CENTRAL Coast Mariners are hoping to stop the next Adam Goodes being lost to football.
The Swans star famously switched to Aussie Rules in his early teens due to a lack of football opportunities.
But now the Elite Indigenous Football Academy will help tap the wealth of Aboriginal talent before it gets snapped up by league, union and AFL.
The academy will be part of the Mariners’ Centre of Excellence at Tuggerah which just this week received a pre-election sweetener of $10 million.
About 20 Indigenous players aged between 13 and 16 will join the program next year, with board and education provided by the International Football School.
Plans for an annual festival where Indigenous teams are invited to the COE for a fortnight of intensive coaching are also underway.
Mariners chairman Peter Turnbull believes the Aussie game is short-changing itself by failing to attract young Indigenous players.
“We can see these young kids progressing from the school to take places up in our youth league and our A-League team,” Turnbull said.
“When you look at teenage Aboriginal boys and girls, they’re so quick and agile – their physique to me looks like a Brazilian soccer player.
“So rather than playing league and union we think they should be playing football.”
Turnbull added: “In respect to teachers and the sports masters, especially in remote areas, when they introduce football to these kids they just take it up like anything.
“They’re really keen about the sport but if we’re not out there giving them opportunities and showing them the game they’re not going to play. They’re just going to keep playing rugby league and AFL.
“They’re two per cent of the population but they’re 12 per cent of the first grade rugby league players – that shows you how good they are."
Turnbull has personally supported Indigenous pathways through the Johnny Warren Football Foundation. Recently the club sponsored a team in the Northern Territory’s John Moriarty Cup. Now he says it’s time to bring that talent closer to home.
Developed in conjunction with the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council, the academy will select players based on recommendations from the JWFF and state federations and grassroots football associations. Scholarships will be provided to attend the school.
“So they go to the football school, train two hours a day there within the school curriculum, and learn about things like nutrition and discipline and the kind of commitment you have to have to be successful,” he said
“And then afterwards they’ll be training up here at Tuggerah with the Mariners and the Centre of Excellence. The program will provide educational and football opportunities.”
Turnbull believes it could be the kind of forward-thinking skills investment to take the Australian game to the next level.
“Adam Goodes – what a great soccer player he would have been,” he said.
“Then, if you look at the calibre of Ben Barba and Preston Campbell if they were playing soccer. It can make the difference between us qualifying for the World Cup and actually doing what Johnny Warren said, and that was win it one day. The indigenous athletes in our football teams could make the difference.
“We feel the Mariners already make a tremendous difference to the lives of many people on the Central Coast, but with our Elite Indigenous Football Academy we hope to bring forward the days when the Socceroos can boast a strong number of Australia’s first people.”
Federal Foreign Affairs minister Bob Carr was at the COE to announce the multi-million grant which will also fast track phase-two of the centre which includes a 1,500-seat grandstand, lighting for the training fields and additional car parking.