Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

Migrant talent holds key to sporting successes

The ethnically diverse and thriving Central United soccer club should be seen as a model for sports bodies, say experts, who warn that coaches will ignore newcomers' contributions to their own detriment.

Takuya Iwata, 29, who plays for Central United FC. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Takuya Iwata, 29, who plays for Central United FC. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Central United Football Club started in 1962 as a soccer organisation for people of Slavic origins - but fast forward to 2012, and the same club that won the Chatham Cup for the fifth time did so with a squad that had members from seven nations.

Club president Ivan Vuksich says the win, the fifth Chatham Cup title in the last 15 years, has made Central United "one of the greatest local clubs" and attributed it to its ability to attract migrant talent.

Vuksich said the club had been "pretty mediocre" for the first three decades, and really started to excel only after opening itself up to players of other nationalities.

"We couldn't have done it without our global players and I think Central would have fallen by the wayside if we had stuck to the principle that we are a club for just Croatians," Vuksich said.

"What makes Central great, I think, is its ability to spot skills and talent from players among the migrant communities, and make them feel at home once they get here."

In the finals last month Central thrashed Lower Hutt 6-1 with a team that had players from Asia, South America and Britain, with just two who are of Croatian origin, including its All Whites captain Ivan Vicelich.

Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley, who co-authored a report with Catherine Taiapa on sport and cultural diversity for the Auckland Regional Physical Activity and Sport Strategy, said unlike the first wave of migrants from the Pacific, those who came in the recent wave of Asian migration were not likely to feature in mainstream sports like rugby.

However, a more global sport like soccer and other non-traditional sports like table tennis and badminton will benefit.

Recent immigrant Takuya Iwata, 29, who used to play semi-professional soccer in second division J-League club FC Gifu, said he didn't understand the game of rugby.

But he was keen to continue playing soccer here and turned up at Central's Kiwitea St headquarters in April asking if he could play there.

Club spokesman Steve Vuksich said Iwata "was an amazing find" and featured as a defender in the cup-winning side last month.

Iwata said the cosmopolitan nature of the club had also made him feel comfortable playing for Central.

"I speak little English, many other players also speak little English, so I am comfortable," he said.

"We communicate on the field with our feet and after games we are like a family at the clubhouse, where we speak our little English but still understand each other."

Professor Spoonley said sports played a critical role in "defining New Zealandness" and created a sense of nation and nationality.

"The 1905 All Blacks began the mythology and sense of identity that has been associated with the national game."

Migrants from the Pacific gained acceptance from wider New Zealanders only after being seen to be contributing to national sports like rugby, rugby league and netball, he said.

Pacific sportspeople had become key players or captains in national teams, including Bernice Mene, Michael Jones, Beatrice Faumuina and Jonah Lomu.

Pacific migrants continue to feature strongly in the All Blacks, including Joe Rokocoko (Fiji) and Mils Muliaina (Samoa).

However, Professor Spoonley said the country's main sports in terms of national identity derived from British imperial connections and were not sports that were traditionally played by the new wave of migrants.

"Asians more generally had no history of participating in those sports that were and are dominant in New Zealand," he said.

"They are often bemused by the culture and rules associated with these sports, and are put off by the physicality of rugby or rugby league."

He said while there may be an Asian All Black some time in the future, Asian migrants will be more likely to feature in the All Whites.

"There are a growing number of Asian players beginning to emerge and if the trajectory of Pacific players in rugby and league are emulated by Asians, then they will become a more obvious presence in football in the 21st century," Professor Spoonley said.

Kiwi Asians were also starting to feature strongly in sports that New Zealand had not traditionally been good at, such as table tennis and golf.

Local Asian sports stars include South Korean-born golfers Lydia Ko, who is the top-ranked amateur after becoming the youngest woman to win the LPGA Tour, and Danny Lee, the youngest winner of the US Amateur Championship in 2008.

The other is Li Chunli, an immigrant from China, who won the gold medal in table tennis at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

Non-Asian migrants who play in national teams include the Silver Ferns' South African-born Irene van Dyk and Liana de Bruin, and the Tall Blacks' American-born Casey Frank.

Professor Spoonley said the recent Olympics showed how important tapping into migrant sporting talent was to keep the country "shining on the world stage of sports".

The 2012 Kiwi Olympians included 27 on the team who were not born in New Zealand, including South Korean-born Robin Cheong (taekwondo), Indian-born Siona Fernandes (boxing), Croatian-born Marina Erakovic (tennis) and seven soccer players on both the men's and women's teams.

"While there was less likelihood for the newer immigrants to excel in rugby, there was a high chance they would win acceptance through performing well in other sporting events," Professor Spoonley said.

The sport and cultural diversity report warned that sports like rugby could suffer if they failed to engage with with the new immigrant communities.

"The projection is for the Asian population to reach 400,000 by 2016, and you just cannot continue to remain on top of the game by ignoring such a massive pool for talent," Professor Spoonley said.

Many sporting organisations here still do not fully understand the implications of the changing mix of immigrants, and is continuing to show a lack of interest in engaging minority communities, he said.

His report found some sporting organisations were "unwilling to strategise about or engage with immigrant communities" and few were even "hostile to expanding what they do" to include these communities.

Professor Spoonley said Central United should be seen as a model not just for other local sporting bodies, but also for national sports organisations in New Zealand.

Our Asian migrant hall of sporting fame

Born South Korea: Lydia Ko, golfer
Youngest person ever to win an LPGA Tour event
South Korea: Danny Lee, golfer
Youngest ever winner of US Amateur Championship in 2008
China: Li Chunli, table tennis
2002 Commonwealth Games gold medallist

Migrant Kiwi Olympians 2012

South Africa: Alexis Pritchard (boxing), Glenn Snyders (swimming), Moira De Villiers (judo), Vaughn Scott (taekwondo), Chris Harris (rowing)
Nigeria: Amaka Gessler (swimming).
South Korea: Robin Cheong (taekwondo)
England: Hayley Palmer (swimming), Jim Turner (sailing), Ria Percival (football), Susannah Pyatt (sailing), Anna Green (football), James Musa (football), Thomas Smith (football), John Storey (rowing)
India: Siona Fernandes (boxing)
USA: Jenny Bindon (football), Alexandra Riley (football), Rebecca Smith (football)
Denmark: Lina Villumsen (cycling)
Australia: Stephanie Hazard (sailing), Alana Millington (hockey), Mahe Drysdale (rowing)
Germany: Shane Smeltz (football)
Ireland: Sean O'Neill (rowing)
Croatia: Marina Erakovic (tennis)
Zimbabwe: Ryan Sissons (triathlon).

The series

The Immigration Act 1987 radically changed the criteria for migrant entry to New Zealand, resulting in a surge in people coming from non-traditional source countries. This week, the Herald looks at how these migrant communities have changed Auckland.

Monday: Population - the changes, and how comfortable are we?
Tuesday: Religion - Christianity vs new religions
Yesterday: Food - from cafe latte to teh tarik
Today: Sports - tapping migrant talent
Tomorrow: Festivals - changing the way we celebrate.

- NZ Herald

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