Radio National's The Sports Factor

With Amanda Smith

Political Football


In Brisbane, a soccer team called 'Tiger 11' is made up entirely of asylum seekers, the majority of whom fled Afghanistan, persecuted by the Taliban. Sport has connected them to the Australian community, but for how long? Recent changes to immigration legislation, and since September 11, an association with the terror they ran from, have left them with uncertain futures.

Plus, sport and freedom of speech. Has the boxing world and the general public over-reacted to comments made by boxer Anthony Mundine about the US terrorist attacks? Must sportspeople suppress their opinions - especially when they're not majority views - in order to avoid sanctions in their sport and public approbation?

Details or Transcript:


Amanda Smith: On The Sports Factor after the fury created by the boxer Anthony Mundine with his comments about the US terrorist attacks, we're looking at issues of freedom of speech. In sport, like politics, there's no going against the party line.

Also coming up, a soccer team in Brisbane that's made up of Afghan asylum seekers. The team is called Tiger 11, and life in Australia was looking okay for its members until the US terrorist attacks hardened attitudes against them, and changes in Australia's immigration laws have made their futures uncertain.

Camilla Cowley: There is not one member of Tiger 11 who hasn't got the saddest story behind them. And for us as a nation to say go home, you know, you have no place here. We're not going to open our hearts and our country to you is disgusting. I am ashamed to be part of an Australia that says that.

Amanda Smith: That's team manager Camilla Cowley. And we'll hear more from her and members of the Tiger 11 soccer club later in The Sports Factor.

Before that though, to comments made by one sports person last week that made many Australians ashamed, not to mention infuriated. Anthony Mundine, the Rugby League player turned boxer said on a TV chat show that he opposed Australians fighting in Afghanistan and that America had brought the September 11 attacks upon itself.

For expressing these inflammatory views Anthony Mundine was stripped of his international ranking by the World Boxing Council, the President of which is Jose Sulaiman:

Jose Sulaiman: By making so unbelievable derogatory statements we just cannot accepted something like that. We support free speech, but free speech to say that you are approve the killing of innocent people, that is not free speech.

Amanda Smith: But subsequent to the outrage and opprobrium that Anthony Mundine's views sparked, there are those who now defend the boxer and believe the response to him was unjustified. Among them sports journalist and former Australian Rugby player Peter Fitzsimons.

Peter Fitzsimons: It's interesting you use the word opprobrium, and being a sports journalist I'm not quite sure what that means because it has five syllables. (laughs) But I actually don't think that the word opprobrium does it justice. I think it was lynch mob mentality you know. I think he went way too far, however, it is his opinion and we still are in a free country - freedom of speech. By all means disagree with him, but it went so far. For me it was reminiscent of what I understand McCarthyism was in the 1950's where there was one view about Communism and one view only. Everybody who did not hold those views was instantly an enemy of the State to be done away with, or at least incarcerated or lose a job and all the rest. Just extraordinary how far it went.

Amanda Smith: But is Anthony Mundine just a pointless controversialist?

Peter Fitzsimons: Let me think about that, a pointless controversialist. I think he's a very fine athlete for a start. I warm to him quite a lot from the point of view of we are in an age of great sporting blandness in many ways. That so many utterances by sports people are pre-packaged, checked past their agent, their PR person, you know “Will this arouse controversy?” It's not frequently that you will hear a sports person say something consciously controversial - and there's been many instances of that. For example there were plenty of sports people I knew who had strong views on the republic, but would not dare say them because they didn't want to fool around with their Weetbix contract or whatever it was. They were constantly advised to just pull their head in and not say anything.

Now Anthony Mundine may well take that way too far the other way that in a way everything he says is - he looks towards creating controversy. But nevertheless, nevertheless, whatever else you say about Anthony Mundine, he's not bland.

Amanda Smith: Well do think this general requirement for sports people to be inoffensive in their opinions, is this because sport and perhaps boxing in particular, is desperate to suggest that its participants are fine upstanding citizens. And that I guess carries the implicit concern that they perhaps are not.

Peter Fitzsimons: But they're not, I mean this is the other thing. The WBC you know it's the American Boxing Authority that control it world-wide. They're quite happy to have somebody the ilk of Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, been to jail, constantly in trouble, biting someone's ear off you know, that's fine. You can get back in the ring and you can fight, we'll all turn up at Las Vegas. But let Anthony Mundine say something that we don't like; “You're out, you'll never fight here again.”

Amanda Smith: Well there's been some debate Peter about whether the question of what Mundine thought of the war on terrorism should have been asked of him at all by Richard Wilkins on The Today Show. The implication being that a sports jock shouldn't or couldn't express or articulate a view.

Peter Fitzsimons: Yes quite right. What would a sports person know? Why would they have an opinion on anything at all? Who would possibly care? I mean really.

Amanda Smith: Was the question fair and legitimate?

Peter Fitzsimons: Of course it was. This was Anthony Mundine - love him or hate him - he is Australia's most famous Muslim. Now I wrote that in the paper. I was outvoted by several of my colleagues in a gentle fashion saying, “Oh come on that's not right.” I say, “Okay tell me who? You tell me who is a more famous Muslim than Anthony Mundine in Australia?” And they went: “Ohh ... Mulla somebody, what was his name?” Exactly, end of the section.

So Richard Wilkins, he is interviewing Australia's most famous Muslim on a day that our troops are departing to participate in a united action which will be dropping bombs and seeing military activity in a Muslim country. So is it not a fair enough question under those circumstances to say to Australia's most famous Muslim "Well what do you reckon?" And you know with Mundine the thrust of his comments. It was not like he was the only one who had said things along those lines. There have been plenty of people in America, in Australia, who have said things roughly along those broad lines. But nobody got anywhere near the level of vilification that Anthony Mundine did.

Amanda Smith: Well in a recent article in The Times newspaper in London it says that in relation to Mundine's comments that sport is one of the few areas in life in which you can still be punished for heresy, and that Mundine is unacceptable to sport because of his failure to believe the right things. What does that say about sport to you reckon Peter?

Peter Fitzsimons: Quite possibly sport has a very conservative following, that people like to build their sports people up. And people feel an ownership of them to the point that they feel they also own their opinions.

Amanda Smith: Peter Fitzsimons, sports journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald and a former Australian Rugby player. On Radio National this is The Sports Factor, I'm Amanda Smith.

Now the great example of an athlete being vilified for his political and religious views was of course Mohammed Ali. These days Ali is regarded as one of the greatest athletes of all time, as well as being a great humanitarian and a man of grace. But in the 1960's after his conversion to Islam and then refusal to support the Vietnam War, remember just how deeply Mohammed Ali offended and cut across the majority views of Americans.


Newsreel Announcer: Heavyweight Champion Cassius Clay, at a Federal Court in Houston, is found guilty of violating the US Selective Service laws, by refusing to be inducted. He is sentenced to 5 years in prison and fined $10,000.

Man: The way he fused politics and sports, very few black athletes had talked the way Mohammed Ali talked, without fear of something happening to him – their career.

Newsreel Announcer: He said his status as a black Muslim minister made him exempt from the draft.

Man: He was already very unpopular with mainstream Americans, because he had joined an organization known as the Nation Of Islam, which was perceived as a radical, black, separatist group. And then, on top of that, when he was called for induction and refused to take the step forward, he absolutely infuriated America.

Spike Lee: Mohammed Ali said that “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”

Man: At the end of it, everyone gave him accolades for what he’d done, for believing what he’d done - I mean because he was sincere, he was honest. I always said that, heck, I hoped I was as great a Catholic as he was a Muslim.

Amanda Smith: Extracts from a couple of documentaries, including the fantastic When we were Kings, the great exoneration of Muhammad Ali. Well according to Dwight Zakus, who's a senior lecturer in the Sport Management program at Griffith University, one of Anthony Mundine's problems is that he's trying to emulate Muhammad Ali. And in doing so Mundine is running headlong into sporting intolerance and sanctions.

Dwight Zakus: Sport as an institution demands obedience. You know the power structures in sport at the level of the athlete and coach-athlete and management and then athlete and sport administrators is very, very much away from the athlete. So an athlete in that type of power structure is really limited in being able to be a person. And then that affects them for a period of their life because they don't really know how to behave in society after that. Many of them, not all of them of course.

Amanda Smith: Well going back in time the great example of all this of course is another black boxer, Mohammad Ali who I think Anthony Mundine rather models himself on as a boxer, as a convert to Islam and as an outspoken person for black rights. Ali was of course stripped of his World Title in 1967 for refusing to serve in Vietnam on religious grounds. So not having a mainstream view there.

Now Anthony Mundine isn't in the same class as Ali as a fighter, but with the World Boxing Council eliminating Mundine from its world rankings for his comments, is something similar going on?

Dwight Zakus: Well I think there's an unfortunate situation developing here that Mundine does model himself on Mohammad Ali, which is as problematic as you noted that he is not the boxer at this point that Ali was. He doesn't have the record and he hasn't shown people that he is of that stature. Certainly the Ali case is interesting in that it goes back even further than '67, it goes back to post-Rome when he threw his gold medal in the river because of his treatment back in the US as an African American.

Now Mundine by trying to model himself is not being himself and I think it's coming out not too well. He's confusing things by adopting a behaviour that was natural to Ali, but it doesn't come across that way with himself.

Amanda Smith: Nevertheless if Anthony Mundine was a white Australian rather than an Aborigine do you think his comments would have raised the level of ire and approbation that they did?

Dwight Zakus: No, no I think there are two issues. I think his being an Aborigine is simply we're not pure in the sense of racial vilification in this country. But also I think some of the Anglo Saxon middleweight athletes they get away with some things to a certain degree anyway that's more often labelled as larrikinism or they're just characters, they're sort of an oddity in the sport. But I think Mundine's facing a lot of other dissatisfaction because people are seeing him as trying to be more than he is. It's like he's trying to create a tall poppy if you will.

Amanda Smith: And we don't like them. Dwight Zakus from the Sport Management Program at Griffith University on the Gold Coast.

Well Anthony Mundine is now in serious training at his father's gym in Sydney, preparing for a World Title fight next month. And Dad, Tony Mundine, himself a former Australian and Commonwealth boxing champion says the vilification of his son has gotten out of hand.

Tony Mundine: The media have turned around and called him a terrorist and all the stuff. He's not a terrorist - he's a little kid that said something that’s wrong - I disagree with what he said, but at the wrong time - but that's the way it is.

Amanda Smith: Is it unreasonable then in your view for Anthony to have had his ranking from the World Boxing Council indefinitely cancelled as a result of his comments?

Tony Mundine: I think so, you know. There's a lot of boxers around the world that are rapists and spent time in jail and armed robberies, but Anthony Mundine said just a couple of words and they punish him. They punish him pretty bad.

Amanda Smith: Well it's under the auspices of the other world boxing authority the International Boxing Federation that Anthony's title fight is being held next month in Germany. But do things have to be sorted out with the World Boxing Council for Anthony to achieve real credibility as a boxer. I mean are you going to appeal the WBC's decision to cancel his world ranking?

Tony Mundine: Well at the moment we're worried about one thing and that's the IBF world title fight in Germany, and then we start talking after if we win it.

Amanda Smith: About an appeal?

Tony Mundine: About an appeal, about what happened.

Amanda Smith: Tony Mundine, who's son and boxing protégé Anthony challenges the world's super middleweight title in Germany on the 1st December. This title is run by the International Boxing Federation, which unlike the World Boxing Council has not, so far, taken action against Mundine.

You're with Radio National and The Sports Factor.

Now from political fisticuffs to political football, and a team of soccer players in Brisbane who are feeling pretty kicked around at the moment. Gerald Tooth, who's been presenting The Sports Factor these past few weeks while I've been away, has the story.


Gerald Tooth: If ever there was a political football in this current election campaign, it is the issue of asylum seekers, and in particular those who arrived in Australia through the practice of people smuggling. In Brisbane an entire soccer club, Tiger 11, is made of young asylum seekers who arrived in exactly that fashion. They come from a number of places including the Sudan, Eritrea, Iran and Iraq. But the bulk of them, 27, are from Afghanistan.

The Afghan boys are all from the Hazera ethnic minority who have been persecuted by the Taliban and forced from their homelands in the central highlands to make way for the Al Quaeda terrorist network. At Tiger 11's weekly training session the team's manager Camilla Cowley, a prominent figure in the Wik Debate explains how the team came about.

Camilla Cowley: It was their idea. We used to meet in Musgrave Park of a Saturday afternoon and just kick a ball around. And I'd bring my kids, some of their Uni friends, other refugees that I was working with, just to give them something to do on the weekend. And more and more boys kept turning up until we could see we had enough for a team, and they wanted to have a team. They wanted to actually compete. They wanted to have an identity, and they wanted to really do something with it.

Gerald Tooth: Tiger 11, where did the name come from?

Camilla Crowley: Well originally it was all Afghani boys that I was meeting there. And ‘Tiger's’ it has connotations from Afghanistan in that one of their mountain's names, an important mountain's name in Dari - in English it's Tiger. But also for them the Tiger represented something that was strong and admired and respected, but also endangered.

Gerald Tooth: The oldest Tiger 11 player is 20, the youngest is just 12. And by far the majority are under 18. They arrived in Australia by themselves. Their families remain in Afghanistan.

Camilla Crowley: So they needed some sense of belonging somewhere. And it's been successful because as each new arrival from the detention centres, you know, each time there is a new arrival from the detention center, within a week they've turned up.

Gerald Tooth: The popular view is though that these people that have turned up, through people smuggling, are bludging on the good will of Australia and should be sent back home. The government's view is that we can't afford to keep processing people like this. We can't afford to let them cross our borders. What's your response to that?

Camilla Crowley: My response to that is, unless we are a nation of the biggest hypocrites under the sun who have signed, you know all sorts of conventions, about giving refuge to people who are seeking asylum because they are forced to flee their home country for whatever reason; there is not one member of Tiger 11 who hasn't got the saddest story behind him. This is not a group of people who are here for the easy life and to bludge on the system. This is a group of people who simply cannot be safe at home. They are endangered as you said at home. They have to seek asylum somewhere. And if we are not prepared to open our hearts and our wretched law books, just that littlest bit, then it's a very sad day.

Gerald Tooth: Most of the Tiger 11 boys were sent by their families to Australia for two reasons. The first was to escape the Taliban who are systematically rounding up young Hazera men and forcibly conscripting them into the army to find the Northern Alliance. The second was as forward scouts to make a path for the rest of their family to get out of Afghanistan and make their way to a safe haven like Australia.

Camilla Cowley says they now are in an invidious position, trapped by recent changes in Australia's immigration legislation, and since September 11 associated with the terror they can from. Tiger 11 players have been taunted on the soccer field with jibes of “terrorist and “Bin Laden lover”.

Camilla Cowley: When what happened in America happened there were tears in their eyes. They were just as distressed as everyone else. And the message that they would give everybody is, “why do you think we're here, because we're running away from exactly the type of people who did that in America. They are doing that to us at home in Afghanistan, they have been doing it to us for years. We are just as much victims of Osama Bin Laden and his network as the Americans who died so tragically.” And the boys have even said to me, “Because they did this in America, now everyone knows what the Taliban sympathizers are like. Before nobody believed us, nobody listened to us. Now ironically they think we're like them. They think we're like the people that we have had to escape”, you know?

Gerald Tooth: How effective has the medium of sport been in breaking down some of the political barriers that these boys have encountered?

Camilla Cowley: It has been amazing. The club that gave us the home in the first case, they have just moved a mile. They've moved thousands of miles in understanding and commitment and you know it's been a great journey for most of the members of that club. The teams these guys go and play against, they start asking you know: '”Who are they? Where are they from? What's their story?” And it just makes such a difference. And for all of them there's the same story, family sacrifice and everything. Not just family, but extended family, neighbours, whole villages have chipped in to save these guys. There's not a family in Australia who wouldn't do the same if they were put in that same position. How dare we judge them and say “They use smugglers, they're illegals.” Smugglers are the only avenue of escape.

Gerald Tooth: Camilla Cowley. At 20 Atullah Naseri is one of Tiger 11's oldest players. His story of how he came to Australia though is typical of his younger team-mates.

Atullah Naseri: I went to Pakistan, then to Singapore and then to Indonesia, then to Australia.

Gerald Tooth: Were you brought here by people smugglers?

Atullah Naseri: Yeah, of course.

Gerald Tooth: Why did you choose that way to come to Australia?

Atullah Naseri: Because my life was in danger. That time when I was in my country and I was taken by Taliban to prison. I was 1½ week in prison, then when I was released I went to home with my father. Then after that time I was in my own area for 2½ weeks. I was in the mountain during the day and I was coming back to home during the night.

Gerald Tooth: So you couldn't stay in your own home, for fear that the Taliban would come and arrest you again?

Atullah Naseri: Mmm. Because the Taliban were collecting their own peoples and send them to front line for fighting. And that is why my father said that if you will be here for a long time in my country then my life was in danger, and my father decided to send me off from Afghanistan. Then at that time I was not able to come by myself to go to any Embassy in any other places to apply for visa for some invite. But I couldn't do that because when I was going outside from my house then Taliban arrested me and so they put me in prison again.

Gerald Tooth: So how did your family get the money together to get you to Australia?

Atullah Naseri: My father sold his car and he sold his shop. We had a shop in our village. So he collected some money from my uncle and my cousins so he completed the money and he has given to one man, he was Pashtun.

Gerald Tooth: The Pashtuns are the ethnic majority in Afghanistan. It's widely rumoured that their people smuggling activity within Afghanistan is conducted with the blessing of the Taliban and is part of their ethnic cleansing policy targeting the Hazera.

Atullah then travelled through several countries until being put in contact with another people smuggler in Indonesia. They got him aboard a dilapidated boat going to Australia with 41 other people. He says, despite everything he had experienced there was nothing more terrifying than that boat trip.

Atullah Naseri: So it was very terrible and the boat was very small and so it was like that, yeah.

Gerald Tooth: Where did you land? At Christmas Island?

Atullah Naseri: No, when the officer of Australia arrest us from the sea and we were ascending in one area in the sea for three days then they took us in Australian ship, and take us to Broome. Then by bus we went to detention centre in Derby.

Gerald Tooth: What would happen if you were sent back?

Atullah Naseri: If we go back, our life in danger. We will be killed by Taliban again. So that is why we left because of Taliban. We came to Australia and we hope we will be here for a long time. You know in Australia is multicultural country, that from every place and every place of the world they come here and they are making a good life and a peaceful place for themselves. So I hope I will be here for a long time, for my whole life, because I love this country and it is a very peaceful country.

Gerald Tooth: Have you spoken to your family at all since the bombing raids started in Afghanistan?

Atullah Naseri: No, till I come from last year when I left my country, till now I didn't have any contact with my family and I don't know about them. Where are they, so that is it.

Gerald Tooth: Atullah Naseri from the Hazera ethnic minority in Afghanistan and member of Brisbane's Tiger 11 soccer club.

On the day The Sports Factor visited training, club patron Hassan Ghulam met with immigration officials in Brisbane to discuss the recent changes to immigration law. Those changes mean that asylum seekers granted what are called a Temporary Protection Visas are banned from obtaining permanent residency in Australia if they have spent more than seven days in another country en-route to Australia.

The change to the law also excludes them from the Family Reunion Program. All the Tiger 11 players are on Temporary Protection Visas. What this means for them is if they choose to stay in Australia they will never attain the status of citizens, and more significantly they will never see their families again, unless their families use people smugglers to get here. Hassan Ghulam doesn't know how to begin explaining this to his young charges.

Hassan Ghulam: I'm afraid to open my mouth because they ask me today in the school, many of them, “Are you going to this meeting?” I said, “Yes I am going.” “Will you be coming and telling us what's the good news?”, I said “Yes.” So I don't have a good news for them.

Gerald Tooth: The changes in the Temporary Visa Provisions relating to having spent seven days in a country on the way to Australia, what will the impact of that be for these boys here?

Hassan Ghulam: All of them is built for one purpose, punish these people. You see they want to punish smugglers. They have to go and find smuggler, you know. But they are punishing those who suffered under the regime of Taliban, the suffer all the way from home to Australia and now they are here getting punished, right, because of whatever racially motivated policies they want to bring.

Gerald Tooth: So the practical result of that change in the legislation, how many of these boys are on TPV's, on Temporary Protection Visas?

Hassan Ghulam: All of them on TPV. They could be sent out tomorrow. I'm convinced that this legislation which has passed recently is sadistic. Those who proposed it, those who worked for it, did not think about this character of the law. But you go through every single part of it is a punishment of a refugee, nothing else. Never mind what age, what is the sex of the refugee, but is a real punishment. As I said, how can a father who leaves a country because of prosecution be without his child for 60 months? The child will be grown up. So practically this legislation is tearing families apart. That means these politicians who are claiming to be pro-family, they are lying. Absolutely they are lying. They are not pro-family. All those kisses on the cheek of a little baby is a bloody lie, nothing else.

Amanda Smith: Hassan Ghulam, the patron of the Tiger 11 soccer team of asylum seekers, speaking there with Gerald Tooth in Brisbane. Gerald was also speaking with Tiger 11 player Atullah Naseri and team manager Camilla Cowley.

And that's The Sports Factor for another week. Program producer is Michael Shirrefs, I'm Amanda Smith.

Guests on this program:

Peter Fitzsimons
Journalist, author and former Australian Rugby League player.

Dwight Zakus
Senior Lecturer in the Sport Management program at Griffith University.

Tony Mundine
Former Australian and Commonwealth boxing champion and father of Australian boxer Anthony Mundine.

Camilla Cowley
Manager of the Tiger 11 soccer team in Brisbane.

Atullah Naseri
Afghan refugee and player with the Tiger 11 soccer team in Brisbane.

Hassan Ghulam
Patron of the Tiger 11 soccer club in Brisbane.

Amanda Smith

Michael Shirrefs

© 2002 ABC