This article contains quotes from members of the First Nations community, which the author has been given permission to share and publish. Images have also been used with their permission
This article was co-written with Papunya community leader and Luritja-Pintupi man Terence Abbott Tjapanangka.
In Papunya, a remote community of Luritja and Pintupi, the red soil soccer field is the center of social activity every weeknight from March to September. Against the backdrop of Ulumbaru, the second highest mountain in the Northern Territory, men and youth train into the night.
Alice Springs City Council decision in March to withdraw its support for Central Australia’s remote soccer league has left the rhythm of life for community soccer players in the lurch this year as coaches scramble to put together a league of their own.
The controversial “pause” on outlying communities’ access to the Alice Springs ovals was implemented as one answer to the Alice Springs “Crime Crisis”. The move has increased the possibility of creating “On Country” leagues that can be played in communities.
Recent attention of the federal government to the Alice Springs “crime crisis” presents an opportunity to support surrounding communities in tangible, self-determined ways.
Sport in Papunya facilitates community level leadership, governance and decision making that align with Luritja cultural practices and conventions. Funding sports infrastructure in communities can also increase community well-being, unity and economic self-sufficiency.
Although studies are limited, football in Aboriginal communities has been shown to support health, well-being and social needs and help people stay Country.
Football can create community and cultural connections
Training is grueling for the Papunya Eagles, a championship team of men between the ages of 18 and 30. Attendance is required four nights a week, with games played on Sundays in Alice Springs against other outlying communities. Football captain and Luritja man Aben Sandy Tjapaltjarri says: “That training can help people to stop drinking and all those other things. It keeps them coming back to the community.”
Barry Judd and Tim Butcher’s ongoing investigation about football in Papunya found intergenerational cultural knowledge transfer via On Country football crucial. It provides a strong, resilient forum to help develop future leaders and gives these young men the opportunity to spend valuable time with elders.
Young footballer and Luritja man Kamahl Bush Tjapaltjarri says: “Footy is what we love most, the guys who are all enjoying themselves and being happy and busy, which makes us proud. Sometimes we learn something new from the old boys.”
The league structures the annual schedule for some players who move to Papunya for the football season. But Sandy says, “They won’t come back if there’s no footy… It’s good to have those men around… When you have people in the community, it’s safe.”
Football is also becoming increasingly important for women and young people. Luritja Elder Karen McDonald Nangala says, “Before, the women were just spectators, but now the young women are interested and eager to play footy.” The women’s team brought pride to Papunya last year by winning at the Ampilatwatja Sports Carnival.
Read more: Mparntwe Alice Springs ‘crime wave’ report missing some context here
The withdrawal of the council’s support for the league brings back attention to the long-held goal of having a bush league played in the community.
However, just days into pre-season training, Papunya’s oval is littered with bushes, the microphone in the commentator’s box is broken, and there is no water or shade for players and spectators. The lack of funding for basic infrastructure makes the prospect of On Country competitions challenging.
In 2011, the Wilurarra Tjutaku Football League was established independently of the Central Australian Football League to be played on land between remote Aboriginal communities rather than in Alice Springs. This competition emerged as a form of community resistance and self-determination in answer government intervention in the lives of Aboriginal people in the NT, in particular the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007.
However, the Wilurarra Tjutaku Football League faced several issues, including one lack of institutional support from the Central Australian Football League, Australian Football League Northern Territory AFLNT and the NT Government.
In 2021, AFLNT President Sean Bowden explored returning the league to communities, but concluded that inadequate infrastructure in the bush made it unfeasible.
Sports infrastructure is lacking in remote communities
Opportunities to revive On Country leagues shine a spotlight on a larger problem with basic infrastructure in remote communities.
Papunya Eagles football coach and Luritja-Pintupi man Dalton McDonald Tjapaltjarri says:
that’s what the federal government should be looking at, I think… We need grass, water, good medical staff, ambulance, good umpires.
Papunya Elders believe that playing at home in Papunya can bring economic benefits to the community by encouraging people to spend money in local shops. Luritja senior Karen McDonald says On Country football would also benefit spectators: “More people could also come and cheer, watch, be happy and make proud.”
The future of Bush football
While significant investments in infrastructure can improve community health and well-being, Coach McDonald is concerned about the timeline of infrastructure upgrades. He says: “It doesn’t go that fast, you know. We have to wait a few months or years. So we have to look for something else.”
In the meantime, remote communities are looking for an alternative, he says.
“It is really sad for the young talented players. They will miss it. I feel sorry not only for my community, but for everyone. Every team has talented players. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”