On the dry grass of the tiny Gold Coast town of Runaway Bay, the kindling that could one day fire a revolution is being stoked. Edith Bowie and Eleanor Faye pass, juggle and laugh with a football, as their new coach, Lann Levigne, looks on from the terrace of the pavilion.
For many girls and boys across Australia, it’s an entirely ordinary scene. The difference here is that Bowie and Faye are from the country’s First Nations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) communities, and for girls like them, playing this particular game has often felt out of reach, if it left any impact at all.
“You just don’t really fit in,” Bowie, 20, tells DW of her experiences playing the game elsewhere as a child. “You’d always know that you were different, and didn’t really get treated the same.”
Mangrove Jack, a recently formed mixed-gender and age side, is a rare example of a football club designed to try and break the pattern of under-representation of First Nations people, particularly girls, and redress the balance with rugby league (NRL) and Australian Rules Football (AFL). Both those sports have long-established First Nations role models and pathways.
The club was born, coach Levigne explains, of the notion that the expense of football in the Australian system (the sport is subsidized much less than others) and a lack of access to opportunity in areas with high populations of First Nations people, meant talent and opportunity was being missed.
Sense of belonging
“You get this sense that they feel they’re with their people, they feel comfortable. They’re not the minority in the group. And all of their personalities start coming out, which is important,” Levigne says.
“It’s probably one of the cheaper places to play. And then with Mangrove Jack, through our grants and sponsorship, we’re pulling players in who aren’t affiliated with any clubs, and we’re paying for them … If they [other clubs and state and national associations] did that, you’d have way more kids interested in playing.”
For Bowie, Faye and their teammates, a World Cup in their home country has sparked the first real interest in watching football, but the sport has plenty of catching up to do. Australia’s squad features only two players with indigenous heritage, Kyah Simon and Lydia Williams, neither of whom has played a minute so far. The story has been much the same in Australia’s men’s side.
Queensland, the state where Mangrove Jack are based, is very much NRL country, with AFL (traditionally a stronghold of Victoria) an increasingly strong presence. Both sports have a much higher representation of indigenous populations, both at professional and amateur levels, than football.
A 2021 study by the Moriaty Foundation, an Aboriginal community advocacy group, concluded that: “In the FFA’s [Football Federation of Australia] Whole of Football Plan, its 109-page 2015-2035 vision document, the word “Indigenous” appears just twice, both times under sections outlining challenges the game faces.
“In three years, the FFA went from striving to make football the ‘sport of first choice’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to releasing a 20-year strategy for football in Australia which practically ignores Indigenous Australians.”
In contrast: “Other sports have been making significant collective progress. The governing bodies of Rugby League, Rugby Union and Cricket all have a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) in place. The AFL has completed a RAP and now every AFL club has its own RAP.”
The same report found that 11% of male players and 10% of female players on professional AFL squads are Indigenous. In NRL, the male figure was 12% in the top division and 29% of the male national team. Less data is available on women’s NRL, but four of Australia’s victorious 2017 World Cup squad were Indigenous.
Just over 3% of Australia’s population, around 800,000 people, are Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, with Queensland and the Northern Territory the most over-represented states in population terms. There are huge deficits in health, education, incarceration and a myriad other outcomes between the indigenous and non-indigenous populations.
“When you grow up in certain areas, you’re meant to automatically play AFL or NRL. No one’s really heard about soccer,” says Bowie, before Faye adds: “Down where I live, we mainly focused on basketball and footy [AFL] and NRL, so we never really had stuff like netball or soccer or hockey or anything like that.”
Bowie hopes the World Cup may go some way to addressing the gap in indigenous female participation in football. “I can’t really say that it will. But I really do hope so. For a lot of kids it could pull them out of dark areas.”
Discrimination against indigenous people and their subsequent social and economic disadvantages has long been an open sore in Australia, with the dominance of European settler values a major contributory factor in the erosion of traditional indigenous values in the eyes of many.
This World Cup has seen each match begin with a traditional ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony and with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags (and their equivalents in New Zealand) raised alongside those of the co-hosts.
Such recognition is relatively recent. For those of Levigne’s generation, their culture was something that needed to be hidden, for fear of reprisal or stigmatization. Despite his family having lived in the area for thousands of years, their history was unspoken, even among themselves.
“When I was a little boy growing up here in Runaway Bay and going to school just across the road here, I didn’t even know I was Aboriginal, because it was a very well-kept secret,” he recalls.
“It wasn’t spoken about. We never spoke our language. We didn’t talk about culture. And it wasn’t probably until about five or six years ago that I really started to engage in my culture properly.”
Much of the political discourse in Australia at the moment revolves around a referendum later this year on the ‘Australian Indigenous Voice.’ At stake is an alteration to the Australian Constitution, creating a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to represent those communities at the highest level.
It was as recently as 2008 that the then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology on behalf of Australia for the forced removal of indigenous children from their families.
Until the 1970s, some estimates suggest as many as one in three children were being taken from their families by state and federal governments and churches on the basis that they were somehow at risk where they were. The scars run deep, but there are signs of change.
“It’s good that I know where I’m from, what culture I’m from,” says Bowie. “Growing up, we would know, but then we didn’t visit there. And now we get taken up to where we’re from and get reconnected to the land.”
There is no quick fix to the broader problem, one which has dogged Australian society since its colonization by the British in the 19th century.
But the question of how to get more First Nations girls playing football, though difficult, should not be quite so fraught. The hope is that this World Cup can turn the spark ignited in places like Runaway Bay into a fire.
Edited by Matt Ford