A Conversation with Tando Velaphi
by Robert Wood
Tando Velaphi is a professional football player. He has lived in Perth, Melbourne, and Japan, and is currently part of the A-League in Australia. Tando comes from a mixed race household, and, grew up aware of his ancestral countries and traditional cultures.
He spends his time at the beach, travelling, and thinking about diplomacy through sport, especially in the Asian region.
Tando talks to us about heritage, Japan, and FIFA’s Asian Confederation.
I want to focus our conversation on sport, on being mixed race, and on identity. In that way, I think that some of the most interesting cultural expressions of belonging, of home, of migration happen because of sport. So let me start by asking, how did you end up playing football with Perth Glory?
I grew up in Perth throughout my childhood. My mum is Japanese and my dad’s from Zimbabwe. I always followed the club, and, it was mainly my dad who steered me towards playing football. Mum was always pretty open-minded about playing sport, but dad always had a passion for football and pointed me in that direction. I came through the ranks – a local club in West Perth then at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) when I was seventeen, which opened a lot of doors for me. After that, I was signed by Perth Glory when I was nineteen. That was my first professional contract and I spent four and a half years at the club. I moved around a bit, and came back in June 2018.
Like you said, you come from a mixed race family and have Japanese and Zimbabwean parents. Tell me about where they come from and how you feel connected to those ancestral places, if at all?
Mum is from Japan and she moved here when she was 24-25 as a student on exchange. I think initially her plan was to see what Australia was about, but she never really left. On the flipside, dad is from Zimbabwe, and he was offered a scholarship because of the political complexity there at the time. With Australia being a Commonwealth country, the government here was offering respite and so he came to Perth. They met at an international students’ party and the rest is history. Since then, it has been a family home that welcomes all different backgrounds. Dad will make his African food, and, we will watch Japanese television shows, and, at the same time I play football, which is global. It was a blended childhood and I was always thankful for that.
While we are on that, do you identify as Asian, or Black, or neither, or both? Do you think there is a way to reconcile those aspects of heritage, or do you think one even need to?
I would say I feel both. But, that’s a hard question. I see myself as a human being first and foremost, and I enjoy all different cultures, not only mine. Growing up in Australia, it is quite a diverse society and you come across people from all sorts of backgrounds. In Perth, the Japanese and Zimbabwean communities aren’t huge and so you get to know people quite well.
You get a taste of both sides, but it’s a hard one. I resonate strongly with what African people go through because of my skin colour, and, at the same time I understand some of the stereotypes and negative attitudes towards Asian cultures. And, I’ve also been brought up in Australia where people can be insensitive to all kinds of people. I have a blend of all these things, so I kind of take on all these different qualities.
You get a taste of both sides, but it’s a hard one.
You don’t need to choose sides, and, that is a false premise when I am talking to mixed people. You can be both.
I genuinely feel that way. I have been influenced by the Japanese way of doing things, that Zen quality, that politeness, and, on the African side, I am quite happy relaxing and enjoying being around people and having a laugh. I think I take aspects from all my cultures and that’s nice.
That makes sense, and, also it seems fitting that you play football, which is so big in both places. It is the world game after all. How did you first get interested in it then?
Dad loved playing football. It opened doors for him when he came here, and, he met people because of it. After he started refereeing, it helped him integrate into Australia, and I was brought along that path with him. And, on the other side, the J League in Japan had a big growth period in the early 90s. When I was seven, mum brought me back memorabilia, and I got interested in what was happening over there, in Tokyo and other places. I always had an interest in sport, but football was always in the household a little bit more than others.
That is the quality of football too, that it is important in Africa and in Asia. Being a professional football player is something a lot of children aspire to. Can you talk about your first professional game and how you happened to realise a childhood dream?
I remember it quite well. I was 19. I had just left the AIS in Canberra in 2006, and after that I came back to Perth Glory. I was training with them with the idea that I would be signed for the next season. I had been there for two months and then I got a call from my old goalkeeper coach at the AIS. He said, there was a guy who was injured at Brisbane Roar, and could I come in and play? I said, look I am already at Perth Glory, and steering towards a contract there and I don’t want to mess anything up. He said, it will be for two weeks, come over, train, play and go back. I said no, and, I thought that was it.
But, the head coaches at Perth and Brisbane were friends, and the coach here said I should go play there. I got his blessing. That was on Tuesday afternoon. I got on the red-eye about five hours later. Flew over, signed a contract for one week, trained on Wednesday afternoon, flew out to Melbourne for the game on Thursday, played that Friday night against league leaders Melbourne Victory. It was at Telstra Dome in front of 35,000 people. It was pretty intimidating. I was thrown in the deep end for sure, but I held my own. We won that match 2-1. I made a few saves, and made a name for myself.
On Sunday, I flew back to Perth and was back training here on Monday. It was a whirlwind.
That is a whirlwind! You have had a long career since then too, fifteen years as a professional, which is really quite impressive. That includes time with the football club Shonan Bellmare in Japan. Tell us about that experience.
That was one of the best things I have ever done. I was very fortunate in that my club at the time, Melbourne City, let me go through with it. Everything came together, and, it is not always easy for transfers to come through. It was unbelievable. Everything I imagined it to be when I was seven years old, when my mum was bringing back merchandise, it was just amazing. The fans are fanatics, the league is so well organised, the players are technically impressive. It is a really great level to be involved in. In terms of football standards, it is one of the best leagues in Asia. At training, you would have hundreds of supporters showing up and giving you presents. That was absurd to me. In Australia, we only have a handful. Over there, in that environment, there is just so much exposure, and you have people asking for autographs on the street. And then it becomes normal. You go there and you see how pop stars, actors, idols, celebrities and athletes are treated. It was so different for me. That was fantastic.
Culturally, one of the best things for me was the language. I hadn’t used it a lot since I was in school. I had to use it a lot, and, it allowed me to communicate with so many people. Not simply at a basic level, but it opened the place up for me. There were avenues and perspectives, and, it just showed the country in a new way. I saw Japan in a new light and as a place I came from. And it also meant for my partner that she could follow on and she could see what was going on. It meant I could explain it to her and we could share in something that was familiar and different at the same time. By the end of it, she had an idea of what was happening and could speak quite well. It was a great experience for us, and, a wonderful place to be.
I always had an interest in sport, but football was always in the household a little bit more than others.
Did you feel a certain familiarity there as well? I went to India as a child, and, then went back as an adult. And it felt like I was re-connecting with myself, and, that it meant something new as I grew up.
Before I started living and playing in Japan I had been there four or five times. I knew how everything worked, how there are vending machines on every corner, and how there are 7/11s on every other corner, but it wasn’t a deep knowledge except inside me. I knew that Tokyo is a hustling bustling city that is out of control, and, then on the other side there is the traditional way of living with tatami floors and the peacefulness of the country. I had a pretty good picture of how the country operated and how everything worked. But actually living there, you get a sense of how hard it is as a Japanese person. Not everyone is wealthy, and, there are constraints. Society is pretty structured and anyone outside that structure finds it difficult. I was living as a foreigner, but I could also see inside it. I could look from the outside and I am also Japanese in some way. I didn’t have the expectations that a lot of Japanese people have, and, it was an eye opener for me to see that. There is a certain way of living in Japan and if you are not in that, it can be hard, not always, but sometimes.
I guess that also matters because your son was born there – tell us about becoming a father, especially in the country where your mum comes from and that you have roots in.
My partner became pregnant in Melbourne. When we realised we were moving to Japan, we realised that this baby was going to be born there. My mum was pretty excited. The people at the hospital were amazing. Her mum flew in, my mum flew in, and so we had my mum as a translator and she could help us through a lot of things. We will always have a connection to the country because of that experience. We also have a connection to the town we lived in, this town called Chigasaki. Even though my son has an Australian passport, it will always have his place of birth as Chigasaki. Mine will always say Perth, but that will always be his place. That is him. It is special because it connects us there, and, it will have an influence on him no matter what.
We have talked a lot about connections outside of Australia, especially Japan, but you have a strong relationship to Perth as well. You grew up here, you learnt your craft in the national capital, you lived in Melbourne for years, and, you have come back to the suburban dreamscape. Where do you see football in Australia right now, and, how does that reflect on the country at large?
One of the best things that happened to Australian football was in 2006 when we switched to the Asian confederation. Before that, to qualify for the World Cup, we used to go through Oceania and then play a South American team. Then it moved to qualifying through Asia. In a footballing sense, it was massive. It meant we got to play more high-quality games. It gave so many players here all kinds of opportunities. It allowed people to play in Asia, where foreigner restrictions were no longer applied.
Once we became an Asian country, it gave people access to new leagues – China, Qatar, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Indonesia. In terms of exposure and lifting the profile of the game, that was huge. And Asia is going to be the new powerhouse in terms of confederations. They have so much potential. Europe of course, for years and years, has mattered and will continue to. And in Africa there is pure talent and a passion for the game. Asia was a slow burn and now it is starting to take off. With all the investment they have from Japan and Dubai, these really rich countries, it can only benefit the game in Australia.
When I started playing professionally in 2006, there was not as much money, the profile was not as big. For us as professionals, we get better conditions, better pay, the set up here becomes more professional, more player welfare, and you can look at it like a long term profession rather than a game you do before you go and make a living doing something else. And that is because of Asia. Australians should recognise that, and, how important Asia is for us in football and everything else.
Once we became an Asian country, it gave people access to new leagues – China, Qatar, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Indonesia.
All of those things reflect geopolitics, from the Asian century in economic terms, but also in terms of identity. I think in that way, sport influences things and is a reflection of things.
Absolutely. It creates opportunities and is an avenue to explore relationships between Asia and Australia, absolutely. And as for my identity, it speaks to who I am in a deep and meaningful way.
I guess the other side of the conversation is about racism and prejudice. This is an ongoing part of football too, from recent news items about Italy in particular, to other kinds of harassment and prejudice. Can you speak about racism in the game?
First of all, football is the perfect vehicle to make people aware of what is out there in the world. It is evident that things are unfair, and unequal, and it is something that needs to be raised in sport and society as a whole. You can use football to raise awareness, and, to eradicate negative views. There are so many campaigns from FIFA to the Australian league. We can use what we do day to day to spread the message of equality. In that way, football is fantastic, and, we need to keep it moving in that direction. There are still problems, particularly in EuropeAs a whole, Australia can see football as a place where all these multicultural communities are meeting in good faith, and, we can take that into more of society. Football is a good example of how we can make that matter outside the game. That is important not only for Asian players, African players, but for all players at the end of the day. On the pitch we are united and we can take that message beyond football as well.
And finally, can you speak to us about the future you would like to create in the community, in Perth, in football and as an Asian Australian?
In terms of football, I would like to keep playing for another six or seven years. There are a lot of ifs, buts, and maybes, and you never know what will come up. Where I play, I am not sure. I would love to go back to Japan, or somewhere else in Asia, and explore that more. Being there for two years gave me a new perspective. Next time, it could be Japan or it could be Thailand or Indonesia or the Arab countries. You can always learn something new. As Australians, we are growing as a football country and that gives me an opportunity. I am very open, and, will wait for the best opportunity for myself and consider it with my family. After football, I would love to keep a connection with Japan and be a bridge between both places. We will see what happens, but I feel good about the future.