By Josh Parish
On the Australia Day long weekend, I was lucky enough to commentate the African Nations Cup in Melton in Melbourne’s outer north-west.
Organised by Football Empowerment, the yearly tournament not only brings together the highly diverse African community across Victoria, but showcases some of the best African-Australian talent, often hidden in NPL Under 20 sides, or even playing in the state leagues. The tournament attracts in excess of 10,000 players and spectators over the course of the weekend, with 20 senior men’s teams, 5 women’s sides, and 4 U18s teams taking part this year, and some even travelling from interstate.
The prohibitive cost of NPL junior registration – often in excess of $2000 per season – is a major barrier to participation for these underprivileged communities. This often leads to African youth playing “outside the system” through much of their junior years – whether it’s non-FV administered competitions, unstructured pick-up games, or in these ad-hoc summer tournaments organised when facilities become more readily available.
This robs many potential elite talents of the head start gifted to youngsters from more affluent backgrounds, and the jump to senior football in the NPL or the A-League can prove a bridge too far. However, after taking in the action from the Quarter Finals onwards, here are five talents (in no particular order) who in my opinion would merit such an opportunity:
Position: Attacking Midfield
Awarded player of the tournament after starring for victorious Eritrea, Aamir Abdallah is set for a big year in NPL Victoria’s top flight.
Heidelberg United, looking to retool after the departure of several experienced players, have brought in Abdallah from Northcote City in NPL2, where he made 16 appearances in 2019.
Boasting great pace, a wicked left foot, and a dizzying array of dribbling moves, Abdallah was signed by the Central Coast Mariners in 2017, after starring as an 18 year-old for Brunswick City. He didn’t progress beyond the National Youth League/NPL ranks in Gosford, but at age 20, the electric attacker still has time on his side to crack the professional ranks.
Take a look at some of the slick YouTube highlights packages produced by his brother, agent and Eritrea teammate Azam to get a taste of what Aamir brings to the table:
Name: Yasin Nur
Position: Left Back/Central Midfield
At only 18 years of age, the outstanding Yasin Nur shows a maturity far beyond his tender years. Blessed with great technique and excellent recovery pace, Nur also demonstrates excellent decision-making with his passing, and knows how to use his slender frame to shield the ball and win free kicks when under pressure. No wonder he made his senior debut for Werribee City as a 15 year-old!
Naturally left-footed, the former Melbourne City academy prospect may grow into a midfield role as he fills out, but currently looks best-suited as a fullback. Nur has had trouble breaking through from the Altona Magic U20s to the first team, but given Magic are operating on a tighter budget this season, Goran Lozanovski should be watching the versatile teenager’s progress closely.
Position: Centre Back
Togo struggled in their quarter final against Somalia, being eventually overrun by the Ocean Stars’ depth and attacking talent.
But two men stood out from the Togo ranks as pillars of strength and resilience: star player, captain and Ballarat City striker Xagai Douhadji (playing as a box to box midfielder!), and a beast of a central defender, who was practically operating as a one-man backline.
Lunophare Folly is a physical marvel. Muscles rippling through his colourful jersey, he seemed to cover every blade of grass in the defensive half, sprinting from right to left, launching into perfectly-timed, last-ditch sliding tackles, and generally intimidating any Somali attacker who dared come near him. His presence was so immense we began referring to him as “The Brick Wall” on the commentary – despite representing a Togo side on the wrong end of a 4-1 defeat.
“Luna” can even play a bit of football, too, frequently dribbling his way out of pressure before laying it off to a better-placed midfielder.
Which is why it left me stunned to find he’d been let go from the Ballarat City U20s and is set to represent Sebastopol Vikings this season in State League 3!
Perhaps suffering from a lack of club opportunities in the Ballarat area, Folly seems far too good to be languishing in the 6th tier of the Victorian pyramid.
Position: Central Midfield
In the heart of the Congo midfield, Forbes Nyatsanza is a ball recovery machine. An N’Golo Kante-like presence at this level, Nyatsanza is a magnet for interceptions, times his tackles to perfection, and covers ground effortlessly in transition moments.
His dribbling ability is also eye-catching, embarking on several slaloms forward against Guinea and Somalia, particularly on the counter. The timing and weight of his through balls could use some work, although he clearly has an eye for such passes, and most players were struggling with that on the quick synthetic surface.
Another prospect stashed in the Altona Magic U20s, Nyatsanza’s visa status may be holding him back. A New Zealand citizen, he arrived in Australia only last year after representing Mirimar Rangers, and being selected in the 2018 Team Wellington representative youth team. With NPL sides only able to feature 2 visa players, here’s hoping foreigner restrictions don’t stymie his burgeoning career.
Position: Winger/Second Striker
Tall, rangy, and with an eye for goal, Abdigafar Omar is a challenging matchup for any defence, and a talent that shouldn’t be overlooked by top-flight NPL sides. Highly-rated at Green Gully in 2018, Omar broke through to make a handful of appearances in the first team, and was the top scorer at the inaugural African Nations Cup tournament in 2019.
I’m not sure what circumstances led him to drop down to State League 3 last year with Williamstown, but he’s set to represent Northcote City in NPL2 this season, a level more befitting his talents. He played largely at a #10 for Somalia, but is equally capable on either flank, and has the physical attributes to be effective as an out-and-out striker.
While he can tend to drift in and out of games, Omar seems to have a knack of ghosting into the box and arriving in goalscoring positions. Natural goalscorers are always in demand, so watch this space.