Senator DAY (South Australia): Australia is a proud sporting nation. We unite together to support our national teams at competitions at home and abroad, across a wide range of sporting pursuits. However, there is possibly no other game that unites nations across the world like soccer—or football as it called everywhere in the world except Australia and the United States. A number of superlatives were used to describe the efforts of our Socceroos at the recent World Cup in Brazil—and I must say that I was very disappointed not to have been able to attend. For those who have not been to a World Cup soccer final, you do not know what you are missing!
I was supposed to have been there this year with my family. Following the federal election last year, I made enquiries about Senate sittings and was told it was most unlikely that the Senate would sit in early July when the World Cup final was on. So my family and I went ahead and booked. Sure enough, the Senate sat in early July and I missed out, but my family went. My family assured me that it was a great event—which was not much consolation. One word possibly used more than many others to describe Australia’s Socceroos at that World Cup final was ‘courageous’—and I agree. They displayed enormous amounts of courage during each one of their games—never giving up, often to their more fancied opponents, believing anything was possible.
But back to Australia, to 18 of our own local communities—from Townsville to Hobart, Bunbury to Parramatta and many places in between. It is in these communities, week in week out, that we see some of the most courageous football, or soccer, being played. No, it is not Tim Cahill or Mark Bresciano; it is Roy, Sean, Geoff and De, along with over 5,000 homeless and disadvantaged Australians, who, since 2007 have turned up week in and week out to participate in the Big Issue’s Community Street Soccer Program.
Speaking of courageous let me tell you a little more about Geoff. Three years ago Geoff was homeless, sleeping rough and suffering from severe depression when he turned up one week to the Adelaide Street Soccer Program. Geoff attributes his attendance at this weekly program to completely turning his life around. Quite simply, in his own words, ‘It got my confidence back and it got me talking to people again.
Now in permanent housing, Geoff has become a mentor and role model to other soccer players and received the thrill of his lifetime when he was selected to represent Australia last year at the Homeless World Cup in Poland.
Then there is Tony, who suffers from severe schizophrenia and has been coming to the Ballarat Street Soccer Program for nearly six years. Despite an extremely difficult and abusive childhood, Tony’s remarkable strength of character shines through during the weekly sessions. Unfortunately, last year Tony was critically injured following a hit-and-run accident and spent the next six months undergoing countless surgeries, resulting in him needing to learn to walk again. His fellow players and support staff visited him each week after their training session, and as soon as he was able to leave hospital he was back at Street Soccer with his teammates, crutches in tow.
Operated by The Big Issue, Street Soccer uses the power of sport to re-engage those who are marginalised and disadvantaged—people who have often slipped through the cracks of traditional welfare systems, including those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, the homeless, refugees and Indigenous Australians. The results Street Soccer delivers extend way beyond the social. Studies have shown that for every $1 invested in the program a return of over $4 is generated through savings, due to the participants reducing their demand on government crisis services. This remarkable program has been proudly supported by the federal government since 2007. However, it is with much disappointment that, despite the many hundreds of stories like Geoff’s and Tony’s and all the additional economic benefits, it has not been refunded this year. Without this funding, many of these programs will simply have to close.
As a soccer fan, I naturally welcome the staging of the Asian Football Cup next January and the chance for us to host the best footballers from our neighbouring countries. I urge the government to reconsider the important role that grassroots sporting programs like the Community Street Soccer Program play in fostering a more inclusive Australia. One only needs to wander down to Jubilee Park in Parramatta on any Thursday afternoon to see participants from Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt coming together over their shared love of soccer and, in doing so, improving their lives one kick at a time. I trust the government can find a way to continue to support the sporting dreams of Australians from all walks of life, because it is no exaggeration to say that people’s lives depend upon it.