We’re one big nation that supports every other nation

Angelique Hristoudoulou was too young to remember the National Soccer League, the competition that preceded the A-League before folding in 2004.

The Sydney FC defender was too young to remember how its clubs were deeply rooted in the migrant communities – Greek, Italian, Croatian, Hungarian, English – from which many of Australian football's best players emerged.

She was too young to remember the role football played in bringing dozens of cultures, languages and nationalities together through their shared passion for the game their forefathers introduced to Australia’s shores in the late 19th century.

All she knows is that her father, Eric, played for one of the league’s greatest Greek clubs, Sydney Olympic, and that she wants to carry on his legacy – and her family’s cultural heritage – in her own football career.

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“I was definitely aware that dad was a prominent footballer back in his heyday,” Hristodoulou said. “I’ve heard a lot of stories and everyone used to tell me how good of a player he was. I haven’t seen too much footage, but I’ve seen snippets here and there. It’s great to see.

“I was too young [for the social club], but I do hear stories from mum. She always told me that, after dad’s games, they used to go there and hang out – it used to be the thing they did after he played.

“And they’re still connected with the people that dad used to play with; that Greek community is still strong in his life today. He’s got really close family and friends from back then.”

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Hristodoulou credits her dad for setting her on the football path. The game wasn’t just a hobby on weekends; for the family and the Greek community they were part of, football was a way of life.

“When I think back then, it was very regional; Sydney Olympic was a very Greek club and it had a lot of Greek supporters,” she said.

“I think him being involved in that kind of carried on to me, and now that I’m back at Olympic as well [in the NPLW], that value is instilled in me: the Greek kind of culture.

“We used to get up early and watch the English Premier League. We love the World Cups and we love supporting Greece. We were actually in Greece during the 2014 [men’s] World Cup and that was such an incredible experience; being in Europe, watching the games. The support over there is incredible, the way people get around it. It’s something I’ll remember for a long time.

“I think it’s quite cool to be able to play at the same club that dad did because he’s quite well-known there. Now to see his daughter coming through, it’s a special feeling. But I love the Greek culture, knowing the history and the heritage. I feel like I’m at home. It’s a nice feeling to know you’re surrounded by like-minded people who have similar values and culture as you.”

Barely a stone’s throw away from Sydney Olympic’s home in Sydney’s eastern suburbs is another historic NSL club deeply tied to its migrant roots: APIA Leichhardt. 

The Italian club recently made the decision to switch back to their old crest following the repeal of Football Australia’s National Club Identity Policy, which had banned the use of ethnic names, logos or symbols.

One proud Australian-Italian woman who plays for APIA’s senior team during the winter is Newcastle Jets midfielder, Rhianna Pollicina. 

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She recalls measuring her weeks with “Italian days”: a sauce day, a salami day. Her nonna, who was born in Italy, makes fresh pastas and biscuits – cannolis, crostolis, biscottis – regularly for her family.

It was the food they shared when the entire family sat around her nonna's living-room television to watch Italy win the 2006 men’s World Cup.

“I’m very grateful to be brought up around the Italian culture and eating its food, seeing how it’s all made,” Pollicina said. “My grandparents brought all the things they used to do in Italy over in Australia and us grand-kids are fortunate to have picked up some of those skills and values.

“They’ve always been football fans. They’ve always followed the Italian national team. Most of my cousins play football or used to play football; they’re massive fans of the W-League and A-League, too.

“I’ve pretty much watched all the games [from the 2006 World Cup]. I think I missed about five days of school when Italy was playing, because that’s the year they won it. I remember the whole family being at my nonna’s house that night, watching the final around three o’clock in the morning. We missed so much school for that World Cup.

“I went to Italy in 2017 and it was when Totti was retiring. That was massive. I didn’t get to watch the game but I was in Rome when he retired and the streets went crazy mad for him. People over there live and breathe it. APIA [Leichhardt] is pretty good when it comes to celebrating Italian heritage, they’re all like, ‘Forza APIA!’”

Pollicina and Hristodoulou are just two of many Australian-born W-League players who have European heritage. While the exodus of Matildas to Europe over the past 18 months has highlighted the differences and divisions between its leagues, dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Australian football has a much more complex and home-grown European connection below its surface.

While the Australian game is made up of hundreds of different languages and backgrounds, both Pollicina and Hristodoulou appreciate how football – and some of its initiatives like Harmony Round – brings them all together.

“It’s great that every player who has a different culture and nationality is included in things like this,” Pollicina said. “Even though I do have an Italian last name, I am still Australian, and it’s so good that people are appreciating the different communities that are paying here. We’re one big nation that supports every other nation.”

Hristodoulou agrees: “Australia is a very multicultural country, so it’s really good for the leagues to recognise this and get around it. Being united as one is what Australians are known for, right? It’s an awesome idea to make it known that everyone is supported and everyone is just as important as each other.”