Submitted by Peter Blucher
Aliir Aliir knows the value of patience. He’s had to. But it will all be rewarded today when he plays his 100th AFL game.
It’s a huge moment in the most unlikely of football journeys. Born in a Kenyan refugee camp to South Sudanese parents before escaping his troubled homeland for the sanctuary of Australia, Aliir has walked a football path from Kedron High School to Aspley, made a brief stop in Perth, begun his AFL career in Sydney and now finds himself playing for Port Adelaide in Adelaide.
The now 27-year-old will become the 55th Queensland football product to play 100 games when on Sunday he joins Port in a critical game against Fremantle in Perth. And the first with any sort of story like his.
Aliir had an early introduction to the tough realities of AFL football when he was overlooked in his first year in the draft in 2012 after coming through the AFL Queensland talent pathway.
He’d done it tough, electing to stay in Brisbane to follow his football dream when his mother moved the family to Perth to reunite with her sister, who had also escaped Sudan.
Recruiters recognised his athletic prowess and potential, but he was raw. Not surprising given he’d never kicked an AFL football until he was 14.
With the strong pull of family, he moved west in 2013 and played with East Fremantle in the WA Colts competition. He had a major change in role, switching to defence after playing his early years as a ruckman because of his extraordinary athletic talents.
With an extra year of football behind him, he built on the impression he’d left with recruiters in the 12 months previous and was one of seven Queensland football products drafted in 2013.
Aliir was the first of them, taken by Sydney at #44 in the National Draft. He was followed by Jono Freeman, taken at #62 by Brisbane, before five local products got their chance via the Rookie Draft – #6 Isaac Conway (Brisbane), #7 Charlie Cameron (Adelaide), #9 Fraser Thurlow (Essendon), #63 Jarred Ellis (Gold Coast) and #69 Archie Smith (Brisbane).
It’s been a mixed crop. Aliir and Cameron have both won All-Australian selection and remain standout players in the AFL today, Freeman (14 games) and Smith (16 games) had a taste of it, and Conway, Thurlow and Ellis didn’t play at senior level.
Aliir’s 12-month wait to be drafted was nothing compared to the wait to his AFL debut. He spent 2014-15 learning his trade with the Swans Reserves before finally getting his AFL chance in Round 6 2016.
Ironically, his debut was against Brisbane at the Gabba as fellow Queenslander Ben Keays debuted for the home side. Aliir had six disposals and Keays 11 disposals and a goal as the Swans won by three points.
On the same weekend Marcus Bontempelli, pick #4 in the same draft as Aliir, played his 43rd game. He’d already finished third in the Western Bulldogs’ 2015 B&F and was on his way to winning the same award in 2016.
Aliir played 13 games in his first season, only three in an injury-plagued second season, and followed with 12-22-14 in 2018-19 and the Covid-shortened season of 2020.
Suddenly he was hot property. And with the Swans facing salary cap problems he was traded to Port Adelaide for a second-round pick, used by the Swans to secure Errol Gulden, and signed a lucrative four-year deal with the Power.
It’s been a double win for Port. The bargain pick-up has over-delivered, winning All-Australian selection and finishing third in the Power B&F in a brilliant 24-game campaign, and after an injury-plagued start to the 2022 season has confirmed his standing as one of the premier attacking defenders in the competition.
Aliir will be the 37th player from he 2013 Draft to reach 100 games, with Bontempelli leading the way with 184 games, but, significantly, Aliir is only of only eight from the Class of 2013 to win All-Australian selection. The others have been Bontempelli, Carlton captain Patrick Cripps, Essendon ball magnet Zach Merrett, GWS co-captain Josh Kelly, Cameron, Port teammate Darcy Byrne-Jones and Adelaide’s Matt Crouch.
Following a path blazed at North Melbourne by Majak Daw, the AFL’s first Sudanese player, Aliir was the first Sudanese player to win All-Australian honors. And, in the week in which Daw announced his retirement after 54 AFL games, he will be the first Sudanese player to 100 games.
But he won’t be the last. Mabior Chol has played 45 games with Richmond and Gold Coast and is bound for triple figures, Changkaith Jiath is a rising 33-game star at Hawthorn, and Buku Khamis is a likely talent at the Bulldogs.
And yet to play in the AFL are two Sudanese products drafted in the first round of the 2021 National Draft – Gold Coast’s Mac Andrew (#5) and GWS’ Leek Aleer (#15).
Peter is a consultant for Vivid Sport