In 1994, when Friday Zico was a baby, his family fled their home in South Sudan. His mother carried Zico, his brother and their possessions in a two-day trek across the border to Uganda.
At the time, Sudan was mired in a civil war that would claim almost 2 million lives between 1983 and 2005.
Much of Zico’s childhood was spent in a crowded Ugandan refugee camp where in cramped conditions people died every day from communicable diseases.
Each day after school, kids in the camp spent hours playing street football: "it brought great joy and happiness during difficult times".
“Being that young I didn't really see it as big deal because children don't mind where they can play with their friends,” he says. “[They] forget about the situations that got them in the camp in the first place.”
Each day after school, kids in the camp spent hours playing street football: “it brought great joy and happiness during difficult times,” recalls Zico.
In 2004, the family arrived in Perth in the middle of winter, entirely unprepared for the cold weather. Settling into their new life wasn’t easy. “The first month in Perth we spent inside the house without stepping a foot outside, mainly because we were trying to adjust to our new life in a place far from home,” he recalls.
“Perth was beautiful, no doubt about it, [but] there were just too many things we were not used to. [My family] didn't speak English, apart from my dad.”
It was a hard transition for the kids, he says. “Going to the shop and knowing what you want to buy but not knowing how to say it in English, asking for directions and eating food that you are not familiar with, clothes that you are not used to wearing, so there was a lot of other things we had to get used to along the way.”
Zico’s talent on the football pitch saw him play for some of Perth’s top local clubs before he gained the attention of national selectors. He secured a scholarship to train at Perth’s soccer academy, Football West National Training Centre, and was selected in the Australia Under-19s Schoolboys team that toured UK and Ireland in 2012.
The next person to take note of Zico’s football ability was Chol Kong, an Australia-based scout for the South Sudan national team. Kong offered Zico a place at a training camp with the South Sudanese squad.
At first, he was reluctant to make the trip to South Sudan because of its troubled past and concerns about security. “I was right to feel that way,” he says. “When I was scheduled to go in December 2013, another civil war broke out and lots of people died.”
Twelve months later, he received another call up. This time, he didn’t hesitate to accept the offer, and 21 years after he left his homeland, Zico returned to vie for a spot on the South Sudanese national football team. He performed well in the training camp, and was selected to play in this first international football match, when South Sud"an took on Kenya in Rwanda in June 2015.
"When I was scheduled to go in December 2013, another civil war broke out and lots of people died."
His next international outing was an African Cup of Nations qualification match against Mali. “Singing South Sudan’s national anthem in Mali in front of 60,000 people was awesome,” he recalls.
A knee injury sustained at a training camp at the end of 2015 put the brakes on his career at a time when offers were coming in from prominent international clubs. “I've been out for two years since getting a full knee surgery and now I am training to work my way back,” he says.
He is eager to get back to full fitness and has returned to the pitch to play for Melville City in Football West State League’s second division, “just to get things moving,” he says. “It’s a bit too physical and I'm having to sit out a few games with sore knee, so it's a bit to setback on my recovery.”
"My mum has always been my role model. She is always pushing me and challenging me to be better at what I'm good at, and always reminding me to not forget who I am as a person."
His ambition remains to make it at the highest level. “I've already been there and tasted what the life of a professional footballer is like and all the pressure that comes with it,” he says. “There is a good chance I can do it because I've always believed I can. Someone once told me before others can believe in you, you must first believe in yourself and I've always carried that with me.”
I ask him if there is someone in his life who he looks up to.
“My mum has always been my role model,” he says. “She is always pushing me and challenging me to be better at what I'm good at, and always reminding me to not forget who I am as a person.”
Sunshine, a four part drama that explores the hopes and heartbreak felt by those forging a new life in a foreign land, will air over two big weeks, premiering on Wednesday 18 October at 8.30pm on SBS. You can watch an encore screening on SBS VICELAND at 9.30pm after it airs or stream it online on SBS On Demand.