Australia’s World Cup Hopes Depend on Its Refugee Stars

Canberra has spent decades ostracizing asylum-seekers and detaining Africans and Asians fleeing war. Now, the national team needs them on the field.

By , a journalist who writes about politics, sports, and culture.
Australian midfielder Jackson Irvine, forward Awer Mabil, defender Milos Degenek, and midfielder Riley McGree celebrate after defeating Tunisia 1-0 at the World Cup at Al Janoub Stadium in al-Wakrah, Qatar, on Nov. 26.
Australian midfielder Jackson Irvine, forward Awer Mabil, defender Milos Degenek, and midfielder Riley McGree celebrate after defeating Tunisia 1-0 at the World Cup at Al Janoub Stadium in al-Wakrah, Qatar, on Nov. 26.
Australian midfielder Jackson Irvine, forward Awer Mabil, defender Milos Degenek, and midfielder Riley McGree celebrate after defeating Tunisia 1-0 at the World Cup at Al Janoub Stadium in al-Wakrah, Qatar, on Nov. 26. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

Of the 20 games Australia played on its journey to qualify for this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar, 16 games were held abroad. Australia has been a member of the Asian Football Confederation since 2005, and its players’ passports include stamps from Kuwait, Taiwan, Jordan, Vietnam, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. But several members of the Australian team can claim an even longer journey to the tournament.

“Pressure is me as an 18-month-old baby fleeing a war. Pressure is me as a 6-year-old being in the middle of a war. Pressure isn’t a must-win football game because you can win or lose, but I don’t think anyone’s going to die,” defender Milos Degenek told ESPN before Australia’s Nov. 26 group-stage game against Tunisia.

Degenek was born in Knin, Croatia, in 1994. The city was the self-declared capital of the unrecognized Republic of Serbian Krajina during the 1991 to 1995 conflict that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and was taken by the Croatian military in 1995. Degenek’s family fled to Belgrade, Serbia, in 1995 to avoid the worst of the war before immigrating to Australia as refugees when he was 7 years old.

Of the 20 games Australia played on its journey to qualify for this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar, 16 games were held abroad. Australia has been a member of the Asian Football Confederation since 2005, and its players’ passports include stamps from Kuwait, Taiwan, Jordan, Vietnam, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. But several members of the Australian team can claim an even longer journey to the tournament.

“Pressure is me as an 18-month-old baby fleeing a war. Pressure is me as a 6-year-old being in the middle of a war. Pressure isn’t a must-win football game because you can win or lose, but I don’t think anyone’s going to die,” defender Milos Degenek told ESPN before Australia’s Nov. 26 group-stage game against Tunisia.

Degenek was born in Knin, Croatia, in 1994. The city was the self-declared capital of the unrecognized Republic of Serbian Krajina during the 1991 to 1995 conflict that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and was taken by the Croatian military in 1995. Degenek’s family fled to Belgrade, Serbia, in 1995 to avoid the worst of the war before immigrating to Australia as refugees when he was 7 years old.

“I can remember pretty much everything from that time,” Degenek said in a 2017 interview with FIFA.com. “Not knowing if you are going to wake up tomorrow because of the bombings. You would see a lot of crazy things the next morning when you woke up. A lot of things in flames. And a lot of things that a normal human mind can’t comprehend. You just have to deal with it at a young age.”

Australia’s national soccer team has long revealed the country’s migrant history. Its teams of the 1960s and 1970s featured mostly first-generation migrants from Europe. At the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, Australia’s squad included a roll call of immigrants from England, Scotland, Germany, and then-Yugoslavia—with Australian-born players a minority. Decades later, Australia’s 2006 “golden generation”—who reached the World Cup knockout rounds for the first time ever—included just one player born outside Australia, New Zealand-born Archie Thompson. But the team nevertheless championed its multicultural origins. Soccer was a constant presence in migrant families, and Australian-born children and grandchildren played soccer rather than rugby or Australian rules football. Media coverage at the time celebrated how this particular team reflected Australia’s makeup rather than the cricket or rugby teams.

Australia’s 2022 squad is diverse once again. And if the results of today’s group stage matchups hold, the team may also advance to the knockout rounds. Four players were born in Africa, and three of those were refugees. Forward Awer Mabil was born in 1995 in the United Nations-run Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya after his family fled war in Sudan. Mabil lived at Kakuma until the age of 10, when his family received asylum in Australia. Defender Thomas Deng was similarly born in Kenya in 1997 to parents who had fled Sudan and moved to Australia in 2003.

Garang Kuol is the third Australian player with Sudanese heritage. Kuol was born in Egypt to South Sudanese parents in 2004 before moving to Australia with his family at the age of 6. Twelve years later, during the closing minutes of Australia’s 4-1 loss to France last week, he took the field to become the youngest player to represent the Socceroos at a World Cup. After Australia qualified for the tournament in June 2022, Mabil said the country had given him and his family “a chance of life.” In January, he will join the English Premier League Newcastle United.

“On the journey my mum and her parents went through to reach the camp, many people died,” Mabil told the Guardian in an interview. “They were captured by the rebels trying to leave. The way they escaped, we could talk about it all night. It sounds like something from a movie, but it’s something they actually went through. The war, the journey, what they faced. For me, hearing it, it’s like: ‘Woah.’ What people do to keep their kids safe, what they sacrifice to give them a better life. They didn’t know how long they would be in the refugee camp; they thought they would return home. But there’s no returning home.”

The racial makeup of Australia’s 2022 team reveals an uncomfortable truth about the country’s immigration history. In 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act became one of the first laws of the new Australian federation. Alfred Deakin, then attorney-general and soon-to-be prime minister, said the new law “means the prohibition of all alien colored immigration … the policy of securing a ‘white Australia.’” It was not until 1975 that the Gough Whitlam government formally ended the policy with the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act. Local Black faces are rarely seen in mainstream media in Australia, and while Australians with Indigenous or Pacific Islander heritage have played prominent roles in the sport, it is only in recent years that African Australians have stepped into the spotlight.

Australia’s more recent policies toward refugees and asylum-seekers have also been mired in controversy. Players like Mabil entered Australia through formal offshore refugee application programs, but informal arrivals to Australia face huge hurdles that have often proved insurmountable. The government began detaining asylum-seekers who arrived on the country’s shores by boat in 1992. The policy was politicized and hardened by then-Prime Minister John Howard, who governed from 1996 to 2007, and had a no-compromise approach to asylum-seekers who arrived in Australia by boat.

In 2001, in the run-up to the federal election, Howard’s government refused to grant permission to the MV Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship, to enter Australian waters. The Tampa had rescued more than 400 mostly Afghan refugees from a fishing vessel stranded in the Indian Ocean. Australia’s stance sparked a diplomatic incident among Australia, Norway, and Indonesia over which country had responsibility for the initial rescue and subsequent destination of the asylum-seekers. Ultimately, New Zealand accepted many of the refugees with the remainder detained by Australia on the Pacific island of Nauru. In another incident in 2001, top officials in the Howard government claimed refugees had thrown “children overboard” when a Royal Australian Navy ship intercepted another boat carrying asylum-seekers. An Australian Senate inquiry later found the story to be untrue.

“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” Howard said in 2001, announcing what would become known as Australia’s Pacific Solution. It included establishing an Australian-run offshore detention center on Nauru, the third-smallest country in the world, and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. The Manus Island facility became infamous for its brutality—in 2014, an asylum-seeker was murdered by facility workers during a riot protesting living conditions, and in 2015, detainees held a hunger strike by sewing their lips together—and was briefly shuttered between 2008 and 2012. In 2021, the Australian government handed control of the Manus Island facility to the government of Papua New Guinea. Nauru’s detention center remains open.

The Pacific Solution has remained popular with the Australian electorate even as asylum-seekers are held indefinitely without charge and criticism that conditions are inhumane remain. Detention centers on Australian soil have also been criticized for being dangerous; asylum claims take an average of 761 days to process, and asylum-seekers are held in what are effectively jails for that time. The new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has said he’s investigating alternatives.

Australia’s soccer players put a positive face on the refugee experience in Australia, and Mabil acknowledges that his story is alluring to the media.

“I’ve got that title now of ‘oh, refugee kid,’” he told the Guardian. “It’s more for the headlines, for people to try to feel sorry for me, but they never try to understand who I am. … I want to tell that story too, inspire people from my country, my mother’s country, around the world.”

Mabil, Deng, and Kuol are prominent positive examples of African Australian success. Since the mid-1990s, approximately 30,000 people identifying as South Sudanese have immigrated to Australia. The community has produced top athletes in multiple sports, fashion models, musicians, and prominent lawyers. It has also been marginalized, associated with crime and violence in the media, and subjected to racism.

“There were times where I’d play for [Melbourne] Victory [his local team] on the weekend, then I’d be walking through the shops and there will be security guards looking at me strangely or following me around, thinking that I’m going to steal something,” Deng said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “I’ve had that multiple times in my life, but I’ve just learned to ignore it. … I’ve tried to block it out.”

Matthew Hall is a journalist who writes about politics, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in the GuardianSydney Morning Herald, and South China Morning Post. Twitter: @matthew_hall

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