Wednesday 10 April 2019, 07:06

The universal language uniting multicultural Australia

  • Football aiding people from non-English speaking backgrounds settle in Australia

  • Coaches providing life-skills and personal development through the game

  • The long-standing Football United programme continues to provide opportunities

“Football is the world game, so you don’t need to speak the language, you just need to know the game.”

Al Hassan Diallo knows his statement to be true because he has lived it. Diallo is a young refugee migrant born in Guinea whose life in Australia is flourishing, in no small part due to football.

In multicultural western Sydney, football is helping find common ground. As has been the case for decades in Australia following the post-war migration boom, and has been mirrored in many parts of the world, football has been a universal touchstone that has helped break down cultural barriers.

Aiding the cause is the Football United programme, which was devised to help build the capacity of various diverse communities via the world game. Set up over a decade ago by the tireless Dr Anne Bunde-Birouste, the programme has not only grown, but sprouted fresh buds.

Natasha Hill is one such prodigy who is not only boosting the game, but also the personal growth of countless youngsters across the suburbs of Sydney in various coaching and development guises.

Born to a Lebanese mother and an Aboriginal father, Hill has personal experience of the challenges facing some girls who wish to play football.

“At first my mum was totally against it, she just didn’t understand the whole concept,” Hill told about her initial plans for playing and coaching football.

Hill though is not one to readily accept the word ‘no’, and with her guidance and enthusiasm she helped turn a club of 50 into one of 300, including 80 females – many of whom hail from backgrounds where females playing sport is not widely accepted.

Now working for Football United as the Community Programs coordinator as well as head facilitator for Creating Chances, which is a social enterprise concentrating on delivering life-skills in schools through sport, Hill is heavily involved in her local club: Punchbowl United. Football is all consuming but you get the sense she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“What I do is more than just kicking a ball around the park, as uplifting as that can be,” she says. “There are added elements of youth development, leadership, life-skills.”

Clearly the on and off-field approach resonates. “Suddenly the local park was filled on a daily basis. Thankfully we have been able to create a space for kids to come and play football, whereas in previous decades it has only been used for rugby.

Two young men that have benefitted from Hill’s zestful mentorship are Diallo, and Salman Kahn, a teenager born in Pakistan who has only been in Australia for some five years. Both are now involved in various coaching programmes, inspired by Hill.

“To see young guys like Salman grow and develop is very gratifying,” Hill says. “There are a lot of Pakistani and Afghan kids at his school and many of them look up to him, even though he used to be quite shy, so seeing his leadership develop is great to see.”

There were fringe benefit too for the pair, not least of all a trip to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ to participate in the FIFA Foundation Festival.

But the biggest shift has been in the mindset of fathers not wanting their daughters to play sport.

That is particularly true at a club with some 20 ethnic backgrounds represented, the majority of whom are of Arabic descent.

“I have had fathers look at me and say ‘you have female teams’,” said Hill. “They looked as if a UFO has just dropped down in front of them.

“For some with a really old mindset, they are firmly of the view that football is not for females, and that is related to culture and where they have come from. They may have heard of it [women’s football] but they haven’t seen a culturally diverse representation of it. Then they see the power it can have on children.

“I've had fathers take long journeys, going from ‘no way’ right to the other end of the spectrum. It has been quite a turnaround.”