As a proud Muslim in the AFL, Bachar Houli knows what it’s like to receive hateful comments from fans. But the Tigers defender won’t let it “drown” him and says football is a job and a passion, but there are more important things that come first.
by Lauren Wood, July 19, 2019 – 11:30AM, Herald Sun
Bachar Houli would wait on the corner with his backpack jammed with footy gear. It was 2000, and he was playing under-11s local footy in the west and dominating.
The trouble was, his parents — Malek and Yamama — couldn’t know. The youngster kept things under wraps. It was better that way.
His parents, dedicated to their work and building a life in Australia, weren’t into footy. And after migrating to Australia to escape the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s, study was to be the focus.
Houli got away with it for a while with the support of one of his older brothers who had defied expectations to play local footy himself. Until best and fairest night.
“I was one of those kids that was pretending to go to the local park and having a kick with my friends in the neighbourhood, but I was going to training and then on the weekends you’d get up nice and early and get the coach to pick you up from the corner block,” Houli recalls.
“That’s where it got to. It was kind of a unique story, but you know what, sometimes you’ve got to take those risks. As an 11-year-old, you don’t know any better.
“The reality is, you respect your parents, but when your older brother talks to you, you respect him a little bit more, because you look up to them.”
A swag of trophies from the end-of-season function saw the subterfuge undone — the kid had talent.
“We were sitting in the lounge and everyone saw it — they weren’t too happy about it,” the Tigers defender says.
“My older brother was there and he said (to my parents), ‘You’ve got to allow him to be … you didn’t support us playing sport and it forced us to tell you lies and to not be direct with you’.
“It’s not harmful, it’s something that we really enjoyed doing, and there would have been common terms there.
“My parents were innocent, to an extent. They were working so hard and putting so many hours into work and trying to support seven of their loved ones … it was quite tough.”
They took some convincing, but with reassurance from family members and those in the local football community, soon realised that Houli’s talent could not be ignored. He could make something of his.
His father Malek slowly introduced himself to football, Houli says, and would “occasionally come and watch” between driving his cab around Melbourne.
“It was after two years that he fully supported what I was doing, and would take me to training, pick me up and he would stop his taxi for a week and come and support me interstate when I was playing in the national championships,” the 31-year-old says.
“By 14 and a half, he was fully embedded in it. Mum was supportive, but not one who would go and watch.
“She still had that bit of reservation. What helps when you get into a club culture is you meet parents, people from different backgrounds. And they’re there for the same purpose and that is to support their child in what they love doing.”
There was a promise when he was caught with the trophies — if he fell short at school, football could be ripped away.
His brother was a surgeon, Houli says, and had set a high standard. He also believes there was some reservation and nervousness about him fitting in.
“Arguably you could say it was an Anglo-Saxon sport at the time, and my brothers had it much worse,” he says.
“When I was going up, it had started to smooth out a bit, with a few other Middle Eastern kids. That sense of security was something (my parents) needed. If I let him go play, will he really get looked after, or is he going to get picked on because he kind of looks a little bit different?
“But for me, that was never a worry.”
Drafted by Essendon with pick 42 in the 2006 draft, the kid who snuck to Spotswood Football Club had made the big league. He was also determined to maintain his Muslim faith in football. It can be a difficult environment.
He had long admired now-wife Rouba Abou-Zeid — who was from a great family — from afar.
“She ticked all the boxes,” Houli says.
But tradition dictated certain protocols and it wasn’t going to be a quick process for the mature young man to get to know her.
He was nervous to approach her father, whose permission was required for any courtship to begin.
Their fathers would have to discuss the matter — “they do all the talking”.
“You depart from there and then she has a bit of time to think about it,” Houli explains.
“I was definitely nervous. He didn’t speak much English. I’m not the strongest person in terms of (speaking Lebanese) … I can speak it, but not really to their level.
“In my head it was all about preparing my speech and how I was going to talk and if I stuffed up this word or that word.”
A hunting trip followed soon after, which Houli jokes was an opportunity for a bit of sucking up.
“I was right behind him and if he needed something, I would bolt to go and get it to show him that I’m a good person,” he says.
“As you do, you’re trying to impress. It was pretty funny but it was about a four-week process and they accepted and the rest is history.”
Rouba isn’t that into footy. She grew up an Essendon fan, Houli says, but he liked that her interest in him was as a person.
And his love for her deepened when daughters Sarah, now 5, and Maryam, who is almost 2, came along.
“There’s then not only the love you have for your kids, but the appreciation that you have for those who deliver the kids — your wife, and then also your mother,” he says.
“And all the other mums that are working 24/7 for their kids. You feel gratitude for that.
It was very emotional, seeing what my wife went through… and then my mum was in the room at the same time.
“It was an opportunity to kiss her feet and say, ‘You know what, I never really appreciated this enough’ and never really showed that true gratitude to her.
“Ever since, I made a promise to myself that I will kiss their forehead and their feet — both Mum and Dad.
“Growing up, you take it for granted. You think it’s a given. It’s the appreciation — that’s what I’m trying to build in my girls.
“I just want my kids to grow up on that path.”
Houli’s dedication to his faith is evident every minute of the day, from something as simple as taking his girls to the park or spending time with Rouba. It’s all about bettering his relationships and himself as a person.
Football is his job and a passion, but it’s not top of the devout Australian-Muslim’s priority list day to day, which he isn’t afraid to admit.
“For me, I would say football is probably number three or four, to be quite honest,” he says.
“It’s important, because it’s your livelihood … but for me, it’s about having that great connection with a greater purpose in life.”
It helps with the game, too.
“It gets your mind off football. It’s a ruthless industry,” says Houli, who plays his 200th AFL game this month.
“When things aren’t going too well, you can definitely put yourself in a situation where some people can get depression or haven’t got another way out (because) football is everything to them.”
While football has come a long way in terms of acceptance and stamping out racism, Houli concedes there has been countless comments directed his way about his religion and incidents of abuse from fans, which he says he refuses to let affect him.
“I’ve had supporters make some comments, and I’m sure there’ll be people out there who will be great to you to your face and then behind your back they’re stabbing you with every single knife they have,” the premiership defender says.
“That’s the reality of life. We’re not going to be able to please everyone out there. But as long as you think and you feel like what you’re doing is right and sincere, then you can’t control everyone’s intention or thought or feeling.
“I don’t let it drown me. If someone says something … don’t get me wrong, it’s not nice, and you want to question why. Why do they think that way? Why do they say certain things?
“I think it’s just ignorance. That’s why I love my role in football. I’ve got an opportunity, and as the years have gone on, I’ve become more confident of who I am as an Australian-Muslim.
“It’s an opportunity for me to educate society. We get scrutinised and get generalised. That’s not the case. I want to prove to people that what I present to you is genuine. It’s pure.
“There are a lot of good Muslims out there and we need to hear them out and meet them.”
Ramadan — the Muslim month-long period of daylight fasting — can mean tweaks to training for elite athletes like Houli, but despite a few extra hours without food or drink thrown in thanks to the Tigers’ travelling schedule, it remains his favourite month on the calendar.
A trip to Perth in Round 8 and the subsequent time difference meant an added two hours of fasting for the defender, but he enjoys the “test of patience”.
“I wish people understood the true values and the true lessons out of fasting,” he says.
“I always try to tell my fellow teammates that it’s a process of self-control. Not eating or drinking really tests that.
“(Going to Perth) was a massive test. What doesn’t break you, makes you.
“The month of fasting is the greatest period all year round for me. I get to build so many true values away from football that I rate very highly, and it’s very important to me. It’s sadly missed. Everyone thinks, ‘hooray, it’s time to feast’ … but for me it’s sad.
“The true purpose of this month of fasting is self-reflection, and it’s about bettering yourself as an individual for the rest of the year.
“I’ve created good habits throughout that month and hopefully I can carry those habits throughout the rest of the year.”
Houli, who travelled to Christchurch in New Zealand in the wake of the March mass shooting at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre, is proud of his faith, with his highly successful Bachar Houli Programs receiving a $1.2 million boost from the Federal Government in March.
Richmond and Houli are planning to soon launch the Bachar Houli Foundation, which will be based at Punt Rd, with the Melbourne Cricket Club Foundation recently signing on as a founding partner.
A beneficiary will be the Bachar Houli Girls Leadership Program, which is in its second year, inspiring young Muslim women to become role models, while more than 5000 Islamic school students participated in the annual Bachar Houli Cup, helping to bring the code to more Aussie children.
The program endeavours to engage youth from Muslim backgrounds in a high-talent football program, but for Houli, it’s about much more than that.
He wants to encourage youth to be proud to be Australian-Muslims, even in the face of challenges.
“I’ve had my time, and I’m enjoying my time,” he says.
“And it’s time now to pass that valuable knowledge and information to those that are younger than me, and hopefully they can follow into my footsteps and far greater.
“We just give them the information — respect, making better decisions, and taking football seriously — and try to be the role models for them, and let it be. Hopefully they can change their lives.
“We’re not going to affect all 25 (in the program), but if we can plant the seed in all 25, it’s up to them to keep watering it.
“And you don’t know where it can flourish.”