They do not have marked soccer fields in Tennant Creek, a town in Australia’s Northern Territory, halfway across the continent from Sydney. So one morning last week, before nearly 100 kids arrived to play a round-robin tournament, three fields had to be laid out on a big grass oval with cones, flags and portable goals.
The children were bused in from schools all over the Barkly Region, a vast expanse of the outback that is about the size of Finland but has a population of only about 8,000 people. For some, the trip meant enduring long stretches on rutted dirt roads. One school brought 12 students, about one-third of its entire enrollment. Another did not bring enough to field a team, so it borrowed two players from a nearby community whose families are part of the same Aboriginal language group.
Boys and girls of all different ages played games together. For two days, the sport that can be played anywhere enlivened a community where the separation from the Women’s World Cup’s main stage is more than just thousands of miles.
“It’s a real soccer carnival,” said Annastashia August, an 11-year-old from Tennant Creek who is Warumungu, the people who are the traditional custodians of the land where the town now sits.
Soccer is Annastashia’s favorite sport, but this was only the second soccer carnival in her town. Both events arose from the initiative of John Moriarty, the first Aboriginal Australian selected for a national soccer team, who hopes to use the sport to help improve outcomes for Indigenous children in remote communities.
The rights of Indigenous peoples was one of the social causes FIFA chose to highlight at this year’s World Cup. Tournament organizers have recognized Indigenous communities in Australia and New Zealand, the two host countries, through measures that include the use of traditional place names alongside the more common English ones for each host city; the flying of Indigenous flags at stadiums; and the performing of Welcome to Country ceremonies by representatives of the traditional owners of the land wherever events are held.
Moriarty, 86, a Yanyuwa man who was first named to an Australian national team in 1960, said these gestures were appreciated but that there needed to be “substance” behind them. He and the other members of Indigenous Football Australia, a council that supports his initiative, John Moriarty Football, have called for meaningful support of Indigenous-led grass-roots programs from soccer’s Australian and global governing bodies. John Moriarty Football says it has received less than 20,000 Australian dollars, or about $13,000, from its country’s soccer governing body, Football Australia, since Moriarty launched the program in 2012.
“If it wasn’t for programs like JMF, the pathways for children in Tennant Creek to get to elite football, let alone a World Cup tournament, would be nonexistent — an impossible dream,” Moriarty wrote in an email. “But the talent for football in the bush is deep and the potential for football to break the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage is huge.”
Football Australia pointed to the creation two years ago of its National Indigenous Advisory Group, which includes the Australia striker Kyah Simon, who is of Aboriginal descent, and said that its Legacy ’23 plan, created to continue growing the sport after the World Cup, includes financing for a First Nations competition in New South Wales. Courtney Fewquandie, a Butchulla and Gubbi Gubbi woman who serves as Football Australia’s general manager of First Nations, said the advisory group has agreed to a meeting with Indigenous Football Australia after the World Cup that she hopes will be “the first step to moving forward together.”
Far away from this back-and-forth at the sport’s highest levels, the grass-roots work championed by Moriarty continues. His exposure to the sport came only after he was removed from his mother at age 4 and put into boys’ homes in other parts of the country under policies at the time that permitted the state to separate tens of thousands of children from their Aboriginal mothers. The Indigenous children removed during that era are referred to as the Stolen Generations. Now, as many communities continue to experience the aftereffects of colonial policies, Moriarty is directing resources and attention back to remote, primarily Indigenous areas like the one he was taken from.
Last week’s soccer tournament in Tennant Creek brought together young players from across the region in partnership with the territory’s education department. But John Moriarty Football maintains a daily presence in Tennant Creek, where it has an office in the primary school and works with more than 300 Indigenous children weekly in the town and nearby communities.
Each week, classes have a block in their schedule for what they call “John Moriarty time,” when they learn and practice soccer skills and do breathing exercises that can help students regulate their behavior. The period ends with a snack of fresh fruit, which can be prohibitively expensive in remote parts of the Northern Territory. In recent weeks, the classes have also watched clips of the Australian team, known as the Matildas. They have drawn the nation’s attention and support during their run to the World Cup semifinals, where they will face England on Wednesday in Sydney.
“When I was little, we had nothing like this,” said Dwight Hayes, 23, a Warlpiri man who grew up in Tennant Creek and is now an assistant teacher at the primary school. “The kids love the sport. They’ll do anything to play.”
That was apparent out on the sun-baked fields, where children playing in shoes, socks or bare feet barely took breaks between games, choosing instead to practice dribbling or attempt corner kicks. They are relentlessly supportive of each other, chanting three cheers for their opponents, even after a tough loss.
School attendance is one of the biggest challenges in Tennant Creek. About 350 students are enrolled in the primary school, but generally no more than 200 attend in any given week, school officials said. The numbers are even lower at the high school. The education level and employment status of caregivers affect school attendance, and in Tennant Creek, the unemployment rate for Aboriginal adults is more than 60 percent and only about 10 percent of people over age 15 have finished high school, according to census data.
Teachers say soccer is helping. The students picked to play in the soccer carnival were those who attended at least four days of school a week. Children struggling with their behavior in the classroom are sometimes given the option to take a break and join Moriarty time in another class. Ethan Holt, a 15-year-old who is Warumungu, refereed the soccer carnival last week as part of a personal learning plan that allows him to gather work experience. Other teenagers work for John Moriarty Football as an alternate pathway to earning a secondary school certificate.
At the end of each school day, Stewart Willey, the program’s community coordinator in Tennant Creek, volunteers as a school bus driver. He chats with students about the goals they scored as he weaves through the community living areas on the outskirts of town, where extended families crowd into the limited public housing available. During school holidays, he returns with a soccer ball and the children rush out to the nearest open piece of dirt, eager to keep practicing their new skills.
“We knew right from the start JMF had to be more than just a children’s football program,” Moriarty said. “Football needed to be the vehicle that could unlock their potential, encourage them to go to school, help them live healthier lives and build resilience.”
The pilot program in Moriarty’s hometown, Borroloola, served about 120 children, nearly every child in town. John Moriarty Football now reaches more than 2,000 Indigenous children in 19 communities across three states or territories. One player who began attending sessions in Borroloola, Shadeene Evans, proved so talented that a scholarship program was created to allow her to attend a top sporting school in Sydney. She went on to play for the Young Matildas, the national under-20 team.
Ros Moriarty, John’s partner and co-founder of their nonprofit, said Football Australia expressed interest in their work a few years ago. Those conversations did not lead anywhere, she said, because it seemed the federation was merely interested in taking over their initiatives under its umbrella. (Fewquandie, the Football Australia official, said those discussions took place before her time with the federation.)
“It feels like it’s almost a forgotten space within Football Australia,” said Allira Toby, a Kanolu and Gangulu woman who has played in Australia’s top professional women’s league and is part of the Indigenous Football Australia council. “There could be — there is — so much talent in rural communities where they never get the chance to even look at playing sport or soccer in that space in Australia, because there just aren’t the pathways that should be there.”
As the soccer carnival in Tennant Creek neared its end, members of the community gathered around the grassy oval. Elders. The school principal. A nurse and a constable. The cousin that Annastashia calls her big sister.
Tennant Creek High School, whose students have been part of the John Moriarty program for four years, won the trophy. The makeshift soccer fields were packed up, but not for long. The John Moriarty Football van, with the Aboriginal flag on the dashboard, would be back on the road the next morning, headed to the community of Ali Curung, making sure the sport that can be played anywhere is played there.