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Finding the new stars of Australian soccer?

Net result: Collingwood player Aguek celebrates a goal.

Net result: Collingwood player Aguek celebrates a goal. Photo: Mal Fairclough

IT WAS an unmistakably Melbourne scene. A sports oval on a Saturday, grass dry and yellowing, and the Rotary Club's barbecue about to fire up. Outside a tram hurtled under the CityLink tollway and up past the high-rise flats.

Just off the pitch came something different. Young African faces watched the game, chanting ''Come on New Zealand! Come on New Zealand'' despite their Australian accents. Maybe this was a natural reaction; the New Zealand side was up against a Collingwood team.

On the field there's something worth celebrating - young men from Australia's refugee communities brought together by their love of soccer. Across the sides there were players from Somali, Eritrean, Sudanese and Kenyan backgrounds. Many come from communities where alcohol abuse, crime and violence are problems, not to mention the struggle their families endured to escape from their war-ravaged homelands. It's little wonder the goals bring such jubilation.

Next week Melbourne will host the Australian Somali National Football Championships, a celebration of Australian-African soccer and a large social event for Horn of Africa communities from Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and from over the Tasman.

Such has been the success of the past two championships, this year's event - which kicked off at Debneys Park in Flemington on Saturday - has grown to 17 teams in the men's competition, plus teams in divisions for teens, women and masters. In all, about 500 players will play in the championships, while thousands of their friends and family members - many of them women and girls - will gather at reserves in Thornbury, Heidelberg and Kensington to watch.

''It brings the whole community together: different cultures, different players from every place,'' said Abdi Farah, who came to Australia from Somalia when he was nine and is the goalkeeper for the Collingwood side.

''We've got the Sudanese, the Ethiopians, the Oromo. There are a few Aussies as well. It's a good feeling. The main purpose is to get to know each other. Soccer is the world game and the best way to communicate is through football.''

In organising the championships, the Football Federation of Victoria wanted to bring together African communities, but was conscious of avoiding a competition played between different cultures. Therefore teams comprise members of all the respective ethnicities and represent suburbs, with Dandenong, Reservoir, Werribee and Ascot Vale among the Melbourne teams taking part.

Ahmed Dini, a community engagement officer with FFV and whose job it is to co-ordinate the championships, said the keenness for teams to take part meant organisers fielded inquiries from Canada, London and Scandinavia. There are few competitions like this anywhere.

''This championship is talked about six months prior to its starting, so there's a lot of pride within the teams and how they play,'' Dini said.

''It's a bit of civic pride; everybody wants to ensure the cup stays within their suburbs. Most people are not proud of coming from flats and areas with low-socio incomes. But when it comes to this time of the year they're very proud of where they live.''

For many players, this competition is their only chance to play organised games all year. Not that it shows. The games are fast, skilful and willing: several big tackles are made, but the game resumes quickly.

Dini said playing brought a sense of prestige and gave vulnerable young men a chance to be part of something good.

''A lot of young Africans find themselves in trouble because there isn't an avenue where they can feel like they belong to society or feel like they're engaging society in a positive manner,'' he said.

''Without this they get bored, which can lead to some silly stuff which can lead to issues with police.

''This is one way of making sure they do feel like they're appreciated, they're part of the wider community. Through this and our leadership programs we teach them they are part of society and they're Australians now, and they need to show a positive image for the rest of their communities. They're ambassadors.''

The championships run to Saturday. Details: www.aussiesomali football.com

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