“Oh my god,” exclaims Craig Foster, sitting with his phone in hand on a sun-drenched morning at Sydney’s Circular Quay with the iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House a stone’s throw away. He can’t quite believe what just happened: out of nowhere, the Netherlands have equalized against Spain in the first of four quarter-finals at the Women’s World Cup to take the match to extra time, very much against the run of play with the Spanish dominating possession.
A former captain of the Socceroos, ‘Fozzy’ is in a good mood. Australia’s women’s national team is on a historic run in a tournament that is rapidly enchanting a country where soccer is often a sport on the fringes. With Tillies-mania going crescendo, the tournament is bringing the nation together, and yet, now, more than ever, amid a golden glow of sweet victory, Foster is questioning what Australia as a country stands for. He recalls that as a player he played first for his family and himself, then for the team and the fans, and, finally, over time, “for the idea of what the nation is, for the idea of what Australia is.”
Foster enjoyed a privileged, Anglicized childhood in New South Wales, one that portrayed a postcard image of stunning beaches and lush rainforests as well as fiercely competitive national sports teams across different codes. The Australia of Foster’s youth was an idyllic one. That view slowly crumbled when he coached a youth team in Adelaide that included a lot of indigenous players, including the son of John Moriarty, a member of the Stolen Generations.
Foster became aware of Australia’s dark past and a history of untold truths, which led him on a road of human rights activism. He played a prominent role in the release of soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi from Thailand. He petitioned FIFA, engaged with al-Araibi’s legal team, visited al-Araibi in prison, and backed a social media campaign.
Having served as a director of the Professional Football Association in Australia, Foster is rare in his outspokenness. He does not pull punches, often singling out governing bodies and other stakeholders. Last year, Foster was deeply critical of Qatar staging the World Cup, a tournament he considers stained in the blood of migrant workers, who helped built the infrastructure for the four-week soccer extravaganza.
“The kafala system is modern slave labor as bad as anywhere in the world,” explains Foster. “People are literally treated like animals. Infantino clearly made a decision that he wasn’t interested, he didn’t want to do anything that he considered controversial or would upset Qatar. FIFA will always do the absolute minimum in order to maintain their relationships firstly with their member federations, because they’re a political body and Infantino needs the votes, secondly with host nations and thirdly with the corporate partners.”
Those views have not prevented Foster from criticizing his own country’s human rights records which has come into sharp focus this year with the referendum the ‘Voice’ and the existential question 21 million Australians must answer: will First Nations people – Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders – be recognized in the constitution after decades and decades of suppression and segregation? The referendum has divided Australians, with recent polls suggesting the no camp is in the ascendancy.
“The Australian creation story was about free settlers, emancipated convicts, creating this new meritocracy and new egalitarian society,” says Fosters. “First Nations people and the resistance put up against the British invasion was never part of that story and Australians are having to finally reconcile with the fact that the land in Australia was stolen from First Nations people. The legal fallacy of terra nullius was developed by the British colonialists to justify the stealing of this continent. All of our wealthiest families and our miners and the basis of Australian life has all been predicated on that theft.”
During the Women’s World Cup, First Nations imagery formed a part of official branding as well as pre-match ceremonies. On August 9, FIFA and its president Gianni Infantino celebrated International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, but Foster, as well as Australian Indigenous Football Council, Indigenous Football Australia, and Maori Football, believe these acts do not extend beyond the performative. Soccer’s relationship with First Nations people is akin to society’s, one of appropriation and lack of commitment.
“We’ve particularly seen the kind of colonial view of how indigenous people in football should be treated during this Women’s World Cup – and that means sitting at the begging table, screaming for a few crumbs of legacy funding and with non-indigenous people telling them what they can do and when they’re able to do it,” says Foster. “That model has to change.”
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