Contributed by: Olivier Tresca
Australian Football in France has been consistently growing in the last few years but anyone familiar with the European scene will know that this has not always been the case. In fact less than five years ago Football was about to disappear from France. But thanks to the work of a few dedicated persons it survived and it's now stronger than ever.
The country now counts seven established teams spread around the country with ongoing projects to add another three. Travel has always been an issue in France as the teams are quite far apart, so to ease the pressure on the newest ones, a two league system has been implemented.
The Super League is only open to the more established teams who can commit a full team to each home and away game. Ultimately the winner of the this league earn the title of Champion de France.
The Development League is there to help newer teams establish themselves, the rules on the number of players are less stringent than in the Super League, teams can lend extra players to the each other to make the games happen, and teams can reschedule matches if they fear they will have insufficient players.
Thomas Urban, the president of CNFA is quick to point out that the Development league is not a second class championship for weaker team, but really an opportunity for the the newer recruits to hone their skills, “In fact, each team in the teams in the Development League can request to join the Super League when they feel ready”, he says.
This two-tier arrangement is set to continue until there are enough teams to creates regional tournaments, the winner of each competing for the national title. When asked about a possible widening gap in skills between the teams from both leagues, Thomas doesn't seems too concerned, “the difference in skills is important, but the French Cup and the Coupe Grand Sud are good opportunities for the players of all leagues to compete against each other and asses their level”.
New clubs are in development in Pau, Saint Nazaire and Lyon. Pau sits in the Pyrenees mountains, close to the Spanish border. It is almost halfway between Toulouse and Bordeaux, two of the most established teams in France, making it a perfect place to start a new team in the south west of France.
Lyon, being the second largest city in France, should find plenty of players. The closest team would be the Marseille Dockers, 300 km south, but excellent high speed train links to Paris (and Marseille as well) would put the new teams a mere 3 hours away from some high quality opponents.
The most challenging projects remains Saint Nazaire, which sits on the Loire estuary at quite a large distance from other established teams. It is a rather small town, although the proximity of Nantes, one of France's largest cities, should be enough to provide the players.
"Unfortunately, the CNFA can't provide much help at this point, apart from pointing them towards the right paperwork, or coordinating all the interested parties”, Thomas says. But he is hopeful that once these projects have met the requirements to become an association, a mandatory first step to become a sports club in France, the CNFA will be able to provide them with training material, footballs, and necessary support to approach the local authorities.
He is also convinced that decent media coverage is essential to the survival of the game. Currently, coverage is pretty much non existent, Eurosport 2 being the only TV channel broadcasting AFL matches, only late on Sunday nights and only available on premium cable suscription. To add insult to injury, the games are not even shown in their entirety.
In an effort to establish a healthy governing body in France, the CNFA is working with the Union National Leo Lagrange, a multi-sports federation. It is part of the French olympic committee and is fully recognised by the French ministry of sports, they also bring the knowledge needed to navigate the somewhat complicated french administrative system to the table.
This ultimately gives more credibility to the sport in France. More people are now involved in running the CNFA, “It's not just two people anymore, Cyril Talon and I, but a real team of four people all dedicated to the same goals," Thomas says.
When asked where he sees this relationship going, Thomas says that it will at least take another 10 years until a truly autonomous federation can exist. In order to reach that goal more clubs are needed, a junior program must be established, women recruitment must increase and so on.
In the meantime, he is quite happy with the current situation and doesn't think a move to another federation would be a good idea, "we have lots of freedoms that we probably would not have if we were part of the rugby or American football federation, they would probably see us as a threat and hold us back."
The last couple of years have also been pretty busy for the national team with a first appearance at the International Cup in 2011. They undeniably made an impression on the field by reaching the finals of the division 2 but also got noticed off the field for their good spirit and unique celebration. While some other countries found it hard to bounce back after a first IC appearance, most notably Spain in 2005, French players managed to get back to their local league with great success. For most of them, playing full format was a real eye opener and they went back to their clubs with a more professional view of the game.
Sadly, the CNFA wasn't able to use France's good IC results to find new sponsors, a change in leadership meant more pressing issues had to be dealt with. Nevertheless, Thomas is confident France will be back to Australia in 2014, “I already have 30 blokes training and saving money for the next IC."
Closer to home, the CNFA can expect an exciting 2013 international campaign, with the EU Cup being held in Bordeaux. Thanks to the great work from Bombers Alban Schieber and Fred Zohar, this year's edition should be a great opportunity to bring the spotlights on football in France and hopefully get some deserved recognition by the authorities and the media.
“The EU cup being at home, players have no excuse not to travel” says Thomas, and he hopes he will have the best team ever assembled. “We are aiming for at least a 5th place, like in Belfast in 2011. A podium finish would be the icing on the cake!”.
France has always been considered as one of the key countries to a successful European expansion of footy. The CNFA works closely with AFL Europe on a number of projects to help promote the game, most notably by staging the annual ANZAC game in Villers-Bretonneux.
When asked about his opinion on the works performed by AFL Europe, Thomas is pleased even though it sometimes feels like the rewards aren't well distributed, "The Bulldogs v Port Adelaide game in London will only benefit England, and the AIS games, like the one in Paris last year, will only be worth it if they are organised during a week end and not a mid-week afternoon."
He is also convinced that a successful European and international development of the game will only happen once a real international federation recognised by the IOC sees the light of day, “until then, we will always depend on the AFL financial support, and the governments will always be reluctant to help."
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