Australia’s Awer Mabil, Thomas Deng and Garang Kuol were each born to refugee parents from war-torn South Sudan. On Tuesday, the trio of Socceroos will step onto a World Cup pitch for the first time to take on defending champions France, a nation that has built much of its recent football success on players of African descent.
For Mabil, at 27 the oldest of the three, Tuesday’s fixture at the brand-new Al-Janoub Stadium caps an extraordinary personal journey from the dirt pitches of his childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp to the air-conditioned stadiums of Qatar.
His longtime friend Deng, 25, was also raised in Kenya by parents fleeing conflict in South Sudan, while 18-year-old Kuol – the Socceroos’ most promising talent since Harry Kewell – was still a baby when his refugee family settled in Australia.
At a joint press conference on Friday, the trio said they would not be overawed when they face the title holders in their World Cup opener.
“They’re human just like us,” said Mabil, who moved to Australia aged 10 and now plays for Cadiz in La Liga. “Obviously they play at a high level but you can’t go to the game thinking, you know, giving them so much respect, because then you’ve already lost the game,” the winger added.
Coach Graham Arnold’s team face a tough task getting out of Group D, which also contains Tunisia and dark horses Denmark, who famously knocked out the mighty French when they last entered a World Cup as title holders, in 2002.
Australia haven’t won a World Cup match since 2010, when they edged Serbia 2-1. They last reached the knockout stage back in 2006, suffering heartbreak in the last-16 after a controversial injury-time penalty gave future champions Italy an undeserved win.
The Socceroos only qualified for the tournament in Qatar after beating Peru in a play-off penalty shootout, with Mabil scoring the crucial spot-kick. Still, their youthful squad is shaping up to be the most promising since the golden generation of Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill.
Teenage forward Kuol is drawing particular attention. The second-youngest player at Qatar 2022, after Germany’s Cameroon-born Youssoufa Moukoko, he will move to big-spending Premier League side Newcastle United in January – despite being yet to start a senior game for his current club, the Central Coast Mariners.
Earlier this year, the young prodigy – then only 17 – was singled out for praise by Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez after starring in a friendly match against the Blaugrana. He offered his finest performance of the A-League season just days ahead of the World Cup, scoring two goals for the Mariners after coming on as a sub.
“He’s just full of confidence and he’s got a really bright future ahead of him,” said his teammate Deng, a central defender for Japanese club Albirex Niigata.
On Friday, Kuol said he would not be intimidated by the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema.
“I find it more exciting to see what I can do against players of that calibre,” he told the press conference in Doha.
‘Australia could be the next France’
The changing face of the Socceroos – a reflection of the country’s shifting demographics – has drawn comparisons with the diverse squads that carried France to three of the last six World Cup finals, including victories in 1998 and 2018.
Over the past few decades, the immigrant-rich suburbs of Paris and other French cities have emerged as the world’s most fruitful purveyors of football talent. Many of the country’s biggest stars grew up in France but can trace their heritage to a variety of African countries. They include Mbappé and Benzema, as well as the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly and injured stars N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba.
“Australia’s recent migration patterns are not dissimilar, and it’s starting to show in the ranks of the Socceroos,” Melbourne’s newspaper The Age wrote on Thursday, noting that some commentators have even suggested “Australia could be the next France”.
Graham’s 26-man squad has four African-Australian players, with South Africa-born Keanu Baccus – from Scottish Premiership side St Mirren – joining Mabil, Deng and Kuol. The number is expected to rise soon as their trailblazing examples help to break down the social barriers that have long barred poor immigrant communities from sports clubs.
“It’s only just the start,” Mabil told The Age. “It’s really exciting for Australian football in general. As a country, we’re very multicultural. Now to see it in the national team, it’s going to be a big motivation for the kids from Africa, now, to see that they can also be there.”
He repeated the theme at Friday’s press conference, stressing the players’ “motivation to try to represent not just the Australian community but also kids from our community especially”.
“As a kid, I wanted to see somebody from my community showing us the way. So that’s our motivation, to try and push higher so we can show these kids the way,” added the winger, who recently played in the Champions League after helping his former club Midtjylland to the Danish title in 2020.
Mabil has done more than showing the way. He has sought to bring practical relief to young refugees by co-founding the Barefoot to Boots charity, which provides education, healthcare and football training for young boys and girls in the Kenyan refugee camp he grew up in.
“When they see a young man achieve what Awer has done it brings their dreams to reality,” said Ian Smith, the charity’s head and a board member at Mabil’s former club Adelaide United, speaking to Australia’s television network SBS. He added: “Mabil is an extraordinary young man. He has the courage of a lion and the heart of an angel.”