers to attend, and allowing expat Aussies, many of whom have put in tremendous amounts of work developing the game, the opportunity to represent their adopted country. At one stage there was even an ill-fated plan to run a World Cup in opposition to the International Cup, with very broad eligibility rules. And perhaps the driving force behind a possible change is the AFL's stated desire to have as many countries as possible attend the IC2008 in what is being celebrated as the 150th anniversary of the game.
So what are the options being considered? Our understanding is that the AFL affiliates are being asked to give their thoughts on what rule changes there should be, with the most broad option being that simply owning a passport for a country will be sufficient. If this was the final decision then it puts a radically different spin on the next Cup. Australia has a rich multi-cultural, multi-ethnic population and many Aussies have two passports. Nations with no way of getting the numbers to attend would suddenly be potential starters. Countries such as Great Britain and the US would face the decision of whether to select their best team including from newly eligible players, or continue with their previous rules of picking mainly from "born and bred" players only. Theoretically some countries could move from the middle of the rankings to top and field sides almost exclusively of dual citizenship players.
It's quite likely that some countries will be strongly opposed to any change in the rules so it will be very interesting to see how this plays out, though it's likely to do so outside of the realm of public debate, i.e. behind closed doors. Personally I wouldn't be against a slight softening of the rules, but feel the general spirit of them should be maintained so as to retain the credibility of the competition and give locals something to aim for. Like it or not, having teams of expatriate Australians representing a country will not assist the cause of the game as much as having born and bred players doing so. This isn't meant to under value the role that expats have, but obviously the ultimate goal is to give local players something to aim for. If the rules are to be relaxed, I'd propose maintaining the original rules and adding a fixed supplementary list of perhaps four players who would also be eligible if they had a passport for that country and had been primarily resident there for say five years, indicating a firm commitment to their adopted land. This would potentially strengthen a few teams, without dramatically changing the nature of the event. The exact criteria would have to be carefully considered, for example one reader told us that "I lived 20 years in Japan and to get a Japanese passport I would have to relinquish my Australian passport. I think some period of residency (say 10 years is fairer). This way all teams have an option of adding ex-pat Aussies. I believe the Asian countries and the US disallow dual citizenship. Therefore the passport rule unfairly favours countries that allow dual citizenship".
The AFL's head of National and International Development, David Matthews, told WFN in March that "Roger Berryman (AFL Development Events Manager) is currently developing plans for the event. He will control all aspects of the event but is planning to consult widely and is likely to establish a "Competition Committee" to administer the rules etc". The most likely date will be August 2008, though not finalised at the time of discussion. Rumour has it that there's also a chance the format of the tournament will change significantly, with two divisions being considered. If that's the case, then perhaps the eligibility rules could be different for the two different divisions, with the existing rules remaining for Division 1 and a broader definition for Division 2, allowing more teams to attend with a core of naturalised or dual passport expatriate Aussies - note that this is just speculation. Scheduling permitting, a number of matches may also be held as curtain-raisers to AFL matches, not just the Grand Final as happened in 2005. Indeed the next tournament could see quite a different International Cup to the two previously held - stay tuned as we rush towards 2008.
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