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Football, First Nations, and the Fight for Self-Determination
First Nation flags flying at the 2023 World Cup symbolize changing times, but true change lies in governments heeding indigenous voices fighting for self-determination.
Before the Matildas had even kicked a ball at the Tokyo Olympics, they had already left their mark on the Games.
Ahead of their first round match-up against New Zealand at the delayed tournament, Australia’s women’s national team posed for a team photo with the Aboriginal flag instead of the Australian flag—a rare and powerful statement of solidarity with First Nations peoples.
The gesture, which was spearheaded by the team’s indigenous athletes, Kyah Simon and Lydia Williams, helped set a precedent for future events. Earlier this month, FIFA—football's world governing body— announced that First Nations flags will fly at all matches at the 2023 Women's World Cup co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, placing a spotlight on Indigenous rights during the biggest global sporting event of the year.
The Australian national flag, the Australian Aboriginal flag, and the Torres Strait Islander flag will be on display at all 35 tournament matches played across Australia, while the national Māori flag, known as Tino Rangatiratanga, and the New Zealand national flag will feature at all 29 matches in Aotearoa New Zealand.
“This decision aligns with the values of our organization with diversity and inclusion at the core of what we are about as a governing body and our vision for the tournament,” Football Australia CEO, James Johnson, said. “It follows the establishment of our National Indigenous Advisory Group, Reconciliation Action Plan, and support for the Voice to Parliament, and is an important moment for Football Australia.
“This joint request received the backing from both Federal Governments, and we would like to thank the Australian Sports Minister and the Indigenous Affairs Minister who were both strong advocates for this initiative for their support. This decision will mean so much to so many.”
While the First Nations flag approval is purely ceremonial, it is a significant step for FIFA, which has historically ignored or obstructed human rights and social justice causes that it deems incompatible with its global brand. It also underscores an ongoing shift in Australian politics to reduce the inequality between First Nations peoples and non-Indigenous people in Australia.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s centre-left Labor government proposed a landmark referendum to enshrine in the Australian Constitution an Indigenous body — known as a “Voice to Parliament” — to advise the government on legislation and policy affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. After being approved by the Senate in June 2023, the referendum is expected to be held between October and December of this year.
The move is long overdue, as there has never been a treaty between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the Australian government. Other former British colonies such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand have negotiated treaties with Indigenous peoples.
Supporters hope the Voice will improve living standards for Indigenous Australians, who are the most nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic group. Indigenous Australians are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprising 29 percent of Australia’s adult prison population in 2021, but just 3 percent of the national population. First Nations people also face shorter life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, poorer health, as well as lower levels of education and employment than their non-Indigenous population. Much of this is due to decades of brutal government policies imposed by the Australian government.
However, while the Voice would be a step in the right direction and will allow advocacy for Indigenous interests, it would not have a say on proposed laws, thereby limiting its potential impact. Nevertheless, the referendum has opened up a national discourse, inflamed debates, and deepened political divisions and polarization. The Liberal Party and Nationals party, which formed a conservative coalition government for nine years before the centre-left Labor Party was elected in 2022, both oppose the Voice.
While conservatives opposed the referendum because they claim it would offer Indigenous peoples undue power in parliament, some within the Indigenous community have also opposed the Voice because it does not offer a clear path to self-determination.
“It’s about time governments enabled Aboriginal people to determine their own destiny, instead of having white racists determine what our destiny is,” Gary Foley, a veteran Indigenous activist and a professor of history at Victoria University in Melbourne, told NBC News.
The debate is also taking place in the world of sports. More than 20 Australian sporting bodies, including AFL, NRL, Rugby Australia, Football Australia, Netball Australia, Tennis Australia and Cricket Australia, published an open letter in support of the referendum.
“We commit to using our platforms to lead conversations that promote respect, trust and goodwill between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” read the letter. “We commit to improving education and understanding among the Australians who play, administer and watch our sports.”
However, while sporting bodies such as Football Australia have openly supported the referendum, some Indigenous stakeholders believe the sport’s national governing body is limiting their ability to organize their own teams and events, thereby limiting their self-determination.
On March 17, the Australian Indigenous Football Council (AIFC) called on FIFA’s commitment to human rights to allow first nations bodies self-determination and control of their football futures. They argue that FIFA has the obligation to uphold all internationally recognized human rights, including the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
FIFA, which does not have a liaison officer to engage with indigenous people, ignored the letter.
Meanwhile, New Zealand’s football association has taken more steps to engage with its Indigenous peoples. The Maori Football Aotearoa (MFA) — Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand — hold North vs South matches each year, while men’s national-team captain Winston Reid is an ambassador of the program.
While Football Australia is attempting to engage with indigenous rights by advocating for the Voice referendum and by lobbying FIFA to fly First Nation flags, there remains a concern that the governing body is attempting to take control of indigenous football programs, a process akin to modern-day colonialism.
“We don't want to have to go to Football Australia and go - ‘Oh, please, can we can we play against the New Zealand Maori?’” Lawrence Gilbert, the chairman of the AIFC, told Forbes. “We own the Australian teams built from the indigenous communities from the bottom-up and we'll continue to self-determine our own footballing future.”
There is also cause for concern that Australia, whose global reputation on human rights suffered from the government’s failure to address longstanding abuses against First Nations people, will spotlight Indigenous rights as a form of public relations and soft power strategy with the intention of improving the country’s image abroad without implementing any meaningful change.
The Australian government’s Sports Diplomacy 2030 initiative reflects these ideas, emphasizing the government’s awareness that sports can advance national interests. The document includes a section on “Sports as a Diplomatic Asset,” which states:
“Sports diplomacy is an increasingly important aspect of diplomatic practice. Australia’s region, the Indo-Pacific, is a dynamic environment and changing in profound ways. Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper confirms that “in the decades ahead Australia will have to work harder to sustain our influence and secure our interests”. Sport is one of Australia’s key soft power assets and can play a leading role in strengthening partnerships and promoting our national brand.”
First Nation flags flying at the 2023 World Cup symbolize changing times, but true change lies in governments heeding Indigenous voices fighting for self-determination and freedom to shape their destinies—without it, the gesture remains mere public relations.
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