Migrants and the footy experience

Dear Almanackers,
I’m looking for 30-40 writers who may be first or second generation migrants to share stories about their relationship with footy. The idea is to publish a book that will reflect the authentic multicultural fan base of the AFL. This does not only include people from non-English speaking backgrounds. Indeed, there would be some fascinating stories from those who migrated from Scotland, England and Ireland. Getting a broad selection of cultural backgrounds will be a key ingredient to the success of the book.

Ideally, the stories would be between 2000-2500 words and would include 2-3 photos that symbolise the relationship between migration and Australian Rules. Most people coming from overseas would have no idea that Aussie Rules existed. How is it that the game has become an important part of your life in Australia? What is it about the game that attracts you or makes you feel connected to a large slice of Australian culture?

Alternatively, are there aspects of the game that you believe still marginalise or exclude people from engaging with the code and its many ideologies? Critical pieces are most welcome and indeed essential to provide balance and perspective to the book. I have been thinking about this project for a few years now and I have finally found the time and the resources to make it happen. A book of this kind has not been written and I think that it would stand out as a valuable and unique artefact in the library of Australian Rules football.

Four years ago, I filled in for John Harms on Lindy Burns’ program and we did an hour on footy and the migrant experience. I also wrote a piece for Footy Unleashed, which prefigured footyalmanac.com as a forum for fans and writers to contribute their thoughts and ideas. The article, along with Jim Pavlidis’ wonderfully spectral ‘Good Ordinary Player’, is included below for your perusal.

Writers will be paid $50 per piece and will receive two books upon publication. The aim is to have the book published before the end of the year. Any suggestions from Knackers about the style and content would be most appreciated. You can contact me at [email protected] or call me on (03)9470 3004 or 0416 492 454. Looking forward to your ideas, responses, questions and participation.

“Hey wog, can you play footy?,” asked the snotty, freckle-faced kid who looked like Robert ‘Scratcher’ Neal.

I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or beat him up. This was the playground in 1977. The location was Queenstown, Tasmania.

My parents ran a milk bar there for two years. We were the only Greek family in town. I stood out as the kid with the funny long surname.

‘Scratcher’ needed an extra player for our 10-a-side game. In that seemingly insignificant little game a racial chasm was bridged.

I kicked drops, torps, took a couple of strong marks and kicked two goals. That was the last time someone called me a wog in that schoolyard.

Footy helped me make friends and my ethnicity suddenly was not the issue it was before.

It helped that I showed some skill, but it was the fact that I played which mattered most.

‘Scratcher’ was no longer a threat and for the first time, I felt as though I belonged in Queenstown.

On Monday afternoon, I had the pleasure of sitting in for John Harms on 774 ABC Melbourne’s The Almanackery with Lindy Burns.

Our topic? Footy and the migrant experience. All the guests and callers expressed how footy made them feel welcome in their new country.

Tom Petsinis is a mathematician and poet who came to Australia from Macedonia as a six-year-old in 1960. Footy has had a profound influence on his life. In 2006 he published a book of poems titled Four Quarters. Many of the poems reflect on his transition from Macedonia to Fitzroy and are underpinned by his fascination and subsequent love of the game.

On The Bench is a poem that engages the myth of the old man as guide. An Anzac veteran introduces him to the story of Haydn Bunton, who took the place of Alexander The Great in Petsinis’s mind. The poem is an ode to a footballer that gave a young migrant child a sense of topographical belonging. It signifies the metamorphoses of Alexander, a hero to Macedonians, into Bunton, a hero to followers of the Fitzroy football club and a child searching to reawaken his mythical imagination in a new place.

He writes:

With no elders in our family to satisfy
Our boyish need for stories of legendary heroes,
He became the grandfather we lacked,
Whose words rooted us in Melbourne’s soil.

He’d followed Fitzroy his entire life
And touched the sweat on Haydn Bunton’s back.
Did he really have the ball on a string?
Could he walk on winter-thin air?

With each slow, deliberate re-telling
He drew us to the man we still dreamt of becoming:
Fearless, poised in full flight, always great,
Replacing Alexander in our minds.

Tom now supports the Brisbane Lions, but admits the passion is not the same. The sense of place and inspiration that Fitzroy and Brunswick Street Oval gave him remains strong in his imagination and it shines through in this wonderful collection of poems.

Another guest was Nick Hatzoglou, who is the Multicultural Project Co-ordinator for the AFL. In 2005, the AFL recognised the need to engage newly-arrived migrants and created a program to take the game to schools with high migrant populations. The initiative focuses on the different regions of Victoria and is designed to encourage young migrants to play and watch the game. There is evidence of growing participation amongst North African and Middle Eastern migrants.

Harry O’Brien, whose background is a mixture of North African and Brazilian, along with Essendon’s Bachar Houli who is Lebanese, are flag bearers for the program. Migrant youth can identify with them because they are tangible examples of how being a migrant is not a barrier to participating in the game as players and spectators.

Hatzoglou rightly pointed out that the position of Andrew Demetriou is a testament to how the game embraces different cultures. A decade ago, who would have thought that the son of Greek Cypriot migrants would be CEO of the nation’s most popular code?

Yet, the migrant experience also includes people who migrated from Britain, Scotland and Ireland. We should not take Anglo-Saxon surnames for granted. Many had to flee from poverty in post-war Europe and the game has also given these people a sense of belonging in a faraway land.

Jim Pavlidis is a Melbourne artist who is inspired by footy’s imagery. His paintings have an ethereal quality, which depict the timelessness and emotional agon of the human spirit.

The work featured here is titled Good Ordinary Player. I chose to showcase this painting because it reflects the sacrifice made by the footballer to play the game despite his flaws. It’s also indicative of the sacrifices made by migrants to adapt, prosper and cultivate new passions, regardless of geographical dislocation.

A year after my first encounter with ‘Scratcher’, a group of us grade three kids went to the famous gravel oval to watch a final between Queenstown City and my team Lyell-Gormanston. City won fairly comfortably.

‘Scratcher’ was also a Lyell fan and after the game approached me with more than a hint of sadness.

“Better luck next year, Phil,” he said.

Looking back I realise that there was a connection made in those words that transcended notions of race or cultural superiority.

We followed the same team and shared the same gamut of emotions through football.

Those words echoed a lament for the present and hope in the future. Life and footy can be like that.


About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.


  1. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Have already received a number of responses on Facebook or via email. If anyone knows of someone who might be interested in sharing their story let me know :)

  2. Adam Muyt says


    Great concept!

    My old man was a first generation Dutch migrant so that makes me 1/2 a second generation…perhaps that means I’m only 1/4 fit? He loved footy of all sorts (he’d played soccer in Holland of course, and was good enough to male it the regional side before migrating) and encouraged us kids to play / follow whatever footy we wanted. Loved League (we grew up in Sydney) but once I introduced him to australian footy (I’d migrated to Melbourne) he ‘got it’ straight away. Anyways. you including ‘absorbed’ migrant experiences too like his or the 1/4’s like me?


  3. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Sounds like you’ve written the intro already Adam. Most welcome to contribute mate. The Fitzroy connection would also be worth a read. The bridge from soccer to footy is one that is worth exploring, particularly from a Dutch perspective. Pics would also be welcome.

  4. Sasha Lennon says

    Phil, where can we find word requirements, style criteria, etc?

    Cheers, Sasha

  5. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Hi Sasha,

    the word limit is between 2000-2500 words. The criteria is fairly fluid as long as there is a concrete connection between migration and footy. The style would be in an essay format, but writers are also welcome to use poems, lyrics, pictures or any other literary devices that help express what you want to communicate to readers. Write the story that you would want to read.

  6. John Harms says

    Phil, any thought of going back further? German Lutherans tended to remain rather separate engaging with decadent Australian society here and there – except in the area of sport where they went nuts about it. Certainly that was my family’s experience in the early 20th century.

  7. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Harmsy, I think we can find room for a German Lutheran yarn. Would love to read a piece from a Lutheran cultural perspective.

    The response for the project has been encouraging with at least 15 people putting their hands up already.

    I’ve got a spot with Lindy Burns next Wednesday night on ABC radio to promote the concept so there is definitely interest there. Will talk to you about it more soon.

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