The A-League stars with African origins lighting up the 2020/21 campaign

They have lit up the A-League and been central to an exciting brand of attacking football that has had fans on the edge of their seats this season.

Young stars like Alou Kuol, the Toure brothers and Valentino Yuel are among an extraordinary diaspora of at least 26 players with African heritage in the A-League – comprising more than 10% of the whole playing group.

It’s a trend that has gathered pace exponentially, in large part due to globalisation - allied to conflict in parts of Africa, leaving many with no choice but to up sticks, and try to find a country where they can have safer lives, with greater opportunities. Australia has provided that opportunity for many.

When Awer Mabil scored his first Socceroos goal against Kuwait in 2018, the first team-mate to congratulate him was Thomas Deng. The pair were childhood friends - a bond forged in Adelaide, through a shared background as refugees from the African continent.

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Thomas Deng celebrates with Awer Mabil after Mabil's goal for Australia against Kuwait
Thomas Deng celebrates with Awer Mabil after Mabil's goal for Australia against Kuwait

In a world full of political tumult, the beaming smiles on the faces of two kids of South Sudanese heritage seemed to epitomise the opportunity sport (and football in particular) presented for a brighter future.

Migration wasn't quite so simple back in the 80's and 90's, when relatively few players of African heritage were part of the NSL. Cyrille Ndongo-Keller was one of the exceptions.  

The Cameroonian midfielder played at the 1993 FIFA World Youth Championship staged in Australia, alongside players such as Rigobert Song and the late Marc-Vivien Foe. His displays attracted attention - and he signed initially with Parramatta Eagles, before having further stints with the now defunct Darwin Cubs, and three years with West Adelaide.

"When I was playing there was just me, Francis Awaritefe, and Ransford Banini - only the three of us. Samson Siasia came later - because Perth weren't in the league when I was playing. I then brought Simon Bell here after seeing him in Indonesia. Eddie Krncevic had spoken to me about needing a player for Marconi," says Ndongo-Keller.

Ndongo-Keller now runs Mongo Football, an academy on Sydney's Northern Beaches (Mongo means "kids" in Cameroon), and has helped develop talents such as Jordan Smyllie (Central Coast Mariners) and Josh Laws (Wellington Phoenix).

But it's the African talent that has caught his eye in this years A-League.

"Mohamed Toure is quite solid for his age, and he is only a kid.  To be able to play with adults and hold his own physically and technically, he is very interesting. I also like the way Alou Kuol throws himself about. He is still growing as a player, but he is very direct. You don't have a lot of those players in football these days - so he could do some good things with good management around him. Didier Drogba was like that, very direct. Ruon Tongyik too - I've been impressed with him. Alen (Stajcic) has done a good job stabilising him. Getting him to play the game simply, positioning himself properly." says Ndongo-Keller. 

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Ruon Tongyik has impressed Ndongo-Keller in the 2020/21 A-League season
Ruon Tongyik has impressed Ndongo-Keller in the 2020/21 A-League season

Francis Awaritefe played for many years in the NSL, representing the likes of Melbourne Knights, South Melbourne, Marconi and Sydney United. He arrived in Australia via the UK, but his parents are both Nigerian. He too is a fan of the Toure's.

"I love the way the Toure brothers play, their personalities. They are not scared. Mo in particular - his maturity is amazing.  But I also like Tete Yengi at the Jets, and his brother Kusini at Adelaide. Bruce Kamau has always had a lot of ability, and Elvis Kamsoba too. He is exciting to watch and has great technical ability, although he is really frustrating, as he does everything but score! I always look at the young strikers, because lately we haven't produced a lot at the top level.  In my generation we probably had too many.  Andy Harper didn't get a Socceroos cap despite scoring lots of goals.  I was lucky to get an opportunity.  But with these guys, you are thinking this could be a really exciting era for the national team." says Awaritefe.

Ex Adelaide United star, Jonas Salley, also benefited from the opportunity Australia provided. His A-League career was the launch pad for a seven-year spell in China - and he says he has his dad to thank.

"I was fortunate because my dad had been here for almost 40 years after leaving the Ivory Coast. I had a chat with Mo Toure's father recently.  He took them back to Guinea, and in Africa the talent is higher. So much competition.  You have to get lucky there - and your parents need some money to be able to pay for your travel expenses etc.  Only a few are able to do that.  These kids are fortunate to be in Australia; they know that," says Salley. 

GOAL: Toure - Teenage sensation lights up Coopers Stadium

Awaritefe says that African heritage - and the fact many of the players have grown up knowing hardship - makes them grow up faster. He believes you can see this in their personalities, helped by the games multi-cultural mix.

"When you are from a different background, you are more open to different cultures. I wouldn't have known the difference between a Serb or a Croat when I came here, or the Greeks and Macedonians. That's the social milieu of football here.  It has enriched my life - that ability to mix with people of so many different backgrounds. If you look at a lot of African players in the media, they are very open, gregarious, funny. Europeans tend to be more reserved, but Africans are just out there.  They like to express their joy about life - and Alou Kuol is a classic example," says Awaritefe.

Ndongo-Keller meantime, says he would like to see this generation of African-Australian players, raised largely in this country, supplemented by imports from Africa.  He believes it would benefit the league as well as the players.

"A market like this can serve them by transforming them from aspiring into confirmed players. We have visibility via TV - we have connections, we are linked multi-culturally - Italy, Germany, everywhere. In France, clubs have operations in each continent. That's how you detect your talent. That talent will inspire the locals too. The NBA have opened up their African scouting.They take good players, and they come at a fraction of the cost." 

The dream for the current crop of players of African heritage is to emulate the likes of Awer Mabil - now a Socceroos regular, and playing in the UEFA Champions League with Midtjylland.

Which leads us back to where we started. That game against Kuwait. A moment to make the African community proud. To make football fans proud.

"Those guys from South Sudan - they had gone through a lot. In the media at that point was all the negative stereotypes about the South Sudanese community. They were targeted. So as a black person I was proud of them. Awer is an amazing guy - the things he has gone through with the loss of his sister," says Awaritefe.

"I was proud to see them wearing the Aussie jersey. I knew the talent was there - they just needed the opportunity. (African players) play because we love it, and want to be able to help our families back home. The dream is to see a lot of African kids to play for the national team." adds Salley.

With a whole generation of kids coming through of African heritage, it's surely just a matter of time.