Monday 16 November 2020, 06:23

Uncovering a pathway for indigenous Aussies 

  • Indigenous Football Week was created to help open up pathways

  • Six indigenous Australians have represented the Matildas

  • Shadeene Evans and Jada Whyman chasing Green and Gold dream for 2023

Indigenous Australians' passion for sport is long and deep-rooted. Several sources refer to ball games being played by indigenous inhabitants of the land prior to the existence of codified football Down Under.

The first Australian sporting representatives to travel overseas were, quite remarkably, a team of indigenous cricketers who visited England in 1868.

Aboriginal Australians have also figured in pivotal moments in the nation’s football story. Notably, Harry Williams represented the Socceroos at their FIFA World Cup™ debut in 1974.

Kyah Simon scored the goals which secured the Matildas a first win over European opposition at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ back in 2011. Four years later, Simon scored the winner against Brazil as Australia won their first knockout-stage match at the tournament, while at the other end, athletic goalkeeper Lydia Williams – daughter of a Noongar tribal elder – kept Marta and Co at bay.

Australian football’s interaction with the indigenous community is still not as strong as it can be – several other sports boast a larger pro-rata participation rate – but one man continues to help redress that historical imbalance.

John Moriarty resembles something of a father figure for Australia’s indigenous football fraternity. Born in an isolated part of the Northern Territory, Moriarty has seen his life story take some unlikely turns, including being the first indigenous Australian to be selected for the national team, only for the 1960 matches to be cancelled. Away from football, a passion for art led to several Qantas planes decorated in eye-catching Aboriginal motifs.

But the greatest passion for this sprightly 82-year-old is enhancing opportunities for young indigenous footballers. The key conduit for that ambition is the John Moriarty Foundation (JMF).

The past week saw the fifth edition of the JMF Indigenous Football Week (IFW). To coincide with NAIDOC (National Aboriginals and Islanders Day Observance Committee) week, the festival was held in three locations, including in the outback town of Tennant Creek.

Recent years have seen a strong growth in indigenous women’s football. With Gema Simon’s inclusion in Australia’s squad for France 2019, only an injury to cousin Kyah prevented three Matildas’ squad members boasting indigenous backgrounds.

The two ambassadors for this week’s IFW will harbour hopes of featuring when the biggest stage of all heads Down Under in 2023. W-League duo Shadeene Evans and Jada Whyman provided tangible role models for the 1200 participating youngsters across age groups from 10-18 over the past week.

The former comes from Moriarty’s home town of Borroloola, a mind-boggling full day’s drive away from the nearest major city. But thanks to the JMF, Evans has gone from kicking a ball on rough-hewn red-earth pitches to enjoying elite coaching in Sydney, subsequently progressing to Sydney FC’s championship-winning W-League side, and even the Young Matildas.

Perhaps with Evans’ success in mind, the theme for this year’s festival is ‘Pathways’ and is aimed at creating opportunities for players who might otherwise fall under the radar.

This year JMF launched a new community scholarships pathways program. It is not only created to develop talent, but foster positive change though strong school and community engagement.

The new programme provides scholarships to selected athletes within their communities with one-on-one tutoring and mentorship, equipment and stationery for school, a placement with a JMF-partnered football club in the area, football equipment and travel support.

“With football, it was the opportunity to take on the game, but also the opportunities that come with the game,” Moriarty said of his own experiences. “It gave me the opportunity to do things in so many other areas.

“They (young players) can not only develop their soccer skills here, but also if they’re good enough, represent their country and play overseas. Football gave me such a great start, [and that] was why we started our program."