Set against the warm summer sky, the first semi-final between Liberia and Ethiopia played out in front of a crowd of a couple hundred passionate fans.
If you were in attendance for Football Empowerment’s latest tournament, you would’ve been forgiven for thinking that you were actually at the African Cup of Nations.
A cacophony of music, cheers and yelling filled the air. Spectators draped in their country’s flags and colours lived every pass, tackle and goal. The quality of football was also never in question. The players on show were of incredible calibre – with tricky wingers dazzling, no nonsense defenders and veteran midfielders making intelligent tackles to break up play.
The Liberian team would run out 2-1 winners despite a controversial penalty decision that went against them. For all the intensity and determination on show, when the final whistle blew, the geographical lines were no more and everyone shook hands as football fans once more.
A tournament run by social organization Football Empowerment, the African Cup of Nations is built on their philosophy of using football to impact the health and wellbeing of young people in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities.
Established in 2016 by a group of young people led by Tom Yabio, Football Empowerment have harnessed the beautiful game as a catalyst for change - carrying out various community-based soccer programs and events to engage young people who are at risk or who could potentially be at risk of disengagement.
The sheer engagement at the annual African Cup of Nations from young people and their families reveals just how much impact Football Empowerment has created. Taking time to meet and converse with various people on the day – spectators, volunteers and players alike – there was a common theme in their reflection on the event; community.
For so many of these first and second generation migrants, finding yourself in a new culture, in a new country, can be immensely challenging. Being a migrant myself, listening to their stories of struggle, confusion and isolation resonated.
“What do I have to do?”
“Do I belong?”
“Who am I?”
The tournament is both an ode to the past and a celebration of the present. That you don’t have to forget your roots to embrace the potential of today.
I heard great stories about how one Ethiopian woman had arrived in Australia when she was 8, and was now living out her dream of being a chef.
Or how one kid had recently made his professional debut in the A-League.
Yes, this was a football tournament. But the football – this game we all love – was a gateway into something much bigger.
It was a symbol of the human spirit.
It was a celebration of our diversity as a country.
It was a testament to how one can find themselves when a community rallies behind you.
As Tom aptly puts it, “football unites everybody. It’s the universal language that brings happiness and joy.”
Couldn’t have put it any better myself.