Take a diverse group of newcomers to Bendigo, throw a round ball among them and watch as the global game unites cultures and creates a sense of community and belonging.

By Raelee Tuckerman – Photography by Leon Schoots

In her native Malaysia, Kalapriya “Riya” Selvaraj would never have dared run around a field chasing a football, despite being an avid fan of the sport who often watched her brothers play.
But that has changed since she arrived in Bendigo last year and joined the Multicultural Pop-Up Soccer program designed to welcome migrants, refugees and international students to the region, build friendships and extend their links with the local community.
“Soccer has given me a golden opportunity,” says Riya, who plays in the weekly all-age, mixed-gender social competition alongside her partner, Danny Richard Agustin.
“I had never tried it before in my life. Asian girls can be shy and I would worry, for example, if I bent down, people would see me, or if I ran, I was scared people were looking at me. But this gives ladies like me the feeling we are part of a big family and nobody will look us up and down.
“I feel more confident and don’t worry any more. I can run and play with them all. I love it.”
Pop-up soccer is run jointly by Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services, La Trobe University’s International Student Services and the Bendigo International Students Club, under the guidance of Bendigo City Football Club coach Aaron Vissers.
In its first season, from last October through to July, it attracted participants from nations including Afghanistan, China, France, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Myanmar, the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Tanzania and Uganda.
“The beautiful thing about football is that it’s a worldwide sport,” says Aaron. “You throw a ball among a group of people and they know exactly what to do with it.”
It was Aaron who approached Multicultural Services with a proposal to use football to engage migrants and international students with each other and the wider community. Ironically, they and La Trobe had both already identified social soccer as having the potential to address the loneliness and isolation often felt by overseas arrivals, so Aaron’s offer to help get it off the ground brought all the threads of the idea together.
“My parents are Dutch and I was aware how important football and the sense of community that comes from a club is, in giving you a sense of belonging,” he says. “This is a way of helping migrants and international students become involved in the local community but still keep touch with their culture, because for many, football is a big part of their own identity.
“It allows them to belong to something bigger than themselves, to something that is both Australian and a part of them, too, so they don’t feel like outsiders anymore.”
Games are played at the La Trobe University oval on Saturday evenings, from 6pm-8pm during daylight savings and earlier when the clocks change back.
“It’s very social,” stresses Aaron. “There are no set teams or structure – everyone who comes gets to play – old or young, male or female, beginner or experienced. We make two even teams, throw some bibs out and they go for it.”
Fun, fitness and friendships are not the only benefits. Participants learn about community values (when to play hard and when to go easy on a novice opponent); cultural traditions (from Ramadan fasting to the context of Anzac Day); and further opportunities (some young social players have since joined local competitive soccer clubs).
A monthly post-match barbecue helps families get to know each other off the pitch.
“This is an entry point for people from our international communities,” says Multicultural Services Executive Officer Kate McInnes. “You don’t need to speak English to take part, because kicking a soccer ball around is a skill many people already have so it’s a social activity people can feel confident and comfortable with and whole families can come and play.”
Organisers are introducing two exciting new aspects to the program for the coming season.
A junior clinic for children aged 6-16 will run every second week alongside pop-up matches, with links available for those who want to go on and join local clubs. There will also be a development opportunity for multicultural youth who are passionate about soccer.
“We want to recruit young people as junior coaches and support them to become future leaders,” explains Kate. “Their role will be to mentor and train younger children, and in return their soccer club fees for the next season will be taken care of. This is a chance for children from multicultural and refugee backgrounds to get involved in the sport of soccer, to become engaged in the community and to have a pathway for development.”
La Trobe International Student Services co-ordinator Badraa Al-Darkazly says inclusion and acceptance is crucial to the welfare of new arrivals to any community.
“That is so important for people to be able to engage and give back to the city,” she says.
“If you feel you belong, you don’t feel so isolated, you don’t feel like you are being pointed at, you don’t feel like you are different.
“If people feel they belong here in Bendigo, are part of our city and there is a lot of support for them here, we will have many more wonderful stories. It is the key for successful settlement.”
Riya and Richard, who volunteer in the community with Multicultural Services, agree playing pop-up soccer has enhanced their life in Bendigo and helped make the city feel like home.
“When I lived in New South Wales last year, I saw Aussies playing in the park and I wanted to play but I didn’t know how to ask if I could join in,” says Richard. “But here with the pop-up soccer, there are so many multicultural people playing, not only me, so there is less dread.
“It feels safe for me to play and it brings me such happiness.”
The new season of Multicultural Pop-Up Soccer starts in late September. For details, email Multicultural Services at info@lcms.org.au