Illustration: Matt Golding

Illustration: Matt Golding

THE AFL will start the process of filtering Chinese athletes into the draft next month as its push for global expansion continues.

The league will open its first academy in Guangzhou, southern China, on July 9, with a total of 30 athletes to be selected for the two-week program.

AFL international development manager Tony Woods said that of the 30, two would be selected for the annual draft combine at Etihad Stadium one week after this year's grand final.

''We believe that if we can succeed in creating an opportunity for a Chinese-born athlete to ultimately play in the AFL, that will then help us connect our game more closely to the Chinese community in Australia,'' he said.

''They still have a really strong connection back to mainland China and so ultimately our game is about heroes and if the community can connect to someone from their generational homeland, that is only going to help in engaging with AFL.''

While excited about the project, Woods said in an interview published in today's Sunday Age that the league had realistic expectations and a Chinese-born footballer might not be drafted for several years.

''It might not be this year, but this is a tangible and genuine step to opening up that talent pathway from China into Australia,'' he said.

The program would combine an introduction to AFL and physical training, with lessons in Australian culture and English.

Thousands of Chinese people watched an exhibition match between Melbourne and the Brisbane Lions in 2010.

Woods said the planning of an academy began in February. He added the league was aiming for the international market

While India was another potential market, with its cricket ties to Australia and many expatriates, he said it was important to get China off the ground first.

''At the end of the day, AFL is played in some organised fashion, albeit small in a lot of cases, in more than 40 countries,'' he said.

''Now, it would not be prudent for the AFL to be spreading their investment over 40 countries, so we have really got to ensure that our investment is smart and targeted and where we are getting genuine outcomes, and look to build that over the coming years.

''We are really confident that in time, if we build our participation base and bolt onto that some genuine talent pathways, genuine talent, will flow through and ultimately end up at the elite level in the AFL.''

The league last week announced that it wanted clubs to play for premiership points overseas, with St Kilda planning to hold a match in Wellington, New Zealand, during the 2013 season.