Campaign will help Top End kids put the right foot forward
The boys of Wadeye, one of the most disadvantaged indigenous communities in Australia, love their footy. Paul Kinthari and his brother Scott likes to kick goals. So, too, do their mates David Wundjar and Kurt and Corey Bunduck. Their bare feet make the ball dance as they each try to outdo the others by kicking ever more impressive goals.
They squeeze them in, float them, curl them. Balls drop and spin and worm a way between the crooked, wobbly posts. None of these boys has ever owned a pair of footy boots. There might be two or three kids in their year at school who own a pair of boots, but mostly the kids dash about on the red sand and tussocky turf of the playing strips around school in bare feet.
When the boys venture to the oval where the senior team, the Wadeye Magpies, plays in the NT league, they bounce on the softer turf which is green from regular watering.
Over in west Arnhem land, Kurt Manakgu and Robert Dirdi, too, are forwards, for there are no backmen here - everyone wants to kick a goal, everyone wants to be the man. They go to school at Gunbalanya near Jabiru and the Ranger uranium mine.
Kurt and Robert pick up a ball when they get up in the morning and kick it around between classes and after school with their friends until the sun gets too low and they give up. Like virtually everyone in Gunbalanya, they too are barefoot players.
Even when they play in organised competitions, it is with bare feet. The cost of boots is prohibitively high in a community where a parent with a job is the exception not the rule and, besides, if they had the money and inclination, where would they buy them?
Darwin is 300 kilometres to the west and there is little in between. For long tracts of the year the road in is cut off, as the East Alligator river spills its banks in the wet season.
Gunbalanya and Wadeye are typical of remote indigenous communities across Australia where football is a common thread. In schools such as Bayulu, outside Fitzroy Crossing, 400 kilometres east of Broome, English is a third language - after one of two local indigenous languages and the bridging language of Kriol - but football is the lingua franca.
While barefoot sport is something to be celebrated, bare feet can only take you so far in football. Quinten "Junior" Shandley is in year 6 at the Bayulu school and has, on some reckoning, the ability to potentially make the elite level. But not without boots.
The Age's Boots For Kids campaign, in collaboration with Coles and Linfox, is asking parents and carers whose kids are about to finish their seasons to not put the boots in the back of a cupboard for younger siblings or to throw them out but to drop them into collection bins at Coles supermarkets from Saturday.
Boots of all sizes, styles and brands, both used and - for those financially able and inclined to do so - new are welcomed.
"There is about 120 kids in the Bayulu school and roughly about 10 would have boots," said Charlene Davis, an Aboriginal indigenous education officer at Bayulu Remote Community School. "They all play barefoot. To have boots ... they would be really excited. They all want to be football stars, they all want to grow up and play for the Bayulu Bulldogs and the AFL.
"Everywhere you go you see kids playing footy, they carry footballs everywhere.
"They love footy and we encourage them in lessons about fair play and sportsmanship up here. And we teach them about nutrition and health and how that helps playing footy and in life."
Former Collingwood footballer Leon Davis, a one-time All-Australian player, has previously done something similar in taking used boots to kids in remote communities. He said it was an unfortunate fact that kids in the communities considered football to be a way out of the community to break the cycle of unemployment. He said the perception was limiting and he had always pushed the message hard within his own family and the wider community that hard work at school was the best way to get ahead, but the footy boots initative could still make an enormous difference.
"I think the boots initiative is great. It is something for the kids to have of their own and it shows them that even people on the other side of the country care," Davis said. "It is not just about footy boots and sports; it is about education. But if giving the kids boots, and if the teachers want to give them to the kids for school attendance or performance and good grades or whatever, then that goes a long way to helping education.
"There is not much else for them in those communities and when they get something like boots - even second-hand boots to them they are like brand new because they will be the first boots they've ever had - it goes a long way."