When Sydney FC played Adelaide United on April 4, seven who played in that match were of African descent. In a sport whose origins are steeped in ? if not entirely built upon ? migration, it was a sign of the newest wave making an impact in Australian football.
From the English, Irish and Scottish migrants two centuries ago, to the post World War II migration of Southern and Central Europeans, Balkans and later South America and East Asians ? migration helped make football the most participated sport in this country.
With the African community being one of the fastest growing in Australia, their rapidly increasing representation in elite football seems natural. The rise of African footballers in Australia reached a significant landmark late last year when Sydney FC winger Bernie Ibini became one of the first African-born players to play for the Socceroos.
Born in Nigeria but growing up in Australia since his first birthday, Ibini made his full international debut against the UAE last October to herald what could be the start of a new identity of the national team.
?Playing for your country is a huge achievement and something that you really do dream of as a kid. To be able to do it and then being the first African-born players as well, well I didn?t know that, but, I?m proud of it and I hope it shows other African players they can do it as well,? Ibini said.
Much like the stories of those who arrived decades before, football was more than an obsession, but a tool for assimilation into a new home.
For Young Socceroo and Adelaide United winger Mabil, football has a meaning well beyond the game itself. For much of his childhood, it was his only respite from the hardships of life inside a refugee camp in Kenya where he spent many years after fleeing the Sudanese civil war.
?Football means everything to me. I started playing in camps when I was younger so I always loved it. When I came to Australia I thought I had an opportunity to make it,? he said.
?You didn?t have as much of an opportunity as you do here so when we come, we want to try and do everything because here you get opportunities to make your dreams come true. I think that?s the big factor in Africans trying to make it somewhere.?
That desire is perhaps the reason why the list of young Australians of African descent grows with each season,such as; Bruce Kamau, Osama Malik, Isaka Cernak, Rashid Mahazi, Gol Gol Mebrahtu, Kearyn Baccus, Bruce Djite, Tando Velaphi, Kwabena Appiah and Kofi Danning. Complementing that is the number of imports that have raised the standard such as Fahid Ben Khalfallah, Mickael Tavares, Jacques Faty and Youssouf Hersi.
However, for all their on-field exploits, what we are seeing is but a fraction of the football potential. For those who have arrived via humanitarian programs, there is a significant hurdle holding back more pursuing careers in Australia.
?Money,? says Gode Migerano, ex-chairman of the African Nations Sports Association. ?It?s expensive to play in Australia when we don?t have enough money to cover fees and it?s impossible to register players.?
For a game that prides itself on social inclusion, it is increasingly becoming an exclusive middle class sport by pricing out participants. The main complaint from African migrants is they feel they can?t justify or afford paying youth registration fees for National Premier League clubs priced at $2400 per season.
In a community where more recent arrivals are refugees, meeting the asking price of NPL clubs is simply not an option. Wanderers 17-year-old forward Alusine Fofanah was one of the lucky few who was covered by clubs after arriving on humanitarian grounds from Sierra Leone. He cites the exuberant prices as the single biggest reason his friends haven?t followed in his footsteps.
?They will make the team and when [the clubs] ask for the fees, that?s when a lot of Africans don?t turn up again because they know they can?t afford it and they don?t want to be embarrassed. That?s one of the biggest issues,? Fofanah said.
AFL and basketball are making strong inroads, particularly into the Sudanese and Somali communities by including them in their codes with affordable registration. Sadly, Australia?s multicultural game is lagging behind despite the active roles A-League clubs are taking with community programs.
?Players I know who play basketball used to play football but they turned to basketball because they could not afford it, [Wanderers strength and conditioning coach] Adam Waterson is a big fan of African tournaments and helps out,? Fofanah said.
The financial barriers damage more than the needs of elite football but that of a moral and social inclusion for new arrivals. The success of those who have found a way to play through the paywalls has already moulded the likes of Ibini, Mabil and Fofanah into role models for young children who are adjusting to life in a new country.
Those who arrived from hardships don?t want their community to be remembered as one of football?s lost opportunities. Already, leaders are emerging and shining in the A-League and if the game becomes more financially inclusive, there could be many more.
?We may not have the resources and wealth of the established communities in Australia in terms of money and political influence but what we have is knowledge and skills. We have an incredible thirst to succeed in Australia as an African community,? Migerano said.