By Lucas Radbourne-Pugh, Heidelberg Leader
SOME 12,501km separate the poor agricultural region of Jonglei in South Sudan and the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg.
It’s an entire world apart.
Yet, against all the odds, Kenjok ‘King Kenny’ Athiu couldn’t seem more at home at Heidelberg United’s Olympic Village.
In truth, “at home” is quite an understatement.
Athiu’s talismanic goal scoring skill and precocious work rate have seen him make the venue his own and he’s become a firm fan favourite among the Warriors faithful.
In the process, he’s become a flag-bearer for everything excellent soccer can offer in this country.
After a lightning recovery from an injury-plagued opening to 2016, the striker’s 17 goals in 22 appearances led the Bergers to a nailbiting, second-placed finish in the National Premier League Victoria, narrowly scuppering club rivals South Melbourne.
He’s also given the club its second golden boot contender in two seasons, following Daniel Heffernan’s 11-goal haul in a similarly interrupted 2015 campaign.
King Kenny would eventually finish third in the leading goalscorer race, having played three games fewer than the eventual winner.
For any NPL player this level of achievement, at just 23 years of age, would be noteworthy.
But, considering Athiu’s journey to get to this level, his story becomes nothing short of remarkable.
Leaving a nation torn apart by civil war as an 11-year-old, Athiu arrived in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne from a country where youth have no tangible route to fulfil their dreams. Yet soccer, as it does for young kids all across the world, allowed him an escape from daily life.
“There wasn’t much and we didn’t have much,” he recalls. “You just go to school and it was easy to get lost, I guess.
“You would always see people stealing or just wasting their life.
“I played football since I was six and that was what distracted me from losing focus. Growing up I always wanted to play for Arsenal, now I’m a little more realistic, but I still aim to be a professional footballer.”
Athiu is, understandably, eager to promote the game as a bridge between cultures, and between people.
“It’s helped me one hundred per cent,” he said. “Through football you can get to know someone in a different way. You can see them across the street and just go over and say ‘Hi’, but you can’t really know each other that well.
“It’s helped me to adapt to knowing where everybody comes from and to understand people better.”
While soccer has offered Athiu a fundamental aspiration and a sense of connection in Australia, it is what Athiu can offer Australian soccer that is perhaps more exciting.
“Yeah, obviously I have (A-League ambitions),” he said. “As a soccer player you always want to push yourself to go as far as you can. I’d love to go to that next level and see how I can compete with those professional players.”
Despite his talent, playing time was hard to come by last season. And, at a young age, this would have been hard for a prodigious talent to deal with.
For any young striker, self-confidence is all-important.
For a young man with a refugee background growing up in Melbourne, this confidence is essential.
“I never doubted my ability,” he said. “I came here to train with the boys and, obviously, there are a lot of good players at this club. But, I could match it with any of them. I just had to work and wait for my opportunity.
“(South Sudanese Australians) have faced a lot of challenges. On television you always see a lot of negative things about the South Sudanese community. I know a lot of it isn’t true but it’s hard if you’re new to the country and people are always saying negative things about you, you think that they hate you.
“But that’s the media that plays it’s role, and it’s not really as bad as it may look.”
Athiu’s future is bright.
In South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, heroes are there for the making and there’s nothing stopping one hero in Heidelberg becoming a hero for a 12 million soccer-mad population.
One thing’s for sure. It’s going to take a lot to stop someone who has come this far.