A review of Football Belongs – Australia’s football history

Football Belongs is an exploration into the passion of the people who make up the World Game within Australia. Featuring interviews with football aficionados, players and coaches, the documentary is an excellent reminder of how the immigrant communities have contributed to the success and survival of football in Australia, but also to the national identity as well.

The strength of the documentary lays in its vast catalogue of interviews. Countless legends of the game describe how football clubs and the communities that underpin them have contributed to their lives. The insight from these interviews – over 150 in total – reveal how these football clubs became bastions of their respective ethnic communities. “It’s not about football, it’s about getting people together” is the quote that most perfectly encapsulates the heart of this film.

One of the greatest successes of Football Belongs is its authenticity. Anybody who has spent time around a football club in Australia, particularly any ethnic club, will feel instant nostalgia. The culture these clubs create, the memories they form, and the players they develop can’t be ignored. Nobody ever forgets the feasts these football clubs put on after (and during) a game.

Rarely will you see a production on Australian football that has so much respect for the rich achievements of Australian football pre-2006 World Cup. From coaches and players from Australia’s first-ever World Cup in 1974 to mainstays from clubs that haven’t been on the national stage since the National Soccer League, the documentary shows reverence to an often-overlooked history.

A common sentiment from the countless people interviewed is that their lives would not have been as rich, or their careers as successful, without the clubs that form the Australian football community. Socceroos coach Graham Arnold talks about the impact that Sydney United, and its Croatian community, had on him after the loss of his mother. Mark Bresciano, John Aloisi, and Sasa Ognenovski – great servants to the game in Australia – discuss their upbringing in the game and the careers that followed. Others describe how football allowed them to experience different cultures and experiences, for their betterment.

While watching Football Belongs, it was an ecstatic surprise to see a young Jackson Irvine scoring goals for Ringwood City, wearing the same kit that I played in as a 13-year-old boy. Seeing a club I spent so many hours of my formative years at, having played there from under 14s through to the senior team, in such an important time of Australian football history was a beautiful moment.

One of its most impactful moments comes in the finale, when Indigenous footballer and artist John Moriarty is interviewed. He describes how he was accepted through football in a point in history where he had no rights in his own country, after experiencing the direct impacts of being a part of the Stolen Generation. The filmmakers have gone to great lengths to highlight the multiculturalism that sustains the world game in Australia.

This review barely covers the countless number of interviews within Football Belongs. The team behind it has delved deep into footballing history while highlighting the roots that were formed in the past that remain today. Football Belongs is a love letter to the multiculturalism that has helped not just the world game, but Australia as a whole. It is without doubt essential viewing for those who love football, and it is truly a part of Australian footballing history.

Football Belongs can be viewed on Optus Sport. You can also read more about the making of the documentary here.

Forever remembering Dylan Tombides and his story

Recently it was the commemoration of a decade since Dylan Tombides’ passing, and the DT38 Foundation persists in honouring his legacy by their ongoing efforts within the football community.

In 2011, Tombides received a diagnosis of testicular cancer following a routine drug test during the Under 17 FIFA World Cup, which revealed a tumour in one of his testicles. Despite a courageous three year battle against the illness, he tragically succumbed at the age of 20 on April 18, 2014, surrounded by his loved ones.

Following his unfortunate passing, the DT38 Foundation was established in his honour, dedicated to promoting awareness of testicular cancer with the aim of saving lives.

Head of Media and Operations at DT38 Foundation, Donna Giuffre, said via press release:

“Our goal at DT38 is not only to raise awareness about testicular cancer but also to foster a culture of proactive health management within the community,” she said to The PFA.

“By partnering with clubs and supporters across the A-League and globally we aim to make a meaningful difference in the lives of young men, promoting early detection, and ultimately honouring Dylan’s legacy.”

The Foundation aims to bring together supporters, athletes, and localities, persisting in disseminating the importance of awareness and solidarity for individuals impacted by testicular cancer. Their endeavour is to leave a meaningful imprint in the ongoing battle against this disease.

Their core message emphasizes the urgency of timely action, underlining the importance of education for men, DT38 tirelessly strives to ensure that young men and their families are well-informed about the significance of regular self-examination and prompt medical attention upon detecting any irregularities.

Recently, the organisation has forged a partnership with their second A-League club, Brisbane Roar, while Perth Glory, the hometown team, remains their primary charity collaborator.

The clash between Brisbane and Newcastle Jets earlier this month marking the inaugural charity awareness matchday since the Roar joined forces with the foundation as a partner.

This marks the third triumphant charity awareness matchday, following Perth Glory’s encounter with Brisbane earlier this season and West Ham’s Premier League match against Fulham at the Olympic Stadium. Supporters from both sides paid tribute to Tombides’ legacy with a round of applause during the 38th minute.

These occasions have not only provided a stage to promote awareness regarding testicular cancer and the significance of early detection but have also served as a homage to Tombides’ dedication to football and his brave fight against cancer.

Tombides had a six-year tenure with the Hammers, having enrolled in their academy in 2008. He earned his debut for the first team in September 2012. Following his passing, the club retired his number 38 jersey, and West Ham honoured him during a match against Crystal Palace.

On that day, Mile Jedinak, a former Socceroo and patron of the DT38 Foundation, participated in the match and successfully scored a penalty, he reflects on that day to The PFA.

“The game was a special moment, knowing what it was representing and the Australian football community,” he said to The PFA.

“I was a young parent then, and all I could think about at the time was wanting to offer my condolences to his family. I could do it after the game, and from that moment, I stayed in touch with them. I was aware Dylan was making waves at West Ham.

“You don’t play for a club like that if you don’t have something about you. It would’ve been nice to play against Dylan but sadly it wasn’t meant to be. He was well on his way to becoming a big star in the game.”

Introduced by The PFA and Football Australia in 2019, The Dylan Tombides Medal is bestowed upon a player chosen from the Under 17 (Joeys), Under 20 (Young Socceroos), and Under 23 teams.

The Medal is awarded to the player who best embodies the qualities of excellence, dedication, and bravery while representing Australia at the youth international level, paying tribute to the legacy of Dylan Tombides.

More information about the DT38 Foundation can be found here.

Eli Babalj on retirement transition and life after football

Similar to all life cycles, a footballers career commences and concludes.

However, athletes are often uncertain about the precise timing of the conclusion of their career and the events that might lead to retirement.

Babalj’s retirement occurred at the age of 30 due to a career marred by recurring injuries, prompting him to exit professional football. After enduring a 12-year career plagued by setbacks, Babalj was already contemplating his next steps as he transitioned into life after playing.

After finishing his studies, Babalj swiftly obtained employment following his retirement.

In his final year at the highest level, Babalj was involved for the Newcastle Jets during the 2021-2022 A-League Men Season, now he continues his footballing journey with the same club, serving as their Football Operations Manager and assistant coach for their senior men’s teams.

Not every individual has the privilege of such opportunities, some struggles exist in securing employment after their football careers, while others simply find themselves not knowing what to do.

However, Babalj had been contemplating his next phase for some time, and with assistance from Professional Footballers Australia (PFA), he started to map out the path of his future beyond his playing career.

“There were a couple of situations throughout my career where I thought, will I get another contract or will I be given another chance and it made you think: ‘okay, what’s next?,’ he told the PFA.

“That’s where the PFA was great, the Player Development Managers helped push you into and guide you and gave you suggestions and advice about what you can do.

“I was lucky enough to do a post grad in Football Business and I carried on to do a Masters in Sports Management which helped me get this gig in the first place.

“I had started my coaching badges while I was playing. It’s very important, I hope the PFA continue to do that work because when I was 18 and they’d come in, I used to think ‘oh, don’t worry about that, I’ll worry about that when I’m 30.’

“But l wish I had started it earlier, because in your down time you can actually switch off and learn, and get qualifications instead of overthinking because you have a lot of down time as a player.

“I’m glad l ended up doing it, l still ended up finishing it on time, it’s never too late or never too early to start.”

Upon assuming his new position, many of Babalj’s former teammates became individuals he now oversaw in his role in football operations, furthermore, they were the players to whom he imparted instructions on the pitch.

“You want to earn the respect of your peers because of your new role, not because of who you were as a player so I just tried to have good rapport with everyone and help in any way I can,” he said to the PFA.

“The transition was made easier because it kept you busy because a lot of players once they retire, they have a lot of spare time and when you have a lot of spare time, it’s a lot of thinking and overthinking and that’s not good.

Indeed, Babalj’s performance with Melbourne Heart and his subsequent move abroad earned him a call-up for the Socceroos, he debuted in a friendly match against South Korea and later scored two goals against Guam during the 2013 East Asian Cup.

Sadly, the common theme of Babalj’s playing career was struggling to maintain consistent playing time, nonetheless, he aims to embark on a new chapter where he can exert a greater influence in football beyond the field.

“When l was presented that role with football ops, it coincided with doing my Masters in Sports Management and then former Jets Head Coach, Arthur Papas, was happy enough for me to help out on a coaching side, which helped me decide which direction I wanted to go long term and gave me something to think about,” he said to the PFA.

Babalj harbours significant aspirations for the direction he wants to steer his coaching career, intending to pursue further studies overseas.

“Keep getting the experience and learning, you have to finish off all the licences first. I always wanted to do the UEFA ones, I started all the AFC ones through FA and the PFA but as you see many other coaches from Australia, when they want to go overseas they have obstacles,” he said to the PFA.

Babalj’s career should be a guide for local players in the country thinking about their post-football careers and the importance of laying the groundwork for getting ready in the necessary occupation they may have, whether it’s in football or elsewhere.

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