“You think of a place like Ronald McDonald House and assume it’s going to be grim, but the reality is it’s just so full of energy,” says Nathan Konstandopoulos, and you can hear that energy in the Adelaide United winger’s voice.
At 24, Konstandopoulos is keenly aware of the privileges of being a professional footballer, and wants to put them to good use – mirroring a tranche of charity and community involvement across the A-League and W-League clubs and players.
From what Western United veteran Andrew Durante calls the “humbling” experience of packing food parcels for struggling families, to the leadership programmes Melbourne City run for young community figures, much of this work goes on below the radar but has impacts at all levels of society.
Konstandopoulos was inspired by his father’s involvement in setting up the Adelaide Ronald McDonald House, the charity which provides accommodation for families of children getting treatment in hospital for serious conditions.
His involvement is literally at ground level, spending hours playing with the children but also trying to drive awareness of the charity’s work.
“During lockdown my brother and I did a house challenge to raise money, and it was a massive eyeopener for me to see how hard charities have to work to get funds,” he said.
“Every time I go there I’m struck by what a community it is. I really feel strongly that we should use any image we have as a professional footballer to keep their work in the public eye, so their big fundraisers are successful.”
The unique and challenging circumstances of the past year, from bushfires to the COVID-19 pandemic, have led several clubs to offer help in the most practical manner possible.
Clubs including Adelaide, Western United and Western Sydney have all had groups of players pack food parcels at Foodbank centres in their respective states, something Durante believes is a vital corrective to the sometimes cloistered world of professional football.
Western United players Andrew Durante, Josh Risdon, Brendan Hamill and Tomislav Ukok help pack food parcels at Foodbank Victoria.
“Our job is essentially to stay fit and healthy, we’re blessed to play football for a living, but we’re also aware of how many people have struggled this past year, especially due to COVID-19,” he said.
“It’s humbling but also rewarding to be able to be part of a club being aware of its privileged position and giving something back.”
Few players need to be asked twice, but some have a particular drive to play their part. In the W-League, Sydney FC midfielder Ally Green has taken part in the Chappell Foundation's Sports Stars Sleepout, but also volunteered to pack food parcels at the Addison Road Food Pantry.
Melbourne City’s Alex Chidiac, meanwhile, already a member of the global One Goal movement of footballers who donate 1% of their salary to charitable works, has designed a range of shirts to raise funds for a charity in Kenya that provides reusable pads for girls.
Wellington Phoenix General Manager David Dome is presented with a Distinguished Services Award at the Multicultural New Zealand (MNZ) Annual Community Awards Gala in September, in honour of the club’s ongoing work with migrant communities.
In other cases, the drive is acutely personal. When Sydney FC’s Luke Brattan raised more than $30,000 by shaving his hair off, to garner funds and awareness for the Leukemia Foundation, it came in response to learning his sister Holli-Mia had been diagnosed with cancer. It was also the second time he had taken part in the Greatest Shave initiative, having raised $20,000 three years before, and almost a year on Holli-Mia is currently cancer free.
Several of the clubs, meanwhile, have established long-standing partnerships with particular bodies. Western Sydney players and staff have supported Ronald McDonald House at Westmead for a number of years, while Perth Glory has a strong local connection with DT38, the charity in honour of Dylan Tombides that campaigns to raise awareness of the testicular cancer which killed the WA-born Young Socceroo.
Two of the longest-standing are Sydney FC’s affiliation with Beyond Blue, and the Mariners’ annual pink round to raise funds for breast cancer awareness and support.
For a decade Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory have played for the Beyond Blue Cup to spark conversations around the sometimes-taboo subjects of mental health and anxiety, while nine years ago the Mariners began their tradition of playing one game a season in a custom-designed pink shirt.
What began as a one-off has now raised more than $100,000 for the Cancer Council, much of which is spent locally.
“We base ourselves on being a community club and I think this defines that,” says CEO Shaun Mielekamp. “When you see the community involvement that it generates, it creates something we’re really proud of and showcases how a football club can return something to the community.”
That’s also a neat summary of the Football Diversity and Inclusion Programme and Football for All initiatives that Wellington Phoenix have run for local migrant communities, particularly refugees.
Phoenix General Manager David Dome was presented with a Distinguished Services Award by Multicultural New Zealand for the programmes in September, showing the power of football as a unifying force.
That’s also what powers the City in the Community foundation backed by Melbourne City, and Sydney FC’s involvement with the Football United and Creating Chances schemes that use the game to help migrants settle here.
In many cases, clubs use their profile to help charities raise awareness – such as Newcastle players and staff taking part in the annual Lifeline Walk With Us event to highlight the national suicide rate.
The Jets and their active supporters group also pioneered the Teddy Bear Toss just over a year ago, asking fans to buy a new teddy bear and toss it onto the pitch for collection and distribution to local children’s charities.
Jets general manager Lawrie McKinna knows exactly how many were collected – 1440 – because he counted them as a distraction from the fact his side was 2-0 down to Melbourne City at the time.
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