FOOTBALL season will come early for a team of nine volunteers from Bendigo travelling to India early in the new year.
The team, which includes nine Bendigo Umpires Association representatives, will assist in the running of the AFL India National Championships, which are being played at Murshidabad on January 5-7.
They will take on a variety of duties, including coaching, umpiring, scoring, timekeeping and commentating.
In what has become an annual pilgrimage for members of the Bendigo football community, this will be the sixth trip to India.
The overseas mission was the brainchild of Golden Square Football Netball Club chaplain Bruce Claridge.
What started as an idea for an alternative end of season trip, has evolved into a close relationship between AFL India and the Bendigo football community.
This year's trip will be the first to go ahead without Claridge, with umpire Paula Shay assuming the mantle as team leader.
Shay, who is making her third trip, was excited to see a few fresh faces in the travelling team
"There's nine going and only four of us have been before, so it should be a real adventure for the first-timers," she said.
Shay said the team was indebted to AFL Central Victoria and local leagues for their support.
"They have been really helpful in getting the word out they we are looking for things to be donated," she said.
"135kgs of football uniforms have been donated, including full team jerseys, umpire shirts, footballs and umpire flags.
"It's amazing, every time you go back, you see the kids in India wearing Bendigo gear.
"I saw photos from Christmas Day from the Mominpore slum and someone was wearing a Bendigo Pioneers jumper."
Traditionally held in Kolkata, the 2020 championships will be held for the first time at Murshidabad in the Indian state of West Bengal, about one hour from the India-Bangladesh border.
For the Bendigo team, this will involve a five-hour train ride from Kolkata, to where they will return at the end of the championships to undertake missionary work, including visits to the orphanage and disability rooms at Mother Theresa House, as well as some one-on-one time in the Monimpore Slums.
Joining Shay are fellow umpires Mark Snell, Dale Caldwell, Tom Smith, Gary Russell, Geoff Annand and Ken Miller, and brothers Paul and Adam Symons who grew up playing for Golden Square.
Caldwell, who is heading to India for the second time after making his first trip in 2018, described the experience as a real eye opener.
"We were based in Kolkata and the thing that really stood out for me were just the differences between the rich and the poor," he said.
"During the visit we went to Mother Theresa's dying rooms, where people go to die with dignity, and we drove out of there and a kilometre up the road there's a Porsche dealership.
"One one side of the road you have the five-star Marriott Hotel and the other side is slums.
"The extremes are incredible."
On the field, powerhouse Bengal Tigers will be aiming for a three-peat, after going back-to-back in 2018 and '19.
Jharkhand Crows are the defending junior division premiers.
With spots in the Indian team for the 2020 International Cup in Australia up for grabs, Caldwell - a five-time BFNL grand final umpire - said competition between the 10 competing teams would be 'eager and enthusiastic'.
"One thing I found (players) really struggled with last time was, when we pay a free kick, we signal to the opposite way the ball is going," he said.
"Over there, we pay the free kick, we signal the way the ball is going."
The team will depart for India on January 2.
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