The Finland Icebreakers competing during the 2008 International Cup.

Finland breaking barriers to play AFL

By Nick Townsend

Six years ago a bunch of Aussie expats living in Finland meet up through the local bar scene and came up with the idea of meeting up for a kick. From these unremarkable origins, Aussie Rules has since experienced some remarkable growth.

“Finns are reserved by nature, so making them change and do something different and new can be difficult,” says Grant Siermans, manager of the Finland Icebreakers, “But once they experience Aussie Rules, they seem to stick with it and become very enthusiastic.”

In just six years they’ve expanded well beyond the Australian expat community, and have created a three-team 9-a-side league, with the possibility of another two teams starting up soon. Siermans estimates numbers at around sixty active players, the vast majority of which are native Finns.

What makes the development of the sport in Finland unique is their success in promoting the sport amongst the locals. The Finland Icebreakers, the country’s national representative side, has for the most part been made up entirely of Finnish players. From their very second game, they’ve ensured that a Finn always captains the side.

“I think they like the physicality of the game and the new experience,” says Siermans as a way of explanation for their success in recruiting locals.

A strong contingent of local players is not only vital for the long-term growth of the sport, but it will also help Finland field a strong team in the European Champions in Denmark and Sweden this August. Unlike previous European tournaments, the European Championships will be 16-a-side, and teams can only feature local players. Previous tournament have typically been 9-a-side and have allowed Australian expats.

Stuck in the top northern corner of Europe, Finland is one of the more isolated places where Aussie Rules has grown, which has resulted in a number of financial and logistical barriers to participating in international competitions. With next to no sponsors, players have to pay their own way.

But despite these setbacks the Icebreakers have still managed to partake in a number of international competitions. They won the Central European Championship in 2006 and 2007, and have been regular participants in the EU Cup since 2007. In 2008, they even managed to send a team all the way to the International Cup in Melbourne, the heartland and birthplace of the sport.

“Thankfully, there is a number of Finns and others who enjoy the game so much that money becomes a small issue,” says Grant Siermans. By comparison Sweden and Denmark are right next-door, which will obviously help. “We are a young nation in terms of years playing the game and we will have many who will just have one games experience in 16 a side.”

“I am sure there will be some die hard Aussie Rules lovers that will do anything to keep the game going as best it can,” says Grant on the future of the game in Finland, “But I could see Finland being very selective about which tournaments they play due to organisational and financial issues.”

Visit the website for the European Championships in Australian Football 2010.

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