Garang Kuol’s aunty is counting down the minutes and hours until she sees her nephew play at the World Cup again.
The 18-year-old, who is the youngest Socceroo since Harry Kewell in 1996, has a fervent following at his home town of Shepparton in northern Victoria, where the community is gathering on Saturday night for the second group-stage match.
Agoness Kuol has watched her nephew grow up to play at the highest level, and she says his family and the South Sudanese community in Shepparton could not be prouder.
“He makes us so happy. It makes us feel like we can fly, watching him play at the World Cup. And [we’re] so happy for his parents, who worked so hard for this.
“He has always, always loved playing football, since he was in kindergarten. But he’s a good boy, he would come with us to church and would always stay with his family.”
The South Sudanese community has been growing in Shepparton, where just over 17% of the population were born overseas, compared with 12.4% for regional Victoria.
The communities have created spaces for themselves, including the South Sudanese community, which will host a viewing party of the next Socceroos match at St Paul’s African House.
Kuol says there will be food and dancing before the match, which begins at 9pm local time, and that the community is celebrating no matter the result.
“We are a very connected community here. We’re around 40 families and we all know each other. We all know Garang as well and we will be praying for him.
“He’s representing Australia, but also Shepparton and also South Sudan. He has three teams, three groups behind him. And we’re all so proud of him.”
Kuol was born in Egypt after his family fled Sudan. They moved to Australia as refugees before settling in Shepparton and becoming part of the fabric of the community there.
Khadiga Abdalla will be cooking a series of traditional dishes for the viewing party at St Paul’s African House.
“Everyone is very excited, we’ve been working hard to prepare,” she says. “We’re always told we need more chairs, more food because more people are coming. But who knows what will happen in the match.
“Saturday night is for everyone – mums, dads, kids, we’re all going to be there. No one would miss Garang at the World Cup.”
Abdalla says her own children know Garang, making their pride in Garang’s achievements all the more powerful.
“We’re all one family, together. My kids have been so excited, they didn’t sleep for days before the last match, and they can’t wait for the second one.
“He’s playing for all Australian and African kids.”
One of Kuol’s early coaches at the Gosford Suns, Craig Carley, tells the Guardian that watching the youngster play at the World Cup gives him goosebumps.
“Every single time I’ve seen Garang on TV, it makes the hairs on my arm stand up, because I know how exciting he is. And I know how proud he has made people.
“He plays with no fear,” Carley says. “It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest what he’s achieved … I know he can play at the highest level.”
Shepparton has been represented in the Socceroos before – by Robert Enes in the 1990s – but there hasn’t been a player to break through the ranks from the town since.
Kuol’s rise, which has now included being snapped up by English Premier League club Newcastle, has brought a sense of excitement to the town.
“We pride ourselves on being the regional sporting capital of Australia,” the Shepparton mayor, Shane Sali, says.
“And to have someone from our own backyard, who has grown up here playing in the junior ranks, and now on the international stage, is just something special.”
Sali is adamant Kuol should start Australia’s second group game after coming off the bench in the loss to France on match-day one.
“For them to win, he needs to start. You’ve got to buy into the excitement he brings, and fingers crossed he starts a lot earlier.
“He’s a generational talent. Get him on early. We’re all behind him.”