23 November 2023

One of my favourite build-ups to any international sporting event is the singing of national anthems.

Whether it’s our Advance Australia Fair, America’s Star Spangled Banner or Ukraine’s State Anthem, they never fail to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

In my opinion, one of the best national anthems is France’s La Marseillaise and one of the most memorable renditions is in the 1981 classic soccer film Escape to Victory.

Diehard fans of “the beautiful game”, as soccer is called, will no doubt know this cult classic film, starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Max von Sydow (yes, I know, oddball cast).

Escape to Victory is set in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII and features a cast of, at the time, real football superstars acting as prisoners, including the inimitable Brazilian superstar Pelé and England hero Bobby Moore.

Without ruining the film, there is a brilliant scene where the prisoners of war play the German national football team, dressed in the archetypal Nazi baddie colour of black.

In support of the prisoners, the crowd sings La Marseillaise and it’s spine tingling stuff, in a movie that has more than a touch of The Great Escape vibes.

With the World Cup kicking off in Qatar this week, we are once again hit with football fever.

My colleague Anika Wells, Minister for Sport, is in Qatar to represent the Australian Government and promote the upcoming Women’s World Cup, to be held in Australia in 2023, and to discuss human rights reforms.

Australia played its first game against favourites France this morning and win, lose or draw we are proud of our Socceroos.

Putting aside their marvellous anthem, it was pretty sad to see the French team sledge Australia ahead of the match, saying they didn’t know who our team even was.

Maybe they are sore about the submarines?

But I’m a massive fan of the underdog and Australia is just that at the World Cup.

Among the Socceroos stars is Awer Mabil, an Australian player who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp.

Like my mate Olympic runner Peter Bol, Mabil is Sudanese by heritage. When he was 10, his family moved to Adelaide, making his A-League debut seven years later. He signed with Spanish club Cádiz earlier this year.

While my first love is Aussie rules (and Collingwood), there is no denying many Australians are just as captivated by soccer.

According to Football Australia, 1.4 million Australians officially played soccer in 2021, a 20 per cent uptick on 2020. Remarkable statistics given the nation was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In WA, 160,321 people participated in soccer in 2021, with thousands of men, women and children participating in a wide range of levels, leagues and clubs.

There are also more than 10,000 people in WA playing who come from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people with disability.

Across Australia, the number for diversity and inclusive programs is north of 25,000 participants.

I’ve had a little bit to do with Football Australia over the past couple of months, specifically hearing from Football Australia about their plans to expand access to people with disability to both the game and its facilities around the nation.

In October, I met with players and coaches from the Pararoos and ParaMatildas teams.

I was absolutely blown away from the young people I met in these teams.

Each athlete in the team has either cerebral palsy, an acquired brain injury or symptoms acquired from stroke.

ParaMatildas player Nicole had two strokes at 21 years of age. When she finally gained consciousness the first thing she asked was whether she would play football again.

Now 30, Nicole has since gone on to play for Australia, finish her teaching degree and become a teacher.

Her teammate Tahlia, who is an NDIS participant, said playing football had allowed her to find a place to “embrace my disability”

“It’s so powerful. It’s more than just football,” Tahlia said.

Pararoos player Benjamin said being part of the team meant making friends for life.

Luc was truly candid, saying that before playing football: “I was learning about my disability by myself. That had a very big mental health toll on me.”

While coach Tim told me that one of the players he met said: “I didn’t realise this was possible until I went to those home games and I saw people like me.”

The Pararoos and ParaMatildas will each play the powerhouse US teams in the first half of 2023.

Australia is hosting The Women’s World Cup next year from July.

The Socceroos next World Cup match is against Tunisia this Saturday at 6pm and will be live on SBS.

I’m looking forward to belting out the national anthem at each game.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 23 November 2022.