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Nauru's football fanaticism fires AFL aspirations

Men wearing the Nauruan AFL uniform stand arm in arm and sing on a grass field.
Nauru sings the national anthem at the AFL International Cup.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

To many, the Pacific Island nation of Nauru is known for refugees, its history as a phosphate mine, or it isn't known at all. But its national AFL team is doing everything possible to show the world it is Australian football's home away from home.

The home of Australian Rules Football — the Melbourne Cricket Ground — can seat and feed the entire population of Nauru ten times over.

But the big city and big numbers don't intimidate the Nauru national AFL side, the Chiefs, even when they are 5,000 kilometres from home.

The Pacific Island nation recently defeated Great Britain, a place with more than 6,000 times as many people, in the AFL International Cup. In doing so, they officially became the sixth-best AFL nation in the world.

A Nauruan AFL player drops the ball to kick it. A British player is in pursuit (left) and another is about to intercept (right).
Nauru defeated Great Britain in the AFL International Cup.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"AFL to Nauruans means a lot," says Chiefs' Vice Captain and AFL International Cup World team half forward Kenneth Oppenheimer.

So big, Nauru is arguably the world's most-obsessed footy nation, even more so than the big island that invented the game — at least on a per-capita basis. Nauru's 14 districts have each adopted their own Australian AFL club and most every person publicly and proudly displays their allegiance.

"A few of the boys here, if they are from certain districts, they only wear certain colours," Kenneth explains.

"There's a St Kilda district, a Blues district and then there's a Tigers district."

And yet, as the Nauru Chiefs train at Albert Park, with the Victorian capital's skyline as a backdrop, there are more AFL grounds within sight than on the whole island they call home, and a whole lot more grass too. Nauru's lone AFL ground has a gravel surface.

A gravel oval with AFL goalposts seen over the shoulder of a man in a white cap looking away from camera.
Linkbelt Oval is covered in gravel and is the only AFL ground in Nauru.

Supplied: AFL

"That's the big change," says Chiefs Assistant Manager Ramrakha Detenamo.

"Even the ball is a bit lighter here, whereas back home it is heavy because the ball absorbs a lot of moisture and dirt. So there's a lot of adjustments."

Australian Rules came to Nauru almost 90 years ago and is established as the national sport but it needs a champion.

A man in an AFL Nauru jacket leans against a tree.
Chiefs' Assistant Manager Ramrakha Detenamo.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"We've been playing for such a long time, but we haven't broken though to get a player into the AFL competition," says Ram.

The sport's Australian governing body is keeping the game thriving in Nauru via the Australian Aid-funded Pacific Sports Partnerships and using the local obsession to encourage healthier lifestyles and greater gender and disability inclusion in the game. A healthier population will not only live longer and better, but it is more likely to produce the athlete Nauru so desires.

A man standing on a football oval holds an Australian football and looks at the camera. Players warm up in the background.
Chiefs' Vice Captain and AFL International Cup World team half forward Kenneth Oppenheimer.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"We're lacking height, and a lot of the teams take advantage of that," Kenneth admits.

"It's quite hard actually. We are waiting for the next generation."

Yoshi Harris was the great hope of this generation. The 23-year-old utility was scouted, offered a scholarship in Australia, won a Grand Final and Best on Ground for Sydney Hills Eagles and went within a whisker of being drafted into the AFL. He has returned to Nauru echoing the health message.

"I reckon I did alright skills-wise, but it is just the fitness part of it that I can't keep up," he says.

A close-up portrait of a Nauruan man with a blue sky behind him.
Nauruan Yoshi Harris went within a whisker of being drafted into the AFL.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"That was the main thing that was killing me. Just the pace of the football game that they are playing at. It's just really fast.

"There is a chance. Now we know that's the pathway. Obviously, that was the dream but it didn't work out for me.

And the footballers of this tiny island nation have proven they have a lot to give. If one does break through to AFL at the highest level, the MCG won't be full of Nauruans. That's impossible. But they'll make their presence felt. They are used to proving size isn't everything.

A man crouches on an oval with his head down, with one hand on the grass and one to his head.
A fulltime prayer following the defeat of Great Britain at the AFL International Cup.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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