Olyroos captain challenges nation: Foster

Thomas Deng (right) will captain the Olyroos in their crucial Olympic Group match against Egypt.
Thomas Deng (right) will captain the Olyroos in their crucial Olympic Group match against Egypt.

Former Socceroo Craig Foster believes Thomas Deng's journey from a Kenyan refugee camp to leading Australia's men's football team at the Tokyo Olympics highlights the "confronting dichotomy" of the nation's attitude towards refugees.

Deng has been a key figure in Australia's Olympic campaign, putting in a man-of-the-match display in the shock 2-0 win over Argentina to start the tournament.

The 24-year-old was again impressive as Australia came up agonisingly short in a 1-0 loss to Spain on Sunday night.

Deng will lead his nation in Wednesday's final group match against Egypt, where a draw against the Young Pharaohs will be enough to put Australia into the quarter-finals.

Deng is not the first African-born athlete to lead a major Australian sporting team, with Zambian-born former Wallabies captain George Gregan the obvious example.

While Gregan's family emigrated to Australia when he was two years old, Deng was born in Nairobi to South Sudanese parents who had fled the conflict in that country before eventually being resettled in Adelaide.

Foster says Deng's status as the first athlete with a refugee background to lead an Australian sporting team at a major international tournament is a deserved personal honour, but one that also raises questions about the country's attitudes towards refugees.

"Thomas Deng is an outstanding footballer and young leader first and, if he chooses, last," Foster told AAP.

"As we explore the meaning of his elevation in Australian life through sport, let's keep in mind that Thomas will choose his own meaning and how he expresses his inspiring life story.

"For the rest of us, though, he offers a confronting dichotomy.

"The story of the acceptable refugee who makes his or her way in Australian society through sport, or other fields, and allows us to cleanse our conscience of what we are committing to others without Thomas's gifts, or those of Majak Daw, Laszlo Urge (Les Murray), Ahn Do or Harry Triguboff, for example."

A respected refugee advocate, Foster says Deng's elevation is however a chance for Australia to adjust their attitudes towards those fleeing conflict, natural disaster or persecution in their homelands.

"Let's take the ball away for a moment, and just see the young man," Foster said.

"He is like so many others.

"And through the power of sport and the achievements of an amazing young South-Sudanese Australian who stirs pride in us all when he strides the field in the Australian armband, perhaps we can finally understand that every refugee has a right to play their own game."

Australian Associated Press