Extraordinary story melts Australia
FROM their early years in Kenya, to a shared childhood in suburban Adelaide, to the A-League and then the Socceroos, Thomas Deng and Awer Mabil have plenty of history in common.
On Tuesday (AEDT), in the unlikely venue of Kuwait City, the pair of South Sudanese refugees etched out a splendid new chapter together, debuting on the same night for Australia.
Graham Arnold handed the pair of next-gen Socceroos their first taste of international football in Australia's 4-0 defeat of Kuwait.
And when Mabil put the icing on the cake for Australia, scoring the evening's fourth goal from a move that Deng started, fittingly his great mate was there first to embrace him.
The pair couldn't stop smiling after the game despite their exertions on a humid night.
"It's a dream come true," Deng said.
How far away this night must have felt, back in Andrews Farm nine years ago, when the pair first met through their shared love of the sport. "We went to the same school. We played at the same club that I played at, called Playford," Deng said. "We go way back.
"To come through and get our debut on the same day, it's surreal. It's amazing." Mabil, who graduated from Adelaide United to Denmark's FC Midtjyllaand three years ago, said Deng's presence calmed him as he prepared to strike for his goals.
"When I saw him there, there's no nerves because he's behind me," he said. "It made it easier with Thomas there.
"It was a big dream for us to make our debut and especially on the same day. It's something I will never forget.
"We will tell our grandkids one day."
Upping the feel-good factor behind the pair is their leap from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Both Deng, 21, and Mabil, 23, found themselves in Australia after their families sought refuge from the conflict in Sudan.
Mabil was born in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya while Deng spent his earliest years in nearby Nairobi, before both settled in South Australia.
Arnold was adamant their debuts came not through goodwill but hard work.
"They deserve it. It's reward for the good kids who are coming through … those kids came on and did a great job," he said.
Deng, who will return to Melbourne immediately to play in Saturday night's Melbourne derby, said first he had to make some calls.
"I'll probably call my mum first and foremost and thank her for all the years that she's been taking me to training," Deng said.
"It's finally paid off I guess. I'm very happy."
5 TAKEAWAYS FROM AUSTRALIA VS KUWAIT
Arnie remains a ruthless winner
After two years of domination at Sydney FC, Graham Arnold has continued his winning ways at the international level. Sterner tests lay ahead but Australia's rout of Kuwait was comprehensive, with only poor decision making with the final ball denying the Socceroos a larger margin. Arnold can be rightfully delighted by the showings of many players, led by Tom Rogic and Massimo Luongo.
Rogic is Australia's special one
The Celtic playmaker was in a league of his own at Kuwait Sports Club, baffling opponents with his touch, movement and passing. There's no one near him in the Socceroos set-up when the 25-year-old is on song. Promised extra freedom by Arnold, it's clear that Rogic is Australia's Asian Cup chief creative weapon.
Wanted: One striker
Apostolos Giannou might have scored but the Cyprus-based forward was far from ruthless against a poor defence. Given the questions over Tomi Juric's commitment to structure without the ball, it may be that Arnold continues his search for a striker for the Asian Cup elsewhere. Jamie Maclaren to start against South Korea?
Kruse has a Socceroos future
So often the whipping boy in poor Australia performances, Robbie Kruse showed why he keeps getting picked by Socceroos coaches. The 30-year-old worked his socks off, tracked back and looked dangerous going forward. He might have missed a good chance to score but set up Australia's opener, rebounding from a disappointing World Cup in style.
A special night for Deng and Mabil
Every now and then sport throws up a story to weaken the most hardened heart. And the latest involves Awer Mabil and Thomas Deng. The pair's families sought refuge from the deadly Sudanese conflict in South Australia a decade ago, where Mabil and Deng became great mates kicking a ball around in a park. Now they've both represented Australia. How's that for a story?