By Will Hunter
Few football clubs have the same multicultural and familial atmosphere as Northvale Junior Football Club.
Although fielding just three teams in the SMJFL this year, the club has around 14 different nationalities within its ranks, which is reflective of the multicultural nature of the Mulgrave area in which the club is located.
One of the largest ethnic groups represented at Wellington Reserve are from the Sudanese community, many of which are recent refugees from the war-torn African nation.
And Northvale President Gerard De Filippis said the club goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure that those less fortunate are welcomed into the club with open arms.
“The Sudanese boys we look after them almost like an adoption. We pick them up, we drop them off, we feed them, we clothe them, we do all this sort of stuff that we had to do,” De Filippis said.
“Because they don’t have parents present, or only one parent, we do share it around our members, our parents to pick them up and drop them off, even as far as interleague goes.
“We pretty much find footy boots for them within the club. The club itself looks after their fees, looks after their rego, looks after their socks, their shorts, you know, their mouth guards.
“And I suppose on the side we look after them at the canteen too, after a game. We’ve got a bit of a ‘one hotdog per goal deal’. That seems to work!
“A lot of these kids have gone to other sports clubs and who’ve said to them ‘oh look unless you’ve got money and you’ve got this we can’t help you’. And we’ve never shut our doors.”
De Filippis has been involved Northvale JFC for 10 years, and in that time he says there has always been around six to eight Sudanese players at the club at any one time.
Well aware of the difficulties these kids have faced in their early lives, De Filippis and other parents at the club have gone to remarkable lengths to build a culture of tolerance, support and inclusion, often acting as father figures for the Sudanese boys.
And in many respects, the club feels like more like a family than a football club, which De Filippis says is due in no small part to efforts of the devoted group of parents.
“The parents they take them home, they let them shower, they let them have dinner with their family and then they drop them off at home. It’s unbelievable,” De Filippis said.
“I have parents say to me all the time, I bought Tharial a new pair of boots, you know, we took him with us to a birthday, they’ve had him over for Christmas, they’re really good.
“Little things make them so happy. We give them a footy, ‘here, take this home and practise, have a kick with it’, we get parents to donate boots, or other bits of clothing that they’re not going to use and we give it to these guys, so they’re always looked after.
“The parents are fantastic.”
De Filippis say one of the main reasons why the parents go to great lengths to include the Sudanese boys into the football club is to teach these kids some important life lessons and ultimate help them to integrate into Australian society.
“They learn the Australian way, they learn mateship, they learn what it is to be part of a team,” De Filippis explained.
“When they are at school, sometimes they might stick with their own countrymen, so to speak, but when they’ve got teammates that are on their team, it’s like they belong to another family. I think that’s what’s really good for them.
“When they come to the club, no one questions where they are from, or what colour they are, all they care about is how they play footy and how they put in for each other.”
But while the Sudanese kids are nurtured and supported within the club environment, their involvement has benefits for the rest of the club.
In particular, the inclusion of so many players of Sudanese backgrounds have helped break down racial barriers and stereotypes, with many of their fairer-skinned teammates vehemently opposing racism of any kind.
“They really go against it,” De Filippis said.
“I see it because they invite these kids to their birthday parties, they’ll invite them over for a play… young kids are willing to accept anybody. They don’t see colours or races or whether you are rich or poor and all that sort of thing.
“All they’re interested in is if you can mark and have a kick with them, and you join their team and you run and bump and tackle and handball it to ‘em. That’s all they care about.”
And many of Northvale’s Sudanese players have shown remarkable talent.
Tharial Ter was an integral part of the SMJFL Under 15 Division 1 Interleague team that recent won the AFL Victoria Metro Junior Championships, while former Northvale player Goy Lok has been recently tearing it up in the TAC Cup with Sandringham Dragons in the hope of being drafted.
The club is incredibly proud of all of their successes and are hopeful some of them can follow in the footsteps of Sudanese trailblazers Majak Daw, Gach Nyuon and Mabior Chol and play at the highest level.
“At the end of the day, we feel like they are our adopted kids. Nothing makes us prouder than when we see those boys do well, you know hopefully a couple of them are going to go on to AFL,” De Filippis said.
This weekend the SMJFL celebrates Multicultural Round in alignment with the AFL’s equivalent, and it gives us all an opportunity to celebrate the cultural diversity the exists within our league, our clubs and our game.
But for Northvale, Multicultural Round is particularly special.
“Look, for us [Multicultural Round] is a big thing because it’s what our club is about it’s what our area is about, it’s what our suburb is about, you know, our community,” De Filippis said.
“Without all these players helping us and playing for us we wouldn’t have a team, we wouldn’t have a club, so it’s very important.
“We love it, the boys are great and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”