No A-League experience, no worries: Sabit Ngor's unique Finland adventure
With only twelve professional football clubs in Australia, young Australian talent must remain patient for professional opportunities in their backyard. Whilst some clubs thrive by giving local youngsters minutes and scholarship contracts, like Adelaide United and the Central Coast Mariners, many talents remain sidelined on the bench, itching to impress their managers.
The A-League Men is viewed as a building block for Australian talent to start their promising careers, shown through players like Aaron Mooy, Connor Metcalfe, Keanu Baccus, Riley McGree, and others all coming from the league before taking the opportunity with both hands overseas.
Ever since the pandemic hit, A-League Men teams have given young players increased minutes than the pre-COVID norm. But as each match day passed this season, certain clubs and managers neglected talent in their backyard. As a result, many Australians have or are looking overseas for a professional opportunity.
Players like 22-year-old Sabit Ngor are examples of how young Australian players are skipping the A-League Men queue to grasp the chance at a professional contract in Europe - before it's too late.
Ngor, who lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for over ten years, moved to Melbourne in his early teenage years and signed for Western United in 2021. He stayed until earlier this year, featuring for their NPL side over 30 times and making his professional debut against the Wellington Phoenix in the Australia Cup in December 2021.
Despite an impressive spell for Western's NPL team, consistently knocking on the first-team door, the Australia Cup appearance was Ngor's only professional match during his time at the club. Earlier this year, the Kenya-born attacker had an unsuccessful trial with the Newcastle Jets, prompting him to search for a professional contract overseas.
In February, Ngor received an opportunity to have a two-week trial for Finnish top-tier side Ilves FC, based in Tampere. After a successful audition, Ngor signed his first professional contract without playing a second of A-League Men's football.
Ngor isn't the only Australian who has moved from its lower tiers - the semi-professional National Premier Leagues - to become a professional overseas. Michael Glassock, formerly with Sydney Olympic last season, plays professionally in Malaysia. Hassan Jalloh is a professional in the Icelandic first tier, having moved from APIA Leichhardt in 2022.
Despite having to search abroad for a contract, leaving family and friends behind, the opportunity to train and play in a professional, high-pressure environment hasn't made Ngor worry too much about settling into a completely different country on the other side of the world.
"For me, it was easy to settle in Finland because I knew what I came here to do," Ngor told Front Page Football recently.
"I didn't pay any attention to any potential difficulties that would come up. I knew I had an opportunity to play professional football, and that was all I focused on.
"Overall, I recommend Finland to young players in Australia. It is a really good league, and there are a lot of opportunities [for] younger players. You can really learn a lot here, and I think it's a great league to start playing professionally."
Ngor also advised other youngsters putting in the hard yards in the NPLs to be patient for their first professional opportunity.
"Continue to work hard, and someone else will see your hard work. There are a lot of opportunities out there, so I just say, keep putting in the work, and someone will see you," he said.
Ngor's story is particularly unique because the attacker not only moved from the NPL to a top-tier European competition but is playing in a league that isn't the most recognised across Europe. However, he is getting valuable minutes. It raises the question of whether young Australian talents are making the most intelligent career moves at an early age.
Think Alou and Garang Kuol, owned by Stuttgart and Newcastle, respectively, or previously, Daniel Arzani's Manchester City move. They either are not or did not work out, and leagues such as the Veikkausliiga may be the best stepping stones for young Aussies to scratch the European surface.
The Finnish top tier isn't entirely foreign to Australian footballers, too. Former Melbourne Victory and Newcastle Jets left-back Dylan Murnane spent some time in Finland, including a stint at arguably the country's biggest club HJK Helsinki. Last season, Tete Yengi, the younger brother of Western Sydney Wanderers forward Kusini Yengi, scored over ten goals in all competitions for Finnish side Vaasan Palloseura. After returning to England, Yengi went on loan to League Two side Northampton Town and recently celebrated the club's promotion to the third tier, League One.
Whether Australian talent should explore other non-mainstream avenues into Europe remains a prevalent debate, especially for players from the NPL system.
At the moment, Ngor is enjoying an exciting time at Ilves, having scored two goals in five games whilst also making his Veikkausliiga debut two weeks ago. He has played an average of 73 minutes per match and started back-to-back games, suggesting the Finnish club has confidence in his ability.
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Despite promising early numbers in his debut European season, the different playing styles and rapid speed were two things Ngor immediately noticed when he first arrived and trained in the Nordic country. It made him realise the true competitive nature of professional football.
"The speed of the game in Finland is very quick," Ngor said when describing Finnish football.
"The ball movement is very quick here; there are a lot of one-touch plays [compared to Australia]. I have found it to be more physical as well. There is a lot of quality in Finland. When I came over here for the first time, I was amazed at how quick the passing was and the speed of the game. I didn't see anything like it before."
In an article on the official Veikkausliiga website, Ngor spoke more about his adaptation in Finland.
"[The adaptation to the team] has gone really well. I get along with everyone, we joke, and we have become very familiar," he said.
Ngor is the only Australian footballer playing in the Finnish top tier. But he isn't the only Aussie overseas who did not get a chance back home. Stories like Ngor's can only become more prevalent with only twelve professional clubs in Australia. Playing in Europe has many benefits. This trend will only grow should some A-League Men sides continue to be reluctant to give young players the valuable minutes they need to develop.
Sabit Ngor will next be in action when Ilves take on SJK Seinäjoki in round six of the 2023 Veikkausliiga season, with kick-off at midnight AEST time this Sunday.
Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of Aussie footballers overseas!