Despite being very close geographically, Australia and Papua New Guinea might seem like being worlds apart in culture and lifestyle. But in the realm of sports, the two countries are very similar – Papua New Guinea’s national sport is rugby league, making it one of the few countries besides Australia to favor rugby league over rugby union.
But the country is also home to a very passionate footy community, which the locals typically refer to as “AFL” or just “Rules.”
Papua New Guinea was an Aussie territory for many years, establishing partially autonomous rule shortly after World War II, but not becoming a fully independent nation until 1975. Given these historic ties, it’s not surprising that the sport of Aussie rules has a well-established history in PNG.
Footy was first played in PNG in 1944 in the city of Lae, where a number of Australian schoolteachers and military personnel were located. Lae, the second-largest city in PNG, proved to be an ideal spot for an Aussie rules community to grow over the next few decades, as the game spread to other large cities, including the capital, Port Moresby.
In the 1970s, the best Papuans were selected to play an annual game with a representative team from Queensland, the closest Australian state to PNG. In 1977, the sport was popular enough in PNG to send their national Under-17 footy team to compete in an international cup against the Victoria team. The next year, PNG’s team returned Down Under – this time to Adelaide against the South Australian team – and in 1979, PNG sent another squad to Tasmania to field a team in the Teal Cup (now known as the AFL Under-18 Championships).
Unfortunately, in the 80s, the presence of Aussie rules stagnated. Papua New Guinea was now a fully independent nation, and the country’s TV stations were much more focused on the very popular State of Origin rugby league matches between New South Wales and Queensland. Apart from the AFL Grand Final, footy games were rarely televised in PNG and many of the previous decade’s star players were aging and retiring from the sport.
Fortunately, the footy league in Cairns, Queensland took notice of the declining participation rates in PNG and helped them out, offering to play occasional matches against the PNG teams starting in 1990.
In 1995, the PNG national footy team, the Mosquitos, got a chance to star on the international stage, competing in the Arafura Games in the Australian city of Darwin. The Arafura Games were a unique and inclusive international event, featuring numerous sports being played by multiple athletes, both able-bodied and disabled (it was discontinued in 2011 due to budget cuts).
The Mosquitos crushed the New Zealand Falcons in the Arafura Grand Final, winning by a score of 100-18 and claiming the gold medal. The major footy authorities further south in Melbourne took notice and arranged meetings with officials from the PNG Rules Football Council. Two higher-ups in the AFL, Ian Collins and Ed Biggs, traveled to PNG and were impressed with the quality of footy that they were playing.
At the 1997 Arafura Games, the Mosquitos prevailed over New Zealand again, winning by a score of 93-60. They also played games against Australian squads, including the Northern Territory representative team and a team comprised entirely of soldiers from the Australian Defence Force.
In 2000, the AFL was ready to invest in its PNG audience, officially naming Andrew Cadzow as the country’s AFL development officer in Port Moresby. The following year, AFL PNG was officially incorporated, and the sport had new life in the country. Currently, AFL PNG seeks to coordinate intrastate games, develop current footy players, and discover new talent, while supporting the game financially in PNG. AFL PNG also works to get more kids involved, either through school or after-school programs.
They’ve also developed a strategic partnership with AFL Queensland (starting in 2005), which offers some boarding school scholarships to deserving Papuan children, as well as providing easier paths for Papuan footy players looking to get their shot at the AFL.
The highest recorded attendance for any footy match in the nation’s history was in 2009, when the PNG-based Central Highlands Football Club played against the Flying Boomerangs (an Aboriginal Australian team) at Kilage Stadium, drawing 7,500 spectators.
At the moment, AFL PNG relies on a small number of donations from PNG-based banks, phone companies, and other businesses, as well as some private donations from Australian entrepreneurs. The country has also recently welcomed an Aussie rules development academy in Port Moresby and hopes to further foster the growth of footy in PNG sporting culture. The AFL’s Brisbane Lions, in particular, have taken an interest in recruiting Papuan footy players to the Lions’ development academy (formerly known as the Suncoast Lions in the NEAFL). Such players have included Amua Pirika, John Vogae, and Emmanuel Tupia.
Currently, there are nearly 2,000 registered adult players in PNG, and the sport continues to experience strong growth, even more so than soccer or rugby union. The country has the second-highest number of registered footballers outside of Australia itself. The future for footy in Papua New Guinea continues to look very bright.
PAPUA NEW GUINEANS IN THE AFL
- Donald Barry (played 2009) – Drafted in 2009 by the Brisbane Lions as an international rookie. Only played one year in the AFL, but had a long and successful run with the Coolangatta Blues (Queensland Australian Football League) and with the Manunda Hawks in the AFL Cairns competition. Barry also played for the Mosquitos in the 2008 Australian Football International Cup.
- James Gwilt (played 2005-2016) – Born in Melbourne to a Papuan mother and an Australian father. Played in 126 games as a defender with St Kilda from 2005-2014 before playing two seasons with the Essendon Bombers.
- Peter Labi (played 2009) – Drafted by Carlton as an international rookie in 2009 after spending the previous year as a member of the Brisbane Lions reserves team. Also a member of the Mosquitos’ 2008 International Cup championship squad.
- Mal Michael (played 1997-2008) – By far the most influential PNG footy player, Michael was born in Port Moresby to a Papuan mother and an Australian father. Moved to Brisbane at age three and graduated from St Peter’s Lutheran College. Ended up playing 238 career games in the AFL with Collingwood, Essendon, and Brisbane. After retiring in 2008, he has become an unofficial footy spokesman in his native country and has established the Mal Michael Foundation to help raise funds for the sport and give more Papuans a chance at the AFL.
- Gideon Simon (played 2012) – Originally from Mount Hagen, PNG, Simon was signed as an international rookie for the Richmond Tigers in 2012 after playing with the Coburg Lions in the VFL. While he didn’t stick in the AFL competition due to a troublesome hamstring, Simon managed to catch on with Centrals-Trinity Beach in the AFL Cairns competition.
- Brendan Beno – A full forward, Beno hails from the island of Bougainville and was a recruit for the Brisbane Lions Academy program in 2010. He had a very promising junior league career in PNG and also played for the Mosquitos in the 2011 International Cup.
- Ben Sexton (played 1991-1996) – Born in PNG, but raised in Bendigo, Victoria. Made his debut for the Western Bulldogs in 1991 and played 39 career games there before joining Carlton in 1996 and subsequently retiring.
- Eastern Highlands Rules Football League
- Goroka Football League
- Kimbe Football League
- Lae Football League
- Mount Hagen Football League
- Port Moresby Football League
- Rabaul Football League