‘He makes us so happy’: Victorian town gets behind its teenage World Cup Socceroo Garang Kuol | Australia sport

Garang Kuol’s aunty is counting down the minutes and hours until she sees her nephew play at the World Cup again.

The 18-year-old, who is the youngest Socceroo since Harry Kewell in 1996, has a fervent following at his home town of Shepparton in northern Victoria, where the community is gathering on Saturday night for the second group-stage match.

Agoness Kuol has watched her nephew grow up to play at the highest level, and she says his family and the South Sudanese community in Shepparton could not be prouder.

“He makes us so happy. It makes us feel like we can fly, watching him play at the World Cup. And [we’re] so happy for his parents, who worked so hard for this.

“He has always, always loved playing football, since he was in kindergarten. But he’s a good boy, he would come with us to church and would always stay with his family.”

The South Sudanese community has been growing in Shepparton, where just over 17% of the population were born overseas, compared with 12.4% for regional Victoria.

Garang Kuol in action at the World Cup
Garang Kuol in action at the World Cup. Photograph: Maddie Meyer/Fifa/Getty Images

The communities have created spaces for themselves, including the South Sudanese community, which will host a viewing party of the next Socceroos match at St Paul’s African House.

Kuol says there will be food and dancing before the match, which begins at 9pm local time, and that the community is celebrating no matter the result.

“We are a very connected community here. We’re around 40 families and we all know each other. We all know Garang as well and we will be praying for him.

“He’s representing Australia, but also Shepparton and also South Sudan. He has three teams, three groups behind him. And we’re all so proud of him.”

Kuol was born in Egypt after his family fled Sudan. They moved to Australia as refugees before settling in Shepparton and becoming part of the fabric of the community there.

Khadiga Abdalla will be cooking a series of traditional dishes for the viewing party at St Paul’s African House.

“Everyone is very excited, we’ve been working hard to prepare,” she says. “We’re always told we need more chairs, more food because more people are coming. But who knows what will happen in the match.

“Saturday night is for everyone – mums, dads, kids, we’re all going to be there. No one would miss Garang at the World Cup.”

Abdalla says her own children know Garang, making their pride in Garang’s achievements all the more powerful.

“We’re all one family, together. My kids have been so excited, they didn’t sleep for days before the last match, and they can’t wait for the second one.

“He’s playing for all Australian and African kids.”

One of Kuol’s early coaches at the Gosford Suns, Craig Carley, tells the Guardian that watching the youngster play at the World Cup gives him goosebumps.

“Every single time I’ve seen Garang on TV, it makes the hairs on my arm stand up, because I know how exciting he is. And I know how proud he has made people.

Kuol with other players during Australia’s training in Doha, Qatar
Kuol during Australia’s training in Doha, Qatar. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

“He plays with no fear,” Carley says. “It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest what he’s achieved … I know he can play at the highest level.”

Shepparton has been represented in the Socceroos before – by Robert Enes in the 1990s – but there hasn’t been a player to break through the ranks from the town since.

Kuol’s rise, which has now included being snapped up by English Premier League club Newcastle, has brought a sense of excitement to the town.

“We pride ourselves on being the regional sporting capital of Australia,” the Shepparton mayor, Shane Sali, says.

“And to have someone from our own backyard, who has grown up here playing in the junior ranks, and now on the international stage, is just something special.”

Sali is adamant Kuol should start Australia’s second group game after coming off the bench in the loss to France on match-day one.

“For them to win, he needs to start. You’ve got to buy into the excitement he brings, and fingers crossed he starts a lot earlier.

“He’s a generational talent. Get him on early. We’re all behind him.”

‘Draconian’: gay footballer Josh Cavallo hits out at Fifa over rainbow armband edict | World Cup 2022

Josh Cavallo, the Australian footballer who came out as gay last year, has criticised Fifa’s decision to penalise players at the World Cup who show support for the LGBTQ+ community, saying the move shows that football remains far from an inclusive space.

Captains from seven European teams intended to wear the “OneLove” rainbow armband at the tournament in Qatar, but ditched the plan before the first round of group matches amid fears they would receive an immediate booking for the show of solidarity.

The England captain, Harry Kane, said the decision had been taken out of his hands and was instead forced to wear Fifa’s “anti-discrimination” armband in his team’s opening win over Iran.

In a scathing social media post addressing Fifa, Cavallo said the lack of support for the inclusivity push meant he had lost all respect for the game’s world governing body.

“I love my identity,” the Adelaide United player wrote. “Seeing you have banned all teams to wear the One Love armband to actively support LGBTQ+ at the World Cup. You have lost my respect.

“All the work my fellow allies and the LGBTQ+ community are doing to make football inclusive, you have shown that football isn’t a place for everyone.”

Kane would have been joined by the Netherlands captain, Virgil van Dijk, and the Wales skipper, Gareth Bale, in wearing the OneLove armbands on Monday, with Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark expected to follow suit in their openers.

But in a joint statement following Fifa’s edict – which was described by the German federation president, Bernd Neuendorf, as an “outrageous demonstration of power from Fifa” – the seven national federations confirmed they would not wear the rainbow armbands.

“As national federations we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions, including bookings,” the statement said.

The Australian captain, Mat Ryan, who appeared in a video with Socceroos teammates before the tournament to raise concerns over human rights issues including the treatment of LGBTQ+ people in Qatar, said he had been told if he wore a rainbow armband, he would receive a yellow card.

Ryan said the joint statement released with his teammates a month ago had been an attempt to try to “influence positive change in the world”.

Asked about Fifa’s latest directions on armbands, Ryan said: “I have got no comment. We made our statement with our players union. That’s all we can control.”

Cavallo became the only known male top-flight professional footballer in the world to come out as gay in October last year, prompting an outpouring of support from across the globe. He has since been outspoken on gay rights issues and advocated for inclusivity in football.

“It’s not the first time we’ve heard ‘stick to football,’” he wrote. “The attacks on the LGBTQ+ community from World Cup leaders affects so many who live in silence because of your draconian ways. To be a great leader in sport, one must never give up trying to bring all people together.”

‘It’s about being ruthless’: 18-year-old Socceroo Garang Kuol is ready to take on the world | Australia

It seems as if every person who encounters him has declared Garang Kuol ready to make an impact at this World Cup – now we know he agrees with them.

The much-talked-about 18-year-old is in the frame for at least one cameo off the bench during Australia’s group matches in Qatar.

But if he was nervous about facing the likes of France, Tunisia and Denmark, you wouldn’t know it.

“Of course,” he said matter of factly when asked if he can make a difference for the Socceroos. “It’s all about just having confidence in yourself and being ruthless, and having that mindset to want to create something and make an impact.

“It’s a very exciting experience for me. I’ve been watching the Socceroos for a long time and the World Cup’s the biggest stage, so that’s just where I want to prove myself.”

The hype about Kuol is real, and warranted.

Despite having not started a single senior game for his club, Central Coast Mariners, the teenager dazzled in an Australian All Stars friendly against Barcelona in May and earned praise from manager Xavi Hernandez, who said “it’s incredible that he’s 17 years old”.

Since then he has become the youngest player to receive a Socceroos call-up since Harry Kewell and will become a Newcastle United player in January, with a promise from the club’s manager, Eddie Howe, to be patient in his development.

In short, he is largely untested but also one of Australia’s most dangerous assets.

He is the second-youngest player at Qatar 2022 – he is 66 days older than Germany’s Youssoufa Moukoko – and will become the youngest Socceroo to play should he get the chance.

For him that’s “just a label”; what matters more is proving himself against reigning champions France on Tuesday night (Wednesday 6am AEDT).

“I wouldn’t say intimidation,” he said. “I find it more exciting, to see what you can do against players of that calibre.

“I don’t really pay attention to what’s said around me. I’m mainly just focused on what I do in the field and training and the game.

Australian players Thomas Deng, Garang Kuol and Awer Mabil – who are all of South Sudanese heritage – in Qatar.
Australian players Thomas Deng, Garang Kuol and Awer Mabil – who are all of South Sudanese heritage – in Qatar. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

“If I’m not playing well, I’m not going to look at what’s online. What I do on the field makes me happy or gives me motivation to keep pushing forward.”

Kuol’s lack of conditioning for a full 90 minutes means he will likely be used sparingly by coach Graham Arnold, who has told the prodigious talent he has “plenty of belief” in him.

But he did participate in a two-hour intra-team game during training this week at the Socceroos’ Doha base, the Aspire Academy.

“Intensity was a killer, I’m still getting used to it,” he said. “The boys play quick, the ball just zips around. It’s a whole lot of chasing. We’re trying to mirror what France would do.”

“Speaking with Arnie, it’s been very chill. He hasn’t really said much. He just told me he has plenty of belief in me. I’ve just got to keep training well and to prove myself.”

Kuol has support within the playing group, in particular from fellow South Sudanese refugees Awer Mabil and Thomas Deng.

Born in Egypt in 2004 after his family fled South Sudan, he moved to Australia as a baby and settled in Shepparton, Victoria, growing up with seven siblings including older brother Alou, 21, who is on the books of VfB Stuttgart and is also a Mariners product.

“It’s a journey we’ve all been on as a family,” Kuol said. “Three years back my mum’d driving me to Melbourne every two weeks – two hours there, two hours back. They’re very happy for me. They’re just telling me to do my best and make them proud.

“There’s people that spur me in the right direction. Obviously my coach at the Mariners, my parents, older brothers, these two next to me, they all play a part in the way I carry myself out and take everything in.”

Kuol, Mabil and Deng represent the changing face of Australia’s national team in line with the country’s multi-cultural society.

“We have a motivation to try to [represent] not just the Australian community but also kids from our community especially, because sometimes it’s easy to go down the wrong path,” Mabil said.

“As a kid, I wanted to see somebody from my community showing us the way. So that’s our motivation, to try and push higher so we can show these kids the way.”

Those kids include Kuol.

“He’s been good since he’s come in,” Deng said. “He’s just a young kid who wants to play football. He’s just full of confidence and he’s got a really bright future ahead of him. We’re just trying to help him learn in the right way.”