Childhood friends whose families fled conflict in Sudan represent Australia for first time against Kuwait
From their early years in Kenya, to a shared childhood in suburban Adelaide, to the A-League and then the Socceroos, Thomas Deng and Awer Mabil have plenty of history in common. And in the unlikely location of Kuwait City, the pair of South Sudanese refugees etched out a splendid new chapter together,debuting on the same night for Australia.
Graham Arnold handed the pair of next-generation Socceroos their first taste of international football in the 4-0 defeat of Kuwait. And when Mabil put the icing on the cake for Australia, scoring the evening’s fourth goal from a move that Deng started, fittingly his great friend was there first to embrace him.
The pair could not stop smiling after the game despite their exertions on a humid night. “It’s a dream come true,” Deng said.
How far away this night must have felt, back in Andrews Farm nine years ago, when they first met through their shared love of the sport. “We went to the same school. We played at the same club that I played at, called Playford,” Deng said. “We go way back. To come through and get our debut on the same day, it’s surreal. It’s amazing.”
Mabil, who graduated from Adelaide United to Denmark’s FC Midtjylland three years ago, said Deng’s presence calmed him as he prepared to strike for his goals. “When I saw him there, there’s no nerves because he’s behind me,” he said. “It made it easier with Thomas there.
“It was a big dream for us to make our debut and especially on the same day. It’s something I will never forget. We will tell our grandkids one day.”
Upping the feel-good factor behind the pair is their leap from disadvantaged backgrounds. Both Deng, 21, and Mabil, 23, found themselves in Australia after their families sought refuge from the conflict in Sudan. Mabil was born in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya while Deng spent his earliest years in nearby Nairobi, before both settled in South Australia.Arnold was adamant their debuts came not through goodwill but hard work. “They deserve it. It’s reward for the good kids who are coming through … those kids came on and did a great job,” he said.
Deng, who will return to Melbourne immediately to play in Saturday night’s Melbourne derby, said first he had to make some calls. “I’ll probably call my mum first and foremost and thank her for all the years that she’s been taking me to training,” Deng said. “It’s finally paid off I guess. I’m very happy.”