Immigration

The Melbourne football league challenging the 'African gangs' narrative

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The ad hoc league attracts hundreds of players and spectators to games each weekend and is helping young people get an education and jobs.

With music, dancing and ball skills being practised in bare feet, the South Sudanese Australian football competition in Melbourne’s western suburbs is like no other.

Started in 2004 by a group of South Sudanese refugees in Melbourne, today nine teams compete each weekend in a community-wide competition. 

Coach and player William Daniels says the league - comprised of mostly Sudanese and South Sudanese refugees - is about much more than just football.

“It’s music, its happiness, it’s joyful, everyone wants to get on the field and play. It is a little about the football, but it’s a lot about unity,” he tells SBS News. 

Jonglei United versus Sunshine United
SBS

Arriving in Australia in 2003, Nathanial Nhial and Michael Apout founded the first team, the Western Tigers.

Apout says it was a way for other new arrivals to help integrate and socialise.

“Sport is one of those areas where you don’t need any language to fit in, and it brings everyone together.”

Many of the teams are named after a region in South Sudan; Rumbek City, Equatorian United and Jonglei United among them.

Jacob Kon and Nathanial Nhiall of Western Tigers
SBS

A spate of crimes involving Australians of African heritage last year triggered debate over whether or not there was a crisis with African 'gangs' in Victoria.

Wyndham is home to one of the largest South Sudanese born communities in the state, and has often become a battleground for political debate over claims of anti-social behaviour there. 

Jacob Kon, manager of Jonglei United, says all young people in the South Sudanese Australian community are paying the price for the actions of a minority.

“The message that went out to the public that these people are gangs these people are that, now their reputation has been destroyed. They can't get jobs because of that, they can't get in a top club because of that.”

Last year, a local South Sudanese Australian basketball competition in Wyndham was cancelled over venue fears of so-called African gang violence.

But league co-founder Nhial says that just makes them more determined to fight the narrative.

“The word gang can’t be translated into any of the languages in Africa, it’s not there. It’s something we got when we came to this country. I can't translate into my dialect because we don't have it.”

The word 'gang' can’t be translated into any of the languages in Africa.

- Nathanial Nhial, League co-founder

Daniel Tito was one of the first players to join the Western Tigers.

Tito Biar of the Western Tigers
SBS

He says he's proud to continue the legacy of the club with his son Tito now the team's striker.

“Tito is a striker, I’m growing old. One day he will push it all the way to the Socceroos, that's his aim.”

At just 16, Michael Peterwal is hoping his team Jonglei United will help support him through to a career in the English Premier League.

Michael Peterwal of Jonglei United
SBS

He's also hoping a career in football will allow him to support his mum, who fled from Khartoum when he was just a baby.

“I’d like to become a professional, help my family out, my mum especially because she’s worked really hard for me and my siblings, so I just want to work really hard to provide for her.”

With no membership fees, the league was one of the first in Melbourne’s western suburbs to provide barrier-free participation for its African refugee communities.

Sports charity Reclink came on board several years ago to help support the league in organising mini tournaments and funding equipment.

George Yengi and Peter Lacey of Reclink
SBS

Reclink's Chris Lacey says it's a grassroots initiative that has bridged the gap of participation for the community.

“I just want to commend all the coaches all the volunteers and players for not just sitting back and saying 'there’s no options for me so I’ll stay home' - they’ve got themselves together and got themselves organised.”

And the coaching doesn’t stop at the pitch. Reclink, is helping to connect players with social services and employers on the sidelines.

Reclink's George Yengi says it has made people in the community feel more able to connect with services.

“The more formal way we approach migrants and young people doesn’t really work very well, it works here because they want to go to the office to see you once they know who you are.”

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