The New South Wales town of Taree, about two hours north of Newcastle, is built on a great divide – slicing through the town’s centre is the Manning River, which starts hundreds of kilometres inland. Jade North, the first Aboriginal man to captain the Socceroos, knows that river. He was born in Taree in 1982, and even though he grew up elsewhere, most of his family stayed. They tell him stories of what Taree used to be like.
The Birpai people, who had occupied the land for thousands of years, lived mainly north of the Manning. They were just out of the colony’s reach after the river became the northernmost dividing line between the newly-formed counties of New South Wales and the rest of the country. Although some histories describe relations between the First Nations people and settlers as “amicable,” it would be more than a century before a bridge was built across the river to connect the two halves of the town. It would be longer still before the Birpai descendants were allowed to cross it.
“My dad and all of his brothers and sisters were removed, and they had to grow up with a white family,” North said. “These are the things that, still today, they have to deal with. It was tough for them. Back in Taree, in the late 60s and early 70s, they weren’t able to cross the bridge of the Manning River to go into the city. They weren’t even allowed to do that. That’s not recognised as human, in my regard. These are the things that we’ve had to deal with.
“There’s a lot of anger, and I suppose that’s what – from generations back – that sort of anger gets passed down to the next generation and the next generation. The good thing is when you go back down to Taree, all the family’s back together again; they were never going to get separated in that regard, they were going to be there in spirit or going to find each other later.”
North shared his story – the story of his family, his mob, and his country – as part of a virtual panel titled Race, Privilege and Football, organised by Women Onside earlier this year. The retired Socceroo was joined by Adelaide United football director Bruce Djite and Canadian sports journalist Shireen Ahmed, all of whom were invited to discuss how and where Australia fits into the global conversation currently being had about racism in sport. During the panel, North opened up about his childhood and the role that football played in providing him with a feeling of belonging at a time when he was reckoning with himself and his history.
“Back in those days, living in an Indigenous community, I was living in housing commission,” he said. “My mum separated from my dad at a young age because of the fact that she didn’t want us growing up and seeing things like alcohol, domestic violence, drugs. So we moved from Taree up to Queensland. That’s when I took up the passion of soccer. It was hard growing up with a single mother, not having a lot of money, couldn’t afford boots, couldn’t afford to go to football camps. Sometimes it was hard to even have food in the cupboards.
“My friends at school on the Gold Coast, they all played soccer. So I fell in love with the game. I joined the club, Burleigh Bulldogs. From there, it showed me [that] being part of a team and being part of an organisation, for the first time in my life, I felt part of something. Growing up as an Indigenous young person, you know where you’re from and you’re quite embarrassed at times because people look down upon you. I carried that along with me up until I was probably 18 or 19.”
Ironically, it was football – a sport introduced to the country by the same European colonisers that built Taree on top of his and his ancestors’ country – that provided North with a sense of identity and community. “Playing for Sydney Olympic back in the old National Soccer League […] they all took me in,” he said. “I was winning Championships in the NSL, and that was the time that I felt, ‘I’m going to come out and be proud of who I am and try to be a role model to younger people, ,even though I was only 19.
“That was the first time I came out and said I was a proud Indigenous young man; proud of who I was and where I’ve come from. There was a lot of anxiety that led to depression later in life. Not growing up with your family for various reasons – I didn’t get to meet my dad or my Indigenous side of the family until I was 18 – so you can imagine, as a young person, not knowing who you are, your identity, you’re ashamed; all those bits and pieces, you carry these scars along the way.
“That’s the reason I love football. Sport, for me, was a connector – not only for a better life but it was for opportunity and mateship. I believe it can really springboard people into doing anything.”
However, North feels that football is falling behind other sports when it comes to engaging with Australia’s Indigenous communities. Despite being the sport with the highest participation numbers in the country, the lack of representation of First Nations people at football’s highest levels remains concerning.
“It’s been hard because we just haven’t had the right framework, we haven’t had the right plan or strategies behind it,” he said. “Indigenous [people] make up 3% of the population here in Australia, and the incarceration levels [are] just sitting above 30%. If you have a look at the AFL and NRL rosters, Indigenous [people] make up nearly 7-8% of each team. Unfortunately, in soccer, we just don’t have [that]. We’ve got our John Moriartys and our Charles Perkins, all these great leaders, but we just don’t have enough firepower to be able to see young kids look up and be inspired.”
For North, football – and sport generally – is not just a space where racism is triangulated. Sport is also a bridge: a space of understanding and connection, and a powerful tool with which racism’s roots in ignorance and fear can be dissolved. This Naidoc Week coincides with Indigenous Football Week, whose theme of “Pathways” speaks directly to North’s story and to the work he continues to do to open them up for others.
“For me, it’s about education. The hierarchies with an organisation or your local club or teachers at school. The kids are the future,” he says. “Sport is a connector. You see some of these players in the NBA at the moment, some of them are nearly bigger than the clubs themselves. That just goes to show that they can stop a whole organisation because everybody watches sport. We, as athletes, have a big role to play, especially in our communities and where we’re from.
“Australia’s got a dark history – we get that and it’s coming out more and more – but I also believe that we are who we are today, and that’s one thing I’d love to teach people as well. Us, as humans, we can always educate people about what happened in the past.”