Indigenous Australians have long made a strong contribution to the nation’s rich sporting landscape, but until recently few had made a major impact in football. That is now changing with a host of male and female Aborigines featuring not only in the national league, but also representing their country.

Now Football Federation Australia (FFA) are hoping to unearth the next generation of stars from Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The FFA relaunched their indigenous development programme earlier this year under the title ‘Football Dreaming’, with the programme’s annual activities culminating in the National Indigenous Football Festival.

The 2012 tournament - the third edition to be held - took place last month in the outback town of Alice Springs. In the heart of Australia’s outback, Alice Springs is the closest major town to Ayers Rock - or Uluru as it is traditionally called - the giant World Heritage listed rock formation which is considered a sacred site to the Aboriginal people of the area. ‘The Alice’, long a focal point for Aboriginal culture, thus proved a perfect location for Indigenous Australians from all over the country to gather, and not only foster a shared love for football, but further connect with their heritage.

Growing tradition
Few Aborigines made an impact at elite level in the round ball game until the past decade or so. One such pioneer was Harry Williams who, despite a paucity of Indigenous role-models, went all the way to the game’s greatest stage, representing Australia in their breakthrough appearance at the 1974 FIFA World Cup™.

Notable, predecessors to Williams, however, were Charles Perkins - who trialled with Everton, before turning out for English non-league side Bishop Auckland - and his cousin John Moriarty. A tireless advocate for his community, Moriarty is considered by many to be the first Indigenous Australian to be selected for the national team, although the team’s tour of Asia in the early 1960s was ultimately cancelled. Moriarty is therefore a perfect choice as one of FFA’s Indigenous ambassadors.

More recent headline names have been Socceroos Kasey Wehrman, Jade North and Travis Dodd, the latter of whom in 2006 became the first Aborigine to score for the national team. Female role-models are also fast becoming common-place, notably goalkeeper Lydia Williams and striker Kyah Simon, who both featured at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup™, with Simon’s double against Norway lifting the Matildas into the quarter-finals.

Developing tomorrow’s stars today
“Football Federation Australia has seen the value that other codes have developed amongst the Aboriginal kids,” said Moriarty. “We think soccer will fit in very well with Aboriginal kids because they have that movement, skills, fluidity, co-ordination and so on, which lends itself to the round ball game.”

Fourteen male and female teams from both remote and city backgrounds travelled to the ‘Red Centre’ hoping to be the next Harry Williams or Kyah Simon. Such is Australia’s enormous landmass, the teams travelled an average of 1,800kms each.

“The players are a mixture of people from the cities, who don’t have the tribal and ceremonial connections, and from very remote locations, and I think that is a great thing,” said Moriarty. “The location helps connect with rural and isolated communities.”

One such team, Borroloola Cyclones, who hail from Moriarty’s birthplace in the isolated Gulf of Carpentaria, travelled for two days overland to be part of the festival.

The respective titles were won by LeFevre Boys and New South Wales Southern Sharks in the girls competition, but establishing the best team was not the primary aim of the festival.

Wehrman, who attended the festival as an ambassador, is living proof of the opportunities football can provide, having travelled the world as a Socceroo and playing for a decade in Norway’s top flight. “It’s the world game," said Wehrman. “Hopefully they see me as a bit of a role-model, and they make something of their football. The festival is about making sure the indigenous kids know that football is there for them too.”