Soccer

Where once Australia’s soccer success rode on the shoulders of European migrants, a new generation of African Australians has started to kick serious goals. By Joe Gorman.

Clout of Africa

Olyroos captain Thomas Deng in action for Melbourne Victory last November.
Credit: Mike Owen / Getty Images

When Osama Malik made his debut in the A-League in 2009, he was one of only a few African Australians carving out a professional soccer career. In the decade since, the number has risen year on year. This season, which has reached its halfway mark, 18 Australians of African heritage have made at least one appearance in the competition.

At 29, Malik, who has played for clubs in Townsville, Adelaide, Melbourne and now Perth, is an elder statesman of one of the fastest-growing demographics in Australian soccer. “When I started playing in the A-League there weren’t too many guys like me,” he says.

During the past few months, though, African-Australian footballers have been impossible to ignore. In September, 12 Australians, including A-League players Kenny Athiu, Ruon Tongyik and Abraham Majok, were selected for the national team of South Sudan. In October, Adelaide United striker Al Hassan Toure, who was born in Guinea to Liberian parents, was awarded man of the match in the FFA Cup final. In December, Princess Ibini, who is of Nigerian heritage, scored one of the goals of the season for Sydney FC in the W-League.

The Australian men’s under-23 side, which is one win away from qualification for the 2020 Olympics, is captained by Thomas Deng, who was born into a South Sudanese family in Kenya, while three other African-Australian players – Toure, Keanu Baccus and Ben Folami – were selected in the 23-man squad.

To Malik, whose father was born in Sudan, the emergence of African-Australian players is a natural reflection of Australia’s immigration policy. “The Italians and Greeks and Croatians came here in the 1950s and they well and truly made up the majority of the Australian teams over the last few decades,” says Malik. “But as the African and Middle Eastern populations grow, I think our national team will be truly represented by guys from those countries.”

The European migrants established themselves by creating their own successful clubs in local, state and national competitions, which provided a social outlet and a pathway for their children to progress to a professional career. A recent study commissioned by the players’ union, Professional Footballers Australia, found these European ethnic soccer clubs were crucial in the development of the “golden generation” of players who emerged in the 1990s.

“When you look at the Italian teams, the Greek teams, the Croatian teams, they built a whole community around their football club,” says Malik. “Growing up in Adelaide, there were a few Ethiopian boys who played for a Greek club; I played for a Croatian team. When we got a bit older we would talk about how nice it would be if we created an African team.”

The exorbitant cost of soccer and a lack of ground availability has restricted the number of African teams, as well as their aspirations. Instead, the various African communities have quietly established summer tournaments, when facilities become available in the off-season. The largest and most successful of these is the African Nations Cup of South Australia, which is held every October and now attracts hundreds of players and about 10,000 spectators.

This weekend in Melbourne, a similar community tournament will be hosted by Football Empowerment, a non-profit organisation founded by brothers Tom and Teddy Yabio. Despite the growing number of African Australians in the A-League, the Yabios are convinced there are so many more talented players still waiting for an opportunity. “If you look at the youth system and see how many Africans there are compared to the seniors, you see a big gap,” says Teddy, who represented Australia at youth level and played for Melbourne Victory’s youth team a decade ago.

“Talent can only take you so far,” says Mohamed Nur, a volunteer coach at Football Empowerment. “In Melbourne, players win National Youth League awards at their respective A-League clubs at season end but are not awarded with contracts. Our intention is to keep these players believing that an opportunity will come.”

Leaving aside cultural misunderstandings and negative stereotyping, the problem is structural. There are only 11 clubs in the A-League and rosters are relatively small, so competition for a professional contract is intense. Beneath the A-League, Australian soccer works on a federated model: each state runs its own competition as part of the semi-professional National Premier Leagues (NPL). A teenager who is selected to play for an NPL club is expected to pay thousands of dollars to take part. For many recently arrived African families grappling with the social and economic challenges of migration, this is a considerable barrier to entry.

“There are a lot of young players that can play NPL comfortably, but because NPL clubs would be asking for $1200, $1500… it’s just not feasible,” explains Tom Yabio. “A lot of players will start playing NPL at a later age: instead of playing at 14 or 15, they’ll start playing at under-20s.”

As player identification starts in the early teenage years, many young African-Australian soccer players are thus missing a crucial developmental window. According to Bruce Djite, the football director of Adelaide United, Australia’s pay-to-play soccer culture creates issues further down the line for A-League clubs. “I’ve got to look for talented kids, and you legitimately don’t know if what you’re looking at is actually the best, or just the ones that can afford it,” says Djite, adding that the solution might be to scout players from community clubs as well as from the elite NPL system.

In December, Adelaide United’s youth team was beaten 1-0 by an African All Stars XI selected from the African Nations Cup of South Australia; and 3-0 by a young, all-African side from Victoria chosen by Football Empowerment. It’s an indication, perhaps, of the quality of players lingering outside the recognised pathways.

Djite, who is of Ivorian and Togolese heritage, is aware that his club is sitting on a wellspring of young African talent. This season, United has handed first-team opportunities to local products Al Hassan Toure, Kusini Yengi and Yared Abetew, but a disproportionate number of African Australians in the A-League and abroad were raised in Adelaide.

The story of Kenyan-born duo Thomas Deng and Awer Mabil, who attended the same school in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, played for the same junior club and represented South Sudan in the African Nations Cup of South Australia before debuting together for the Socceroos in 2018, is testament to the strength of Adelaide’s burgeoning African soccer community.

Yet for every Deng and Mabil, there remain concerns that many other talented African Australians are slipping through the cracks of our fragmented and expensive youth development system. James Johnson, the recently appointed chief executive of Football Federation Australia, admits the cost of soccer is “the most common complaint” he hears from stakeholders.

The registration fees, according to Deng, are “quite ridiculous at the moment; some kids are paying $2000 for a season. If you have three or four kids, it’s quite hard to pay.” For now, though, he is confident his own career will inspire the next batch of players hoping to follow in his footsteps. “It’s massive for the younger generation coming through, seeing Africans playing in the Australian squad. It gives them a bit of belief and motivation that they can one day get there as well.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 25, 2020 as "Clout of Africa".

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Joe Gorman is an independent journalist and the author of The Death and Life of Australian Soccer and Heartland: How Rugby League Explains Queensland.