There is a striking parallel between the history of Australian football and the history of the Australian nation.
- Brisbane’s Olympic FC is the first football club in Australia to be accepted into a Reconciliation Action Plan
- The club hopes it will help raise awareness around the influence of First Nations communities on the game
- Gangulu and Kanolu Woman and W-League player Allira Toby believes moves like this are long overdue
Both were widely thought to have “begun” in the late 19th century with the arrival of European colonial forces who introduced their own cultures, languages, institutions, and pastimes to a place they described as “terra nullius”: nobody’s land.
None of that, of course, is true. In fact, as Professor John Maynard suggests in his book The Aboriginal Soccer Tribe, football – a code still largely associated with the “other” of European migration – has its roots in the ball games developed by Australia’s First Nations people.
“Aboriginal Australia had developed a sporting culture long before Europeans arrived on the Australian continent,” he writes.
“The Gunditjmara tribe played a game called marn grook, or ‘game ball’. A ball was made of possum skin and filled with pounded charcoal and bound with kangaroo sinews. Between 50 and 100 men a side played for possession for hours on end.
“Our early hunting ancestors became gradually more athletic [and used] these advantages and working together as a team – a hunting pack – they were able to plan strategies, devise tactics, take risks, set traps and, finally, aim to kill. Already, you will admit, they are beginning to sound like the perfect prototype for a soccer team.”
Yet this story – and the role of First Nations communities in the development of modern football – is hardly known. Unlike the other code that stemmed from marn grook, Aussie Rules, Australian soccer has fallen behind when it comes to recognising and celebrating its Indigenous influence.
But one football club in Brisbane hopes to spark that conversation; to re-write that history. Olympic FC, based in the southern suburb of Yeronga, recently became the first football club in Australia to be accepted into a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).
The program, administered by Reconciliation Australia, consists of four stages: Reflect, Innovate, Stretch, and Elevate. They are designed to help organisations support the national reconciliation movement, rewriting Australia’s whitewashed historical narratives and addressing structural inequalities that continue to disenfranchise First Nations communities.
Making small changes for big impact
Phil Canham, a Gweagal-Dharawal man who joined the club in 2014 and spearheaded the initiative, was surprised to learn that no football club in the country had developed or been accepted into a RAP before Olympic FC this year.
“When you look at organisations like the AFL and the NRL – the AFL in particular do a fantastic job embracing First Nations athletes and embracing cultures – it was a shock that football, despite being such a multicultural sport, hadn’t done anything like this,” Canham told ABC Sport.
“But on the flip side, it also doesn’t come as a huge shock because I don’t feel like this is enough of a priority in wider Australia. So that’s my motivation for doing a RAP; as a community organisation, we should be representing the community, and this is a great way to do that.
“Since it was announced, there’s been a lot of people talking about what a great initiative it is and how they can get on board. It’s obviously something people want and are interested in, but no one knew where to start.”
For Canham, it starts with a simple conversation.
“The first thing is raising awareness and inviting people into the discussion,” he said.
“What we do with the club are things like our NAIDOC Week jerseys, which always have a story behind them.
“Last year’s jersey was based on a Dreaming from around Yeronga, and when we shared that Dreaming with people and they realised that Aboriginal artwork isn’t just dots and lines and pretty pictures – that it actually tells a story – it opens up avenues to talk about other areas of our culture that are strong and unique.
“This year’s jersey reflects the 2021 NAIDOC Week theme of “Heal Country”. We’ve got input from various club members to have their handprints on our jersey, with the idea being that we’re all responsible for healing country. That’s brought more people into it; that’s the focal point of how we can educate people, by saying ‘come and be part of this with us.”
In addition, Canham has designed an Indigenous-style icon that players wear on their regular jerseys year-round. The club also performs Acknowledgements of Country before every home match. All of these small, everyday changes, Canham says, add up to something larger.
“It’s a sign of respect for the people who were there first and who have looked after everything for you.
“For me, that’s the first step for any club: making the public acknowledgement that ‘yes, this is something that is important to us, and we will engage in these processes to demonstrate – not just to the Aboriginal community but to the wider community as well – that we are conscious of this, that this land was never handed over.
“That’s the precursor to a lot of conversation. That’s what [the RAP] is about. You hear a lot of people talk about truth-telling, and this is what leads to that.
“This is saying: we’re ready to hear the truth, we’re ready to sit down as a community organisation and acknowledge the truth of the nation and use what influence we have on our community to help spread that.”
Having difficult conversations
One player at Olympic FC who understands the impact a RAP can have is W-League winner, Allira Toby. She joined the club as a 16-year-old after being spotted by Canham, who she affectionately calls “Pip”, while playing in Ipswich during high school.
“I’ve known Pip for a very long time; he was essentially the reason I wanted to come back to the club [after W-League],” Toby said.
“The club are very proactive and always looking to make sure they’re doing everything right and including First Nations people in their initiatives.
“They involve me in that as well: they ask my opinion about things like the Indigenous jersey.
“There’s a little young Indigenous girl at the club who’s quite good, so Pip connected me with her just to be like: ‘Hey, this is Allira and she does this and this, so if you ever need anything, she’s around the club and you can always go talk to her.’
“It’s nice to be at a club that is really working to do these things. It’s not common, especially at this level – and even at higher levels.
“It’s such a privilege to be part of a club that’s so forward-thinking and really appreciates the culture.”
Football Australia, for their part, will soon appoint their inaugural Engagement Lead for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities, alongside establishing a National Indigenous Advisory Group.
Both will provide expertise and advice to the governing body in their own proposed Reconciliation Action Plan and ensure that FA’s engagement with First Nations communities is sustainable and meaningful for years to come.
For both Canham and Toby, these kinds of moves are long overdue. Football’s large and diverse participation base makes it one of the most powerful spaces where conversations about history, identity and belonging can be had – even if those conversations are uncomfortable.
“It’s important that the opportunities are there and we do encourage people to take part because we can only get better as a nation if we are having those difficult conversations about our history.”
“The challenge we face is that our history is very confronting and, no matter what you say at an organisational level, it’s down to an individual to be prepared to face that.
“Trying to do it in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s generating conflict is what is really difficult, because there are a lot of people who just don’t want to feel bad.
“But the reality is if you know Australia’s history, you can’t help but feel ashamed of it. But there’s a difference between feeling ashamed of history and feeling responsible for it.
“They say football is the world game and it’s a world language. I liken it to our old kinship structures: if I go to a bar in Germany to watch a game, if there’s someone who supports the same club as me, it’s like we have a bond already.
“In football, no matter where you go, you’re never actually alone. The more we embrace that, the more we’re able to embrace other people, then we can all hopefully lead a more peaceful and collaborative co-existence.”