Growing up, Kusini Yengi and his brother, Tete, were passionate about football.
They would travel across Adelaide on sunny weekend mornings to play in the park with their friends, brothers Mohamed and Al Hassan Toure.
“Kicking around a ball gave us joy,” Kusini tells ABC RN Breakfast.
“We all lived far away from each other, we’d catch the bus and meet up and play. It really brought us together.”
Now 22 years old, Kusini has just enjoyed a breakthrough season in Australia’s top men’s football competition, the A-League.
He marked his arrival with a goal, an assist and a buoyant celebration in Adelaide United’s 3-1 win over Melbourne Victory in March.
Remarkably, all four boys who once spent their weekends together — Kusini, Tete, Mohamed and Al Hassan — are now playing with A-League clubs.
The young footballers are part of an emerging generation of talented African-Australian players.
Andrew Howe, a senior demographer at the Australian Bureau of Statistics and one of the go-to numbers men in Australian football, says the numbers are increasing quickly.
“We’ve had 34 African-Australian players that have made an appearance in this season’s A-League,” Howe says.
“That’s a record, by far. Last year we had 26 and in previous years we haven’t had more than 18.”
He says football in Australia has always reflected changing patterns of migration.
In the 50s and 60s, it was Eastern and Southern Europeans, in the 70s and 80s, those from the former Yugoslavia and Middle East, and now, it’s African players.
“There’s certainly a big surge in the number of African-Australians playing in Australia’s top men’s league this season,” Howe says.
A ‘collective pride’
Kusini was born in Australia after his father arrived in the country as a South Sudanese refugee.
In 2007, he returned to his father’s country of origin for a nine-month trip.
There, he gained an understanding of his father’s experience and he says it gives him extra drive to succeed as a player.
“It really opened my eyes and gave me a greater understanding of the sacrifices he made to get into the position he’s in now, [to] look after me and my family,” Kusini says.
Kusini says the new generation of African-Australian players with ties to different countries feel a collective pride.
“When we see one player from African descent doing well, we all encourage them and congratulate them. We all feel proud of one another.”
‘They keep fighting’
Kusini’s club, Adelaide United, has benefited in more ways than one from the growing number of African-Australian players.
The club’s director of football, Bruce Djite, says players from refugee backgrounds often have greater resilience.
“Whether the game has gone poorly for them, they keep fighting. When they’re not being selected in the squad, they keep going. They don’t throw in the towel,” Djite says.
“It’s those sort of character traits which are critically important if you want to make it.”
Football’s long battle with racism
After Kusini’s electric performance against Melbourne Victory, his phone lit up with messages of support.
Unfortunately, he was also targeted with racist abuse on social media.
Adelaide United, Melbourne Victory and the Australian Professional Leagues (APL), which represents the A-League, all condemned the racism.
APL managing director Danny Townsend called upon all football fans across the country to “condemn this type of racial abuse and eradicate it from any association with our game”.
Bruce Djite says even at a school sport level there’s racism on-field. He’s been working with local schools to help combat it.
“I’ve been unfortunately called out a few times to speak about how to deal with racism and ways to channel that negative energy and how to call it out,” Djite says.
Former Socceroo, Francis Awaritefe, one of the few top-level players of African descent who played football in Australia’s top league in the 1990s, has experienced racism in the game too.
These were the days of the National Soccer League, when Australia’s top domestic clubs were tied to ethnic community groups.
Awaritefe says he found the football community to be overwhelmingly welcoming, but there were times he was racially abused by players and fans.
“When I played at Melbourne Croatia, I had a small band of South Melbourne fans doing it in the stand,” he says.
“And when I left Melbourne Croatia then went to South Melbourne, I had a bunch of Melbourne Croatia fans chanting racial slurs at me.”
Motivated to act, he worked with the player union, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA), to develop an equal opportunities code in the 90s, which he says has helped to put football ahead of other codes when it comes to tackling discrimination.
Kusini wants to keep his focus on his game and he hopes his eye-catching performance against Melbourne Victory earlier this season is just the beginning.
“I’d love to play for the Socceroos one day,” he says.
“The dream is to get over to Europe. I’d love to play for Real Madrid one day, they’re my favourite team.
“I’m going to aim real high.”
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