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Football and Community Wellbeing in Papunya: The need for government funding

In Papunya, a remote Luritja and Pintupi community in Australia, football is the centre of social activity, with men and young people training every weeknight on a red earth football field against the backdrop of Ulumbaru, the Northern Territory's second-highest mountain. However, Alice Springs Town Council's decision to withdraw its support for Central Australia's remote football competition has left community football players in the lurch this year, as coaches scramble to put together a league of their own.

The controversial "pause" on remote communities' access to Alice Springs ovals was implemented in response to the Alice Springs "crime crisis." While this move has raised the possibility of devising "On Country" leagues to be played in communities, recent federal government attention to the "crime crisis" presents an opportunity to support surrounding communities in tangible, self-determined ways.

Sports in Papunya facilitate community-level leadership, governance, and decision-making that align with Luritja cultural practices and understandings. Funding sporting infrastructure in communities could also increase community wellbeing, unity, and economic self-sufficiency.

While football in Aboriginal communities has been shown to support health, wellbeing, and social needs, and helps people stay on Country, significant infrastructure investment could improve community health and wellbeing. However, Coach McDonald is concerned about the timeline of infrastructure upgrades. He says, "it doesn't happen that quick, you know. We have to wait a couple of months or years. So we have to find something else."

Football is increasingly important to women and young people in Papunya. Luritja Elder Karen McDonald Nangala says, "the women used to be only spectators but now the young women are interested and keen to play footy." The women's team brought pride to Papunya last year by winning at the Ampilatwatja Sports Carnival.

Football captain and Luritja man Aben Sandy Tjapaltjarri says, "That training can help people from drinking and all the other stuff. It makes them come back to community." Training is gruelling for the Papunya Eagles, a championship team of men aged 18-30, with attendance required four nights a week and matches on Sunday in Alice Springs against other remote communities.

Remote communities are now scrambling for an alternative league. Coach McDonald is concerned about the impact on young talented players. "It's really sad for the young talented players. They'll be missing out. I feel sorry not just for my community but everybody. Every team has talented players. I don't know what's going to happen."

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