The other AFL Anzac Day clash

This April, some of the best football players in the country (debatably) will battle it out for the AFL Anzac Day Cup in front of a packed house at the MCG. 

But around 10 hours beforehand, and 10,000 miles away, another AFL Anzac Day tradition will be taking place on the very fields that forged the Anzac Spirit more than 100 years ago.

The Anzac Day match between Essendon and Collingwood is one of the most highly anticipated games of the AFL regular season, and anyone who has ever attended will tell you that it is much more than just a footy match. It’s a day where the entire AFL community remember and celebrate those who fought bravely, paying the ultimate price for our country and freedom.

A rousing tribute brings silence to the energetic crowd pre-game, and there is something palpable in the air at the MCG once the game begins and the crowd erupts… perhaps it’s the Anzac Spirit.

And while millions tune in to the game at the ‘G, on the other side of the world a much lesser-known AFL Anzac Day spectacle is taking place. On Anzac Day eve, two teams made up of entirely amateur but passionate footballers from Australia and France will play a very Aussie brand of football in the very French village of Villers-Bretonneux.

At this site and on this day in 1918, an Australian-led counterattack reclaimed the strategic village in northern France that had been captured by enemy forces during WWI – exactly three years after the famous Gallipoli landing.

2473 Australian soldiers lost their lives in this battle, but their bravery will never be forgotten by the locals. You can still find signs around Villers-Bretonneux stating ‘N’oublions jamais l’Australie’ which translates to: Let us never forget Australia. There is also a street called rue de Melbourne and a pub called Le Melbourne in Villers-Bretonneux.

AFL Europe Anzac Day Villers-Bretonneux Battlefields Tour
The Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux (above) and the Aussie & French players celebrating Australia Week (below)

Similar to the clash at the ‘G, this meeting is not just about football. It’s about remembering and respecting the sacrifices made by those who retook Villers-Bretonneux, and is actually the focal point of the wider ‘Australia Week’ celebrations organised by the local authorities.

“It is a particularly special week given the significance of the date to both the Australian and French public, but especially the local community that will never forget Australia, and even have Australian flags displayed in their windows as you walk through the town,” said former Aussie player turned French team coach Andrew Unsworth.

The tradition began 15 years ago by a bunch of expats and footy fans playing in the AFL Europe leagues. But with the increasing popularity of AFL in Europe, the Aussie team is now selected from a long list of applicants, based on their personal or family connections to the region and the Great War, rather than their previous football experience.

The French team is picked from the passionate amateurs who play in the Commission Nationale de Football Australien (CNFA), the governing body of the 10 AFL clubs around France. That’s right, Aussie Rules footy is played all over France!

French footy is predominantly played in a 9 v 9 format on converted rugby or soccer pitches, with an unspoken agreement of not too many Aussie expats on one team. But the French are not to be underestimated and have actually won the Anzac Day contest against the Aussies on a handful of occasions!

“I’ve had the pleasure of watching AFL grow in France in the both the men’s and women’s division, and while they don’t have the luxury of growing up kicking a footy like we do, there is a lot of great talent in French footy and more importantly a really amazing AFL culture,” added Andrew Unsworth, who was one of the early promotors of the sport in Paris.

The French version of the Anzac Day Cup clash starts with the players attending a dawn service held at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, one of the key sites of Australian remembrance along the Western Front.

A much smaller crowd than what you’ll see at the MCG then gather on nearby oval in the shadow of the war memorial to watch the friendly footy foray.

AFL Europe Anzac Day Villers-Bretonneux Battlefields Tour
A strange French celebration tradition for the victors (above) and some images from the Anzac Day matches (below)