YoIn many ways, football and migration have always been intertwined in Australia. From its introduction by British migrants in the late 19th century and the rise of postwar ethnic clubs, to the dismissiveness of the phrase “wog-ball” and the jubilation of the 2006 squad filled with first and second generation migrants, football and migrant communities have been inseparable bedfellows.
It is a link that remains just as strong today, with the Socceroos squad announced for the 2022 World Cup featuring players from Bosnian, Croatian, Turkish-Cypriot and South African backgrounds. And in a trio of players with South Sudanese backgrounds – Awer Mabil, Garang Kuol and Thomas Deng – the Socceroos have a new generation of diaspora players to reflect both changing face of the squad and of the country.
Their inclusion by coach Graham Arnold reflects both their rise to prominence – Kuol, for example, recently secured a move to Premier League side Newcastle United – and the increased diversity of the playing pool at youth level.
Considering the latest census results show almost half of Australians have a parent born overseas – and just under a third are born overseas themselves – it would be inaccurate to call the squad diverse. They are, and always have been, a mirror reflection of Australia.
This group of players reflects the realities of the ethnic makeup of Australia better than competing sporting codes, politics and the media. It is a point driven home by Craig Foster, the former Socceroos captain and current human rights activist, who says it is far from surprising to see varying communities represented in the squad.
“The Australian male national team has reflected the changing face of the country for 100 years. And if you go through all of the different iterations and decades, and for World Cup squads, you see the face of Australia’s immigration,” he tells Guardian Australia. “Today, we now see our new African-Australian diaspora start to be reflected through the team, and it’s wonderful to see.”
Asked why Australian football is so deeply intertwined with migration, Foster takes a moment, reflecting on communities who came to Australia with “football in their heart”.
“Of all of the sports that Australia’s immigrant communities most love, overwhelmingly, the majority of them come from football loving countries,” he says. “When the majority of immigrants come to Australia and settle into life, one of their great passions they want to bring to life is to be involved, or to form their own clubs, in association football. It’s the world’s biggest sport.
“Australia, and Australian football, is better for its diversity.”
It is a belief shared by many in the football landscape, particularly at youth levels, where coaches see the frontline of change. Craig Carley, a senior coach at Goulburn Valley Suns Football Club and a previous coach of Kuol, says he has witnessed the face of football changing, and he believes it will only lead to a better Socceroos squad.
“I can certainly see a shift – football is changing, it’s becoming more diverse,” Carley says. “And I think it’s just brilliant for the sport. What we see locally is only going to benefit everyone, certainly the Socceroos as well. With the shift, it creates a wider pool of players, and these players are starting to be recognized for their talent. It’s amazing and inspiring for other young players.”
Carley believes the process that has diversified the Socceroos – of players from migrant backgrounds climbing the ranks through the youth systems – would only lead to an improved squad. But he adds that there is a key prohibitive factor: the cost of youth football, particularly if a player reaches higher levels such as the National Premier League, Australia’s second tier.
“I think Australia would be ranked a lot higher in the world if they gave more diverse player opportunities,” he says. “It’s been a massive challenge, and I have no doubt that it has impacted the national team selection. We should have a far more diverse team, and I think in years to come, the team will change.
“I think this issue has been completely detrimental to the senior team – there is just so much talent that’s been missed because players can’t go to training or games, can’t get the right gear, and won’t get the right opportunities .”
The frustration at costs as an impediment to development is a common one, particularly for coaches like Carley who see the potential directly. Paul Giordano, secretary of the Azzurri Sports Club and Adelaide Blue Eagles, where Deng started his playing career, says he has seen lots of talent go to waste.
“People pay a lot of money to play this sport, which, especially for new immigrants to this country who want to play the sport, becomes prohibitive,” Giordano says. “The problem isn’t getting them to the top, it’s getting them in at the bottom.
“Once you’re identified as a good player, people recognize that and they’re willing to help. But it’s that initial step. If you turn around and say, well, you can play junior squad, but the fees are $900 or $1,200, or $1,500, that initial step might just be too much. People can’t afford that.”
‘I’m so proud to see the face of the game changing’
Despite these challenges, the game is still changing at a rapid pace, and Giordano has seen it happen up close. He has seen his club de él and many others around Australia have to change their names and “de-ethnicise”. He remembers when, in 1996, Soccer Australia ordered clubs to “remove all symbols of European nationalism from club logos, playing strips, club flags, stadium names, and letterheads”.
David Hill, the Soccer Australia boss at the time, said it was to “Australianise” the struggling National Soccer League, an idea that still stings today.
“It was like trying to erase our history, and I know our club among many were very upset by the situation, that you had to denounce the name of your club. That’s how we became the Blue Eagles,” Giordano says. “Like with anything, we want our history acknowledged.”
The decision was made in an attempt to broaden the reach of football, to access “mainstream” Australians, bearing an underlying assumption that the migrant communities who built up football were not part of “mainstream” Australia.
To Giordano, any success in Australian football is always owed to some degree to migrant communities, particularly the postwar wave of migrants from southern and eastern Europe who formed the bedrock of footballing infrastructure in Australia.
They’re the Greek, Bosnian, Italian, Macedonian, Croatian and Serbian communities who blazed the trail for other diasporas, who then set the stage and cemented the connection between the Socceroos and migrant communities.
But they have not been without their controversies, most recently at this year’s Australia Cup final, when some fans of Sydney United 58 FC, an old NSL club, chanted songs with fascist links, booed during the Welcome To Country and performed Nazi salutes.
It is an incident that reflects the ongoing tensions between “old football” and “new football”, and the long journey ahead to mend a footballing culture still somewhat in two minds about what it wants to be and how to acknowledge its cultural roots. It makes the Socceroos the stitching between these eras, cultures and communities, the common ground that everyone unites around every four years.
To Francis Awaritefe, former Socceroos player and chair of the players’ union, Professional Footballers Australia, the game of football itself is a uniting force.
“When you look at the game of football, especially in these very febrile times, with all the divisive rhetoric around, I think football is very well positioned as a sport to really bring people together and unite people,” Awaritefe says. “I’m so proud to see the face of the game changing. It’s part of the DNA of football to be egalitarian, diverse and inclusive.”
But Awaritefe warns that it is important to avoid complacency, and says football’s diversity could become a “weakness” if “we don’t look after it, and we don’t nurture those values”.
“Respect, and respect for human rights has to always be central. We’ve seen how racism can grip other codes, how Indigenous or migrant players are treated in other sports. So it’s really important that we don’t allow ourselves to become complacent around the diversity of the game, so that we can continue to nurture it, because it is a massive strength. It’s in the DNA of the sport.”