From left field: Former refugee Aliir Aliir is tipped for big things as a defender for the Swans. Photo: Anthony JohnsonHe has a smile that’s hard to miss and it has hardly left his face since he was named to play his first competitive match for the Swans, against West Coast in a pre-season hit-out at Blacktown International Sportspark on Thursday night.
Aliir Aliir was still getting over marking up on Lance Franklin in a recent intra-club match when he was named in John Longmire’s squad for the round-two NAB Challenge clash. It has given him confidence; knowing he is on the right track on an unusual football path. It suggests he could play a role for the senior Swans during the premiership.
”It was a big moment in my life, going from watching Buddy on TV, kicking five or six goals, to matching up on him. I couldn’t believe it,” the 196-centimetre 19-year-old says.
”I was pinching myself and just saying ‘You’re playing on Buddy’. He was really helpful, helping me with what to do, talking me through it. He was trying to play well but also coaching me through. There are a lot of players at the club who help out when we’re doing drills. It’s what I want. I listen to them because they’ve played a lot of games and they know what to do.
”I’m new to playing the defensive role but I think I did what they wanted me to. But it doesn’t stop here just because they’re giving me a run in this match.”
If it did all stop here, Aliir’s story would already qualify as remarkable. He was born in Kenya to Sudanese parents, who brought Aliir and his younger brother to Australia as refugees in 2003.
The family spent time in Sydney and Newcastle and settled in Brisbane. Early in high school, he says, a friend invited him to training at an Australian rules club near his house. ”That weekend I was watching footy and I saw a player take a speccy,” he says. ”The first thing I asked the coach when I went back was ‘Are you allowed to do that?’ He said ‘You can do that as much as you can – as long as you take the mark’. So when I played again, all I was doing was sitting on people’s heads, taking hangers. That’s how I really got into it. That’s what I like about the game.”
Aliir was selected in the Queensland under-16s. From there it was suggested he play in the world team at the national championships, coached by Michael O’Loughlin.
”I thought it would be good because I’d get to go to Sydney and Melbourne and stay in hotels and stuff,” he says, flashing a broad smile. ”We lost all our games but I made some friends that I’ll have for life.”
He played for the world team the following year, too, and had the extraordinary experience of meeting a cousin he didn’t know he had. It led to his family moving to Perth to reunite with other family members. Aliir stayed in Brisbane, but went west after missing out in the national draft.
His brother urged him to play Australian football again. He joined East Fremantle and, this time, was taken up as the No.44 pick by Sydney. The Swans coaches see Aliir as a strong and tall defender who can provide rebound from the back. His rise could provide a replacement for defenders Ted Richards or Heath Grundy when the time is right.
”I still really can’t believe it,” he says. ”I’m still new to the game, new to the club and I’m learning new things every day. All the boys and the coaches have been very good to me … They’re helping me be a better person and football player, too. I’m loving it.”