Watch the Shaheens train just once and I’m certain you’ll walk away with a new appreciation for Australian football.
A team comprised solely of players from Melbourne’s Pakistani community, the majority who until four months ago knew almost nothing of our native game, might sound a little strange to some.
But standing watching the 30-odd players train on Monday night, ahead of their final AFL 9s hit out of the summer season, it’s impossible not to smile.
Men and boys of all different shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of skill level – some still very raw, charge around Princess Park with unbridled energy and enthusiasm.
Their coach barks orders as his players attempt to perfect skills they only recently knew existed, while encouragement from their teammates reverberates around the ground.
The squad, which grows each week as word spreads through the Pakistani community, looks exquisite in their green jumpers, emblazoned with their individual names and worn as proud as any Aussie in green and gold.
The International Cup is just seven months away and the Shaheens know every session counts.
Club founder Kashif Bouns, who doubles as AFL Victoria’s Multicultural Programs Coordinator, said it’s been long journey to get this far.
Watching the 2011 International Cup, with teams from all over the world competing, Bouns – who was born and raised in Pakistan himself, questioned why no team was representing his native country.
Then armed with a good dose of passion he campaigned for the AFL to allow a team, made up of mostly Pakistani students studying in Melbourne, to compete.
“The first training session we held I was standing at Visy Park wondering if anyone was going to show up,” Bouns said.
“We had great support from leaders in the Pakistani community but I think the perception was that we would struggle to get boys to play.”
Since their humble beginnings the Shaheens have come a long way, and on the back of weekly Sunday morning training sessions and the AFL 9s competition, have become to resemble a typical football club.
Even the Pakistani Government has endorsed the Shaheens as their national Australian football side.
Trainings are an intense affair with 20-30 regulars of the 110 players who have registered, determined to improve their chances of performing well at the International Cup.
To increase their knowledge of the game and to ensure they are well prepared for the tournament, which will be played across Melbourne from August 9-23, the Shaheens embraced the AFL 9s concept.
“It’s been a perfect introduction to Australian football with its no contact rules and emphasis on the social side of the game,” Bouns said.
“Our skills have improved dramatically but there are still plenty of funny moments during the game when some guys forget the rules.”
“We won our first and last game of the competition and there was a fair bit of improvement in between.”
The Shaheens will now add Monday night trainings to their regular Sunday session each week, a big commitment for the majority of the team who are working huge hours and combining full time study with their new favourite sport.
“The guys just love it and know how special it will be to represent their country at the International Cup,” Bouns said.
One of the team’s many talented players; speedy on-baller Bilal Khan, who has also composed the club’s theme song, said the Shaheens had helped bring the Pakistani community in Melbourne closer together.
“Being involved has been a great way to meet people who are in a similar age group and have similar interests,” Khan said.
“We’ve become really good friends and spend time together even away from football.”
Khan said their interest in the AFL had also soared since getting involved with the Shaheens.
“Most of us have been to at least one game of the NAB Cup already and guys are very keen to watch as many games as they can.”
“It’s also helped guys get to know their Australian co-workers and neighbours because now they can relate through football.”