Soccer

Once best known as SBS’s face of soccer, Craig Foster has parlayed his multicultural education from the game into passionate work for human rights and social justice, becoming a genuine ‘change agent’ not just for sport but for society. By Joe Gorman.

Craig Foster, agent of change

Craig Foster speaking at a 2019 Sydney rally protesting against the deportation of the Tamil family then living in Biloela, Queensland.
Credit: David Gray / Getty Images

For several years, Craig Foster has done everything in soccer except actually play the game. He has dissected thousands of matches as chief football analyst for SBS, chaired the players’ union, coached some of the country’s brightest young female and male talent, been the patron of an Indigenous soccer program, fronted an expansion bid for a licence to the A-League and W-League, and championed a new model of transparent governance for the sport. Since he left SBS in June, however, he has come full circle and returned to the field of play.

At 51, Foster is an elder of the Waverley Old Boys over-35s. He’s not as quick as he used to be, so he plays at centre-back where his brains and leadership can be used to full effect. Aside from striker Adam Goodes, who had a storied career in the AFL, he is the only former professional athlete on the team, and with that comes expectation and responsibility. But Foster, a former national team captain, says his long-overdue return to the grassroots has been cathartic.

“The pleasure of training and playing, of winning and losing, reminds me of the love that I had as a child,” he says. “It may just be park football, but the joy my teammates have and the gravity with which they approach it illuminates the essence of the game. There’s a real sense of togetherness and camaraderie.”

The simple pleasure of playing soccer is welcome respite for Foster, who has had a tumultuous couple of years. First, there was the fight to free Bahraini dissident and refugee soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi, who in December 2018 was imprisoned in Thailand at the behest of Bahrain. Foster led a global campaign to #SaveHakeem – in the process taking on foreign governments and international soccer authorities. Next, he became an ambassador for Amnesty International’s Game Over campaign, which focuses on resettling refugees held in offshore detention by Australian government policy.

More recently, as Covid-19 shut down the nation, Foster began volunteering at the Addison Road Community Centre in Sydney and launched #PlayForLives, which harnesses the energy of athletes and sporting organisations to support vulnerable groups. Now, having finished a master’s and law degree, he is working as adjunct professor of sport and social responsibility at Torrens University to mentor a new generation of athletes and administrators.

It is all worthy work, which has changed his public persona and widened his sphere of influence. Where he was once known as a former player and the soccer guy on SBS, now he is fast becoming one of Australia’s best-known human rights and social justice advocates.

But to understand Foster’s career trajectory and his causes – and particularly his evangelism – one must first recognise the shaping force that Australian soccer has played in his life. It was soccer that took him from his home town of Lismore in northern New South Wales, to playing professionally in Sydney for a Croatian club against teams that represented Greek, Macedonian, Italian, Maltese and Hungarian communities. It was thanks to soccer that he found a home at SBS, the multicultural broadcaster.

Soccer has allowed him to connect with the broadest range of people – he has played professionally in Asia and England, alongside current teammate Adam Goodes, and in pick-up games with refugees stranded in Papua New Guinea. One of those refugees was author Behrouz Boochani, winner of the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature, whom Foster describes as a “beautifully skilled player”. To honour his friends who do not have the freedom to play, Foster wears an armband with the name of a refugee when he takes the field for Waverley Old Boys.

Foster admits that had he pursued a career in rugby league or cricket – the two sporting passions in the Lismore of his youth – his work and his attitude to Australia would likely be very different. “I do think that the transition through football gives you life experiences that are unique, and very difficult to replicate elsewhere,” he says. “I’m an Anglo-Celtic kid from up the coast who came up through wogball.”

Yet since Foster’s departure from SBS, many people involved in Australian soccer fear he is lost to the sport entirely. In the past two decades, during which time Foster retired as a player and began working as a television pundit, soccer has undergone enormous structural reform, two civil wars and experienced a boom-and-bust cycle that has exhausted the energy of even the game’s most ardent supporters. Now, the A-League is basically irrelevant in the Australian sports marketplace, media coverage is almost non-existent and Football Federation Australia (FFA) is facing acute financial difficulties.

Foster has been a fierce and persistent critic of FFA, but nobody could accuse him of sniping from the sidelines. In the weeks leading up to Hakeem al-Araibi’s sudden arrest in Thailand, he had, in fact, been running for election to the chairmanship of FFA. Despite being the overwhelming people’s favourite, he withdrew before the vote after failing to attract support from soccer’s powerbrokers.

In some ways, this was no surprise. Foster has always been confident in his convictions and forthright when expressing his views – traits that have attracted devoted disciples but also his fair number of critics. As a pundit, he was accused of running agendas and described as “acerbic”, a “flamethrower”, an “armchair general”, among other labels. He could be ideological and was often dismissive of other sports, as well as those he disagreed with. His post-game analysis, if he was happy, was so intellectual that at times it resembled a lecture in astrophysics. When he was displeased, it was like a cluster bomb.    

Simon Hill, a soccer commentator and former colleague of Foster’s at SBS, has been one of his critics yet still supported his candidacy for the board of FFA. “I certainly thought it was time to forget about personal enmity and to get on with what was best for the game,” says Hill.“I thought the game was at a crucial point and it needed someone like Fozzy – however much I might disagree with some of his views. I thought it needed him, and I still do.”

The irony, of course, was that Foster – who is seen by many people in soccer as too divisive – went on to successfully engineer al-Araibi’s safe passage back to Australia and, in the process, managed to briefly unite the soccer community behind a common cause. He also worked effectively with a broad range of stakeholders both inside and outside the game. “He was the public face and his energy was enormous,” says player advocate Brendan Schwab, who worked with Foster during the campaign. “But the way in which he politically worked the key relationships with governments was possibly even decisive. And that work was all invisible.”

Schwab, who is executive director of the World Players Association, has watched the many phases of “Fozz” – larrikin player, Socceroo, television analyst, players’ union leader, coach, social justice advocate. He believes Foster’s work has always been tethered to one overriding mission. “What he and I fought for and worked towards over the years was this concept that we could make a great sporting nation a great football nation and, in so doing, transform the country for the better,” says Schwab. “As the game has disappointed him, he’s ended up now in this phase where he’s doing it as Craig Foster, not on behalf of the game. I think he’d like to do it on behalf of the game, but the game didn’t give him that opportunity.”

While Foster says he remains committed to soccer, for now, at least, his primary contact with the sport is with the Waverley Old Boys over-35s. Yet it does seem as though the game and Foster are moving in opposite directions. Soccer at the professional level has failed, once again, to capture mainstream interest and is now turning inwards, talking mostly about itself to an ever-diminishing tribe of diehards. Foster, meanwhile, is moving outwards, broadening his interests, his activism and his audience. It may be that soccer’s loss is Australia’s gain.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2020 as "Fozzy bared".

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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.