Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Indigenous Footballers: the game is at your feet.

A version of this article was first published in the Melbourne Heart fanzine Schip Happens.
In the annals of football in Australia, Indigenous soccer players seem few and far between. Given the contribution of Indigenous athletes to other sports, this is to be lamented. Yet we shouldn’t underestimate the Indigenous presence. Five Aboriginal Socceroos (six if we count John Moriarty who was selected but never played) and eight Matildas settle that argument. Adam Sarota, James Brown, Jade North, Travis Dodd, Tahj Minniecon, Kyah Simon and Lydia Williams are just some of a growing band of Indigenous footballers making a tremendous impact.

David Williams is another. Heart’s left-winger recently had the honour of scoring the opening goal of the A League season! Born in Brisbane, David has already had a substantial career: three seasons in Europe with Br√łndby and two Socceroo caps are other highlights. At 24 he has much of his career in front of him.

I spoke recently with David about football and the role of Indigenous players. While he played a number of sports as a kid and showed potential in Rugby Union, he followed his older brother into the beautiful game. He attributes his successes in the game to his “strong family support”.

David Williams on the cover of
Schip Happens
, 9 Nov 2012
David acknowledged the tendency of Indigenous athletes to avoid soccer or leave the game as they mature, gravitating towards Rugby League or Aussie rules. He believes soccer “is a game with so much to offer them” if they are open to its possibilities. He also claimed that “those Indigenous players who stay with football tend to excel” – a tantalising point that raises the question of how much we lose when Indigenous players like Adam Goodes or Preston Campbell go to other codes after substantial junior soccer careers.

Indigenous footballers are hard to find in soccer's past and they don’t represent a sizeable grouping in the contemporary game. Yet the game’s future is inexorably bound with the need to embrace and nurture Indigenous football talent. David is an FFA-appointed Indigenous Ambassador and is keen to pursue this goal.

But Williams is not simply part of a new phenomenon. He is also the latest in a long straggly line of Aboriginal players. In 1952, for example, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “James Mulgrave, a 19-year-old aboriginal, may soon be playing first-grade Soccer for the Bankstown club. Only two or three aborigines have played in major Soccer in N.S.W. during the last 20 years. There is none playing major Soccer in the State at present.”

The article raises more questions than it answers: who were the two or three others to play the game in that period? Were there Indigenous players in other regions at other times?

About the only substantial evidence of Aboriginal participation in soccer before the 1950s is the fabulous story of ‘Bondi’ Neal, a goalkeeper on the NSW South Coast and in the Hunter Valley between 1903 and 1912. The highpoint of Neal’s career came in 1909 when he kept for a South Maitland representative team in a 2-0 defeat against the touring Western Australians. Around 1912 “he left the coalfields for his native South Coast” and disappeared from the record. John Maynard claims that “Neal is certainly the most famous early Aboriginal soccer player. But whatever became of this legendary player has disappeared from both the archives and memory.”

And this is typical. We know Indigenous players participated but the existing evidence is so patchy that we cannot draw a complete picture.

A clearer picture is available in the story of Charlie Perkins, who started to be noticed as a 15-year-old senior footballer in Adelaide in the early 1950s. He subsequently tried out for First Division clubs in England before playing a season with Bishop Auckland, one of England’s great amateur sides. He played first grade in Sydney for Pan-Hellenic upon his return.

Charles Perkins in action. Source: John Maynard,
The Aboriginal Soccer Tribe, p. 51, from Australian
Soccer Weekly
via Paul and Colin Tatz.
While Perkins was a genuine star of the game he is perhaps remembered as a curiosity. His game of choice might be explained via his radical political orientation and his ‘difference’ from other Aboriginal sportsmen. The attitude adopted is: ‘Yes. He might have played soccer but he was a maverick.’ Well he may have been a maverick but he was not the only one!

Two other Aboriginal players of Perkins’ generation also had remarkable careers, first as footballers and then in cultural affairs. John Moriarty was the first Indigenous player to be selected for Australia and Gordon Briscoe followed in Perkins’ footsteps, playing two seasons in England. What makes this story all the more remarkable is that these three young men were residents of the same home for “boys of mixed Aboriginal descent” in Port Adelaide and they all played for the Port Thistle club.

Briscoe claims that soccer was a blessing in that it helped him escape a racist society in which Aboriginal men had few options: “soccer lifted me out of that because the soccer fraternity encouraged me.” However, Briscoe warned recently that soccer has “forgotten Aboriginal people in its zest for self-development.” As he says, football in Port Adelaide relied on Aboriginal participation at a certain moment in time and when “we look to the future of Aboriginal people in soccer it is easy to be optimistic, but . . . the time is now ripe for the FFA to provide the support and the framework in which the passionate advocates and players of Indigenous soccer can succeed.”

Soccer can celebrate the fact that at one point in the 1950s it had stolen a march on the supposedly “indigenous” game. There were more Indigenous footballers playing first grade in Adelaide than were playing Aussie rules in Melbourne. Crucially, soccer now needs to work out how it lost contact with the Indigenous community.

From the age of nine, Williams played junior soccer for St George
Police Boys side in Sydney. He later joined the St George
Budapest squad and became one of their most valuable players.
No story about Indigenous footballers would be complete without reference to Harry Williams, perhaps the greatest Aboriginal player of all time (44 Socceroo appearances and 17 full caps). Like David Williams, Harry entered the game through circumstance and rose through its ranks through his brilliance and strength of character. He was “exposed to soccer by a friend across the street at six years of age. For me, it was just a question of circumstances. It just happened.”

The task for Australian soccer is to make sure that Indigenous participation not only keeps ‘happening’ through circumstance but is also nurtured and developed to its fullest extent through structures of support. It’s the key to the world game’s eventual success in Australia.

Much of the information from this piece was gleaned from John Maynard’s The Aboriginal Soccer Tribe, Magabala Books, 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Ian, are there any stats about the number/percentage of Indigenous players in the A-League today. And at State League level? I'm trying to get a better picture of Indigenous participation in soccer, basketball, netball and cricket.

    Incidentally, cricket is a sport where Indigenous participation has never been optimised, despite some really promising players in the distant past. Bernard Whimpress's book, "Passport to Nowhere" provides a comprehensive overview. Can be used as one point of comparison to soccer.

    Cheers, Daryl