IT STARTED as an initiative to counter ''violent extremism'' in the community. It has involved the Federal Police, the Victorian Police Force, Hobson's Bay Council, Essendon Football Club and the Western Bulldogs. Along the way, it was deeply touched by the AFL Peace Team - the half-Palestinian, half-Israeli football team - that visited Australia last year.
It climaxed in March this year when the Muju Peace Team, made up in equal numbers by Muslim and Jewish youths aged between 16 and 18, won the AFL Unity Cup, which is run by the AFL as part of its multicultural program. Last Friday, there was a celebration of the event at the Whitten Oval, although being Friday night most of the Jewish players were at home with their families, Shabbat having begun. In the event, one Jewish player, Joel Kuperholz, attended. Joel was the Bialik College student who drove the idea of a joint Jewish-Muslim footy team from the Jewish side.
In congratulating his team, the Muju coach, Leading Senior Constable Scott Sutton, likened each of his players to an AFL star.
From that moment, says Sutton, they were ''tuned in''. The team loved it when he likened Mahmoud Badra to Adelaide star Kurt Tippet and added: ''Big athletic forward who needs to work on his goalkicking.'' The young men loved that as young men do when one of their number is singled out for a harmless joke.
He likened Joel Kuperholz to Essendon high-flyer Paddy Ryder, saying he played ''forward, back and in the ruck''. But he says Joel talks better than he plays footy. Again, it's the sort of joke people make in footy clubs.
Sutton has a cheekiness about him that anyone who has played footy will recognise as being part of change-room banter. He also coaches WynBay Power in the Reclink league. ''Everybody needs to belong to something,'' he says.
''Some disadvantaged footy teams are like families. If you're in the team, you've got a name, a position, an identity.''
Sutton is from Mount Beauty in north-eastern Victoria. One night, after news of his decision to join the police force had gone around the town, he was in the local pub having a counter meal when a woman brought a complaining child over to him and declared to the kid: ''If you don't behave, he'll put you in jail.'' That wasn't the sort of policeman he wanted to be.
Sutton has played footy for the Newport mosque. ''They love their footy,'' he says of the Muslim boys. ''They go in hard.'' He says he found the Muslim kids and the Jewish kids - or, rather, the ones who fronted for places in the team - complemented one another. The Muslim kids were noisier, more extrovert, more easily distracted; the Jewish kids more reserved.
The Muju team's drive came from the combination of giant ruckman Ali Hamad - in Sutton's words, the Aaron Sandilands of the team - who gave first use of the ball to midfielders Daniel Cohen and Jacob Kingston.
''Cohen,'' says Sutton, ''is my Scott Pendlebury - smooth skills.'' Jacob Kingston is his Trent Cotchin. ''Almost unbeatable in close.''
Wajih Taleb wanted to be called Didak but Sutton likened him to Luke Dahlhaus. ''He kept pestering me to put him in the centre. As soon as I did, he backed into a pack and took a knee in the kidneys. It would have hurt but two minutes later he was up and running around. He's harder than Didak.''
The Unity Cup is played under nine-a-side rules. Here are the other players, together with Sutton's visualisation of them. Lachlan Knight was Brendon Goddard - ''unbeatable in the back line''; Oussama Abouzied was Brian Lake - ''back to his All-Australian form''; Kaled El Houli was Brett Deledio - ''classic backman and midfielder''; Ali El Houli was Steven Morris - ''I think he was hoping I'd say Bachar Houli but he's not that silky''; Brandon Joel was Jack Riewoldt - ''strong hands and a straight kick''; Osman El Souki was Rhys Stanley - ''tall, athletic and lots of potential''; Johnny Kaplan was Brad Ebert - ''underrated onballer''; Jamie Grigoriants was Nathan Fyfe - ''classy wingman, long penetrating kick''; and Andrew Slade was Freo's Michael Johnson - ''versatile and consistent''.
I was involved when the first Muju Peace teams played last year and spoke to the players before the game. They were lined up on Whitten Oval. I said this was not Christian ground, not Muslim ground, not Jewish ground, this was a footy ground - ''footy grounds are places where you earn respect by what you do.'' At that stage, what the concept lacked was coaches. Then they got Sutton. Then they won the Unity Cup.
Last Friday night, there were lots of speeches. Attorney-General Nicola Roxon even graced the occasion with a visit. I had the honour of giving the last speech. I said that when I went to Israel with the Peace Team I was struck to learn that the average Israeli has never spoken to a Palestinian. The average Australian has never spoken to an Aborigine. If you never meet someone, you only know them through the media. There is no alternative to dialogue, to engagement, and footy is a great vehicle for that.
Awards were given to Joel Kuperholz and Oussama Abouzied, the young man who led the charge from the Muslim side. Afterwards, the team, or those of them there, posed for pictures. Their coach stood with them and they chanted his name. ''Scottie! Scottie!'' And what started as an initiative to counter extremism ended with a group of youths chanting the name of a local policeman.