Shadeene Evans grew up like most of the kids in her remote community, kicking a football with bare feet on grass or red dust.

Home to about 870 people in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Borroloola is more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) southeast of Darwin, capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, and more than a 3,200-kilometer (2,000-mile) drive to Sydney — even longer in the wet season.

The distance hasn’t deprived this Indigenous community of a strong soccer connection.

It was the early childhood home of John Moriarty, who in 1960 became the first Aboriginal man to be selected for Australia’s national team, now known as the Socceroos.

It was Moriarty who played a pivotal role in elevating Evans from a raw talent to star of the future.

With the support of the Moriarty Foundation, Evans went from playing with her mates in the tropics to studying at an elite sports school in urban Sydney, catching the attention of the national women’s coach, and making her way into the national women’s league with Sydney FC.

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A natural striker, she last year became vice-captain of the Young Matildas, the national under-20 women’s team.

Evans is one of the ambassadors for John Moriarty Football’s Indigenous Football Week, which begins Monday and involves 1,200 children in five communities.

“Shay is a very good model,” Moriarty told the Associated Press. “She started off with us . . . now she’s with the Young Matildas. She’s going to university. It’s been so good for her.”

Being the inaugural recipient of a JMF scholarship has been life-changing for the 19-year-old Evans. That’s the whole idea.

The foundation funds scholarships and provides coaching and mentoring in remote Aboriginal communities, and support for education, travel, equipment and nutrition.

“Their home life is very different to the ones in the city,” Moriarty said. “That’s why our program looks after them with their well-being, and using our football to bring them together and for them to have opportunities to pursue after their schooling.”

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Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders comprise 2% of Australia’s adult population, but are the most disadvantaged ethnic minority in the country and have higher-than-average rates of infant mortality and poorer overall health, as well as shorter life expectancy and lower levels of education and employment.

TAKEN AWAY, GIVING BACK

Moriarty didn’t have any choice about leaving Borroloola and his Yanyuwa people. He was part of the so-called Stolen Generation, an era when bi-racial children were taken from their Aboriginal parents under government policies and sent to residential homes. Moriarty was 4 when he was first sent to a school near Sydney in the early 1940s and later to another school in Adelaide, where he had a first foray into football. The soccer club next door became a great distraction.

“With the football, I think it was the opportunity to take on the game, but also the opportunities that come with the game,” he said. “What it gave me was the opportunity to do things in so many other areas.”

Moriarty graduated from university and worked in government and industry before he and his wife, Ros, founded the Aboriginal-owned strategy and design agency Balarinji in 1983 — Balarinji designs have been used on Qantas aircraft. They started the Moriarty Foundation as a non-for-profit in 2012 — at the request of elders in Borroloola who wanted to see their grandchildren get a better education.

Moriarty thinks for some kids involved with JMF, “the world is their oyster.”

“They can not only develop their soccer skills here, but also if they’re good enough (can) represent their country and play overseas,” Moriarty said. “”Football gave me such a great start, it was why we started our program to bring the kids together.”

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Having a graduate break through to the elite foreign leagues would be “phenomenal for them as individuals, for their families and for Aboriginal people and for this nation,” Moriarty said. “Those times are coming.”

FOOTBALL FAMILY

Jada Whyman is also a JMF ambassador, although she took a different path to the W-League. She started playing in Wagga Wagga, a sports-mad town halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. After excelling at other sports, she started playing soccer with the encouragement of her grandfather who, like Moriarty, was part of the Stolen Generation.

She tried out for goalkeeper in a local representative team because it was the only spot available — a sliding doors moment. Her career progressed quickly. Her family moved to the national capital of Canberra, where they lived in a caravan park for several months, and then to Sydney in her early teens. It paid off when she earned selection for Australia’s national youth teams and a contract for Western Sydney Wanderers.

Along the way, a TV interview she saw featuring Lydia Williams, the Indigenous goalkeeper for the Australian women’s team and now for Arsenal in England’s Women’s Super League, gave her some extra resolve.

The 21-year-old Whyman said the JMF’s financial support helped young Indigenous players overcome some of the biggest obstacles to progressing in the game.

“But also, it’s bringing community together. It’s about indigenous football but also it’s about showing us as people, we’re strong,” Whyman said. “It’s a statement of community, that we want to move forward together. And the way we do that is by supporting one another.”

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She said it’s not just about skills and drills, recounting how she’s ended some clinics doing TikToks with the kids.

“They’re not just kicking the ball around. They do mindful activities. They have a feed afterward — food cooked by the coaches,” she said. “That’s more of a family kind of thing.”

WHAT NEXT?

Indigenous athletes have excelled at Australian rules, the homegrown variety of football, and rugby and are well represented in the national AFL and NRL competitions.

But soccer was slower to catch on, despite a more global platform.

Craig Foster, a former Socceroo and a director of JMF, said Moriarty’s foundation is helping soccer “fast become the de facto Indigenous game.”

Foster said it’s crucial that an Indigenous organization is leading the way for Aboriginal people in soccer, but also thinks it’s essential for football’s national governing body to be making longer-term financial and social commitments.

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“The mistake we’ve always made as a game is seeing indigenous football as a program,” Foster told the AP. “It’s not a program. It’s an underlying commitment to our First Nations. That’s my message for Indigenous Football Week 2020.”

He said having “an Indigenous legendary Socceroos squad member” at the helm and coaches who are predominantly Indigenous in communities ensured JMF took a holistic approach rather than ”a fly-in, fly-out talent ID program.”

“This is about uplifting Indigenous Australian children through football, this is not about finding the next Matilda,” Foster said. “That’s a happy corollary of the fact you’ve got thousands of indigenous kids playing football. Of course there’s going to be talent, and you can identify them, but that’s not the essence of the program.”

Still, having JMF graduates in top teams is a positive spin-off from any perspective.

“Shay Evans is extraordinary. She’s a model for John Moriarty Football in many respects, not just the fact she came from a remote community,” Foster said. “She’s a future star because she’s driven, she’s smart, she’s committed, she’s disciplined.

“She’s a brilliant Aboriginal young woman in every respect, not just the fact she can kick a ball.”

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