Main content

From soccer with a balloon to AFL: Aliir's journey

It sounds like football to me Foreign language commentators Manpreet Kaur Singh and Jamie Pi put their spin on the AFL

SPORTS equipment was low priority in the Kenyan refugee camp where even a meal and shelter didn't necessarily equate to survival.

As a child, Aliir Aliir and his friends improvised with whatever they could scrape together to create their own fun amid the uncertainty of their harsh environment.

"I don't remember too much about my time in the camp and, to be honest, I'm not one to ask questions of my brothers and Mum and Dad. All I know I was just a little kid who wanted to play sport,'' the Sydney Swans defender said.

"But one childhood memory that will stay with me for a long time was playing soccer with a balloon. We would blow it up, get some old clothes and wrap them around it until it was like a soccer ball that would bounce.

"We would play with that outside until the sun went down. That's one of my best memories from back then," he said.

Aliir, 21, was seven when he arrived in Australia with his Sudanese-born parents and family.

Aliir and Richmond rookie Mabior Chol, 19, are the most recent players of Sudanese descent to join AFL ranks. The pair knew of each other, but had never met until May this year, despite both starting their junior footy careers with Brisbane club Aspley.

The age gap and Aliir's brief stint with WAFL club East Fremantle inadvertently kept them apart until they finally linked up at League headquarters in Melbourne, when they took part in Africa Day celebrations, marking the establishment in 1963 of the Organisation of African Unity.

"I didn't speak any English when I came to Australia and the only way I could connect with other kids was through sport," Aliir said.

"Obviously, I picked up English here at school and through watching TV. The only sport I knew was soccer and I didn't pick up another sport until I was in high school. Some of my mates were having a kick of the footy in the playground and encouraged me to have a kick with them.

"I was used to the round ball and I really didn't know how to hold a football properly. My friend taught me how to kick it and he was the one who asked me if I had thought about playing for a club. I wasn't too sure, but I like to try new things so I gave it a go."

A junior coach's advice to watch games on TV as a way of learning more about the sport increased Aliir's craving for the high ball, even though it temporarily fostered a bad habit.

"The first time I watched a game, Nic Naitanui was playing and he took a massive speccy. That's what really got me on board to want to play AFL," Aliir said.

"I remember going back to training and asking the coach, 'Am I allowed to do this?' And he said, 'Yeah, you can do it as much as you like, so long as you grab the ball.' For a while, all I tried to do was take hangers.

"Understanding the game took a long time. I knew the aim of the game, but I had to learn more about when and where to run and where to go and when to play offence and defence. I'm still developing and learning new things. I feel like I'm just starting out."

Aliir Aliir celebrates his first win at the Swans. Picture: AFL Media

Aliir said playing footy gave him an enormous sense of enjoyment.

"It's the thrill of running out with your mates and having fun. What makes it even better is the fact you can come away with a win," he said.

"You're playing with your best mates and you know they've got your back, no matter what."

Chol doesn't have fond memories of his family journey here, which included a period living in Egypt. He said they were victims of racism before they finally settled in Brisbane when he was about eight.

"My Mum and Dad have told me a few stories about it. We lived there for two years and it was a bit rough. I could see it in their eyes," Chol said.

"A good mate of mine who lived nearby (in Brisbane) introduced me to the game. He invited me down to school training."

Chol adapted quickly and found himself in a strong-performing team.

"Initially, I didn't know what AFL was but I was lucky enough to be in a side that went all the way to a grand final," he said.

"It's not an easy sport to learn. You learn something and immediately have to learn something else. I was trying to fathom the shape of the ball because it would bounce everywhere. The other thing was getting used to how the game was played, including where you needed to be on the field."

Chol, a quick forward with sharp foot skills, represented Queensland at under-18 level and was a member of the Brisbane Lions academy for two years. He excited club recruiters with a standout performance for an Allies team against the AFL Academy in a curtain-raiser at the MCG on Grand Final day last year.

"It was a good opportunity to show everyone what I'm good at and that I was ready to play in the AFL. I had a good day and was lucky enough to be picked up by Richmond,'' he said.

Chol played in the Tigers' three NAB Challenge matches this year and is aiming to capitalise on his opportunities.

"Leaving Brisbane for Melbourne was a huge move for me. Being the oldest of six kids, you've got responsibilities. But I saw it in a positive way and I'm trying to help my family and myself as well.

"If I don't get elevated (to the senior list) this year, I'll just keep working and, hopefully, get another year with Richmond.

"Having the right people around me at the club helps – players like Jack (Riewoldt), Alex Rance, 'Cotchy' (Trent Cotchin) and Ivan Maric really look after the young players."

Mabior Chol in action during the NAB Challenge. Picture: AFL Media

Both Aliir and Chol received plenty of support and advice from junior coaches and mentors who committed to private kicking and handball sessions before and after regular training.

One of Aliir’s early coaches, who still texts him with advice, was among those invited to the young Swan's AFL debut early in the season, fittingly, at the Gabba.

"I had a fair few family and friends there. I think I asked for 50 tickets. After the game, Tom Mitchell came up and said he’d never heard a crowd go so crazy. ‘Every time you went near the ball, they went off.' It was really cool," he said.

THIS IS AN EDITED VERSION OF A STORY PUBLISHED IN THE ROUND-16 EDITION OF THE AFL REORD, AVAILABLE AT ALL VENUES.