Most of them had never played soccer on grass fields with marked lines before, but in their first season in Australia this special team proved themselves champions. After a thrilling 2-1 win, the Newington Gunners Soccer Club’s team of refugees and asylum seekers won its Grand Final on Saturday, September 13.
The players had come from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sierra Leone, Turkey, Nepal and Tajikistan to enjoy safer, better lives in Australia. Many of them are supported by not-for-profit organisation Settlement Services International’s (SSI) humanitarian settlement programs. SSI CEO Violet Roumeliotis said watching them play this season had been inspiring.
“Knowing just a little about the circumstances these individuals have come from has made watching them enjoy themselves on the soccer field this year an inspiring experience,” Ms Roumeliotis said. “It has been heartwarming to see them put traumatic life experiences in the background while they enjoy the sport they love and make new friends in the community, just like many other Australians enjoy doing. They are another inspiring example of how people who come to Australia as refugees or to apply for refugee status as asylum seekers can, and want, to participate in our communities.
“The team’s achievements have really defied the odds. Many of them are on bridging visas that do not allow them to work – they live on an average of $32 a day – so at the start of the year they had no club and no money to join one.
“After a campaign to find sponsorship for them, a number of very generous supporters, including the Newington Gunners Soccer Club, Synapse Medical Services and others, came forward to help. One gentleman who wanted to remain anonymous gave $5000 to pay for registration costs. Without their support, this team would not have played and would not have won a championship.”
The team’s coach Essa Khan came to Australia after first fleeing the turmoil of Afghanistan, and later, Pakistan. He put the team together after finding the group of young men playing one another in a dimly-lit park in Auburn, and called them Auburn United FC. He said this soccer season had been a great experience. “Winning the grand final on Saturday was a great day for me and the boys in the team,” he said through an interpreter. “We had a lot of fun and joy. I really appreciate all the support from everyone at Newington Gunners and SSI and everyone who supported us.
“Playing soccer in Australia was completely different for us. We had most of the facilities we needed, and we were supported 100 per cent. We felt safe here and like we have the opportunity here in Australia to improve our skills.”
Omid Ahmadi, who played midfield in the championship team, said after the game that he was very proud of his team mates and club. “Before this year, most of the boys had not played on grass fields with goal posts or lines,” he said. “They had only played on the streets and in laneways. It was great to see the team work that we achieved this season. I would like to say thanks to Newington Gunners and SSI for all the support, and especially Ben Nilsson, Shane McNeill and Andre Hirschhorn who helped us throughout the season.”
Gunners’ club secretary Ben Nilsson said everyone at the club was very proud of the team. The team had stood out as the best all year in the Granville and Districts Soccer Football Association’s second highest division, he said. "A Grand Final appearance is something that many teams dream of but never achieve in their lifetime,” Mr Nilsson said. “These guys have battled incredible adversity and just to take the field, let alone compete and win the ultimate prize in their competition, speaks volumes for their courage, determination and skill. To just say we are proud to have a champion team in our club doesn’t do justice: we are overjoyed for them, their team and their community. It further demonstrates that sport can be a great leveler and the World Game has the power of transcending race and religion.”