Contributed by: Wesley Hull Saturday, August 28 2021 @ 09:49 am ACST
When Port Adelaide defender, Aliir Aliir, was named as Centre Half Back in the 2021 All-Australian team last week, it signalled a new dawn in footy. Not only had the brilliant defender arrived as an immense talent – and possibly a lynch-pin for a sustained era of success at Port Adelaide – he also became the player who once and for all sent a message to all aspiring African-heritage kids that they can follow him to succeed: whether they be from Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe or any other African nation.
The seeds were sown when in 2014 North Melbourne took a risk on Majak Daw (even though Aliir was drafted the previous year). With a physique that left one in fear, but without the tank to match sometimes, Majak was a pioneer for players of African descent – most especially the generation of kids who had families flee from war-torn nations like Sudan and resettled in a strange new environment with an equally strange national game.
(Picture Credit: AFL Queensland)
As more and more kids were encouraged to join local footy clubs, and clubs were actively getting into African communities to try and tap the talent, the journey to the top seemed a long way off.
By the time Majak debuted for Round 4, 2013, African-heritage football players were still seen as something of an experiment, a dream, a novelty. His debut was largely tame – three disposals and a goal against the Lions. But by his fourth game things changed up. His six-goal effort, along with 18 disposals, against the Western Bulldogs, captured all the right attention. Questions were asked as to whether players from African nations could be the “next big thing”. Majak reached 54 games and a solitary final in 2016 before heading to the Melbourne Demons and relative obscurity after a much-publicised personal collapse. But Majak paved the way.
Others have come and gone, most notably Maboir Chol at Richmond who counts a sole final in 2019 as part of a powerful Richmond team. He has played 31 games now and is still on the rise – whether that be with the Tigers or courted by Essendon for the 2022 season.
But it is Aliir Aliir who now commands the most attention and the most impressive story of all. After his debut with the Sydney Swans back in 2016, Aliir has amassed 87 games across two clubs including, as of last night, five finals matches. But tellingly, his 2021 season was astounding. His abilty to take intercept marks and drive Port Adelaide inside 50, or out of defensive 50, has become crucial to Port’s premiership plans.
Last night, Aliir decimated Geelong throughout the first quarter with a rebounding effort that had jaws dropping. Whilst the rest of his game was simply “good” his opening 40 minutes set the tone for Port. It wouldn’t be s stretch to say that if Power win the 2021 flag it would be heavily on the back of the statement Aliir made last night.
Aliir is himself with his own skills, abilities and character. He is not a clone of any player who came before. Yes, he has the muscular frame of Majak and Maboir, but he has the ability to run all night, has a super football brain and an amazing ability to read the play – especially a ball in flight – and links the entire team together by hand, foot or by simply doing those little one percenters.
Significantly, Aliir Aliir is a player who now approaches 100 AFL games, has an All-Australian blazer and is assured now of at least a Preliminary Final with Port Adelaide this season. If he becomes a premiership player his stocks will climb higher and his form last night shows that he has what it takes on the biggest stage of all to be a potential Norm Smith Medallist – a player who can grab a game by the throat (as he did to Geelong last night) and change the course of a game. Norm Smith Medallists do that.
However, you have to wonder what impact Aliir Aliir is having on kids from African nations who no longer have a (respectfully) experimental hero to follow. They now have a bona fide champion to idolise, and how this translates to the uptake of the game across African nation communities will be fascinating to see.
Aliir’s story is inspirational and is destined to become more so. Not bad for a kid who’s parents fled war-torn Sudan during the civil war, was born in a Kenyan refugee camp and relocated across the Indian Ocean to be the first Sudanese player taken in at AFL draft (not including rookie drafts) when snagged by the Swans at pick #44 in 2013.
Aliir Aliir hasn’t just arrived in footy. He has well and truly arrived in the highest echelons of the game today. He is worthy of the adulation that might be directed his way though inspired kids and has the capacity to go higher, better, faster for at least another five years.
Not only will Port Adelaide benefit from that, but so does football.
And so do the kids who crave heroes and role models as they chase their own dreams.