Have you heard the one about the Jew and the Muslim? At Coburg it's no joke. Already a club with a reputation for promoting multiculturalism, the Lions took things one step further last week when they signed forward Jake Lew from amateur club AJAX.
Lew is Jewish, and is set to line up next year in perhaps the most ethnically diverse forward line ever assembled. Lew's signature follows that of former St Kilda goalsneak Ahmed Saad, a Muslim, who returns to state ranks to play alongside mates Danny Younan and Ozgur Uysal. Younan was born in Australia to a Lebanese mother and Syrian father, while Uysal is a Turk. The Lions' forward line also includes Lech Featherstone, who as detailed last year in Pssst, was named after a Polish union leader of the 1980s.
Lew, 24, played TAC Cup football for the Sandringham Dragons, and had the chance to graduate to the the VFL's Zebras. Turned off by the club's "vibe", he decided to head to the VAFA's Jewish club, where he kicked 320 goals from 103 games, and topped the goalkicking in B Grade this year.
But he still had a yearning to see how far he could go with his football, and when contacted by Coburg in October he decided to take the plunge. Not that it was easy. "Leaving AJAX isn't like leaving any other club because of the community factor, and the fact they can't recruit outside the Jewish community. That played heavily on my mind," Lew said. "[But] I'd rather sleep happily in 10 years time having known that I gave it a crack." Growing up in what he describes as a "sheltered" Jewish community, Lew said he'd barely encountered a Muslim before. But his eyes and mind have been opened. "I must say the guys down there that are of [Muslim] descent are so nice and welcoming. I don't feel the difference at all, and everyone sort of embraces each other. It's not about where you come from. And they stress that. You walk in there and you don't feel like 'I'm a Jewish boy playing with Muslims', you're just playing footy together." Saad concurs. "It's the best thing about our game.
I wanted to become a multicultural ambassador for the AFL when I was playing because of that reason, to try and include everyone and try to prove this game that everybody could play and everybody loves it. It doesn't matter what nationality or race or religion you are, everyone can play together." Uysal, also Muslim, said he didn't know Lew was Jewish until questioned about it for the story. He credits coach Peter German for forging a strong culture.
Saad not sad
The fact of the matter is neither Saad nor Uysal wanted to be playing at Piranha Park next year. Having been re-drafted as a rookie by the Saints following his drug suspension, Saad was elevated onto the senior list before the season, and played the first four games of the year. But after struggling to make an impact at AFL level, he was dropped to the VFL. With the Saints' strong small forward stocks, he didn't get another look in, and was let go. Reflecting on his remarkable four-year AFL journey, Saad remains upbeat. "I'm a pretty positive person and I like to see the good things that come out of the bad stuff. It's been a long couple of years. I don't have any regrets. I always worked hard, and if I wanted to give up I would have given up when I got banned." He concedes he would have liked one last crack later in the year in the senior team, but understands why he wasn't afforded that chance. "That's footy. It's a pretty cut-throat industry."
He now wants to enjoy his footy again, believing he can play a role as a mentor at the standalone Lions. "I thought Coburg was a great fit. It's down the road from me and a great club and the culture's great and it looks like it's going in the right direction. If I can help them develop on and off the field and help younger guys coming through and pass on the experience that I've learnt." Midfielder Uysal, 23, had been talked up as a potential draftee this year, and he admits he was more confident than in the past after speaking to multiple clubs. Yet despite again being overlooked, Uysal's flame of hope is yet to be extinguished. "Pretty much every year I'm getting the same look I guess. I'm going to keep trying." He looks at former Coburg teammates Adam Saad and Michael Hartley, and ex-Williamstown and now Richmond midfielder Adam Marcon as proof that chances can still come after repeated disappointments.