"The history of football is the history of Australia."
So says Socceroos legend and human rights activist Craig Foster.
Foster, who was named NSW Australian of the Year for his refugee advocacy, told AAP the stories of football and immigration in Australia have followed the same trajectories.
Exemplified by the Socceroos' golden generation of the 2000s, which included the likes of Mark Viduka, Mark Bresciano and Tony Popovic, football's greatest successes both on and off the pitch have come as a result of its diverse heritage.
"Australia has come to realise that actually, the game of football has integrated and united all of our multicultural communities in a way like no other," Foster says.
"So for young African Australian players to participate in the Socceroos, it's a beautifully profound moment because it demonstrates the true nature of Australia's multicultural mix."
With four refugee players in the Socceroos' World Cup squad, Australia's changing face continues to be reflected on the football pitch.
"It shows the diversity in Australia and I think it doesn't matter the background or where you're from, as long as you work hard for your opportunity, things will happen," centre-back Thomas Deng told media in Qatar on Monday.
Deng, alongside childhood friend Awer Mabil and teenage sensation Garang Kuol, will represent Australia's South Sudanese community when they put on the green and gold kit to face world champions France on Wednesday morning Australian time.
He hopes their inclusion in the squad can inspire other refugee children to follow in their footsteps.
"It has a greater cause and there's many children, ethnic children as well, that look up to us and it gives them a great sense of hope," he says.
Deng's potential partner in central defence, Yugoslavian-born Milos Degenek, fled the bombing of his home in modern day Croatia during the Kosovo War of the late 1990s.
He told ABC he sees playing for Australia as his way of giving back to the country that provided a refuge to him and his family.
"I probably won't be able to repay Australia back for giving my family a chance to move in, to start work, to buy a house," he says.
"I can't pay Australia back in any formal way. The best I can do is when I play, to play to the best of my abilities, to try and win, and to keep the people who are watching happy."
Mabil has also sought to repay his good fortune on the pitch with good deeds off it, setting up charity Barefoot to Boots with his brother to support kids living in refugee camps like the one they grew up in.
Along with Foster, Mabil will be up for an Australia Day honour in 2023 after being named South Australia's Young Australian of the Year.
But despite the positive strides football has made in promoting refugee inclusion, Foster says Australia has a "tortured relationship" with asylum seekers and refugees.
Footballers from marginalised backgrounds are still seen through a critical lens that demands they conform to the archetype of a good migrant, he says.
"Throughout our history ... we've characterised them on a spectrum from unworthy to worthy, unwelcome to welcome, illegal to legal, or criminal to non-criminal.
"We have the concepts of the acceptable refugee and the unacceptable refugee, as well as the sporting refugee hero, who is from the same community which has been attacked and characterised as harbouring youth criminality."
While refugee footballers should rightly be venerated for their achievements and skill, Foster says the game has a responsibility to ensure we also extend that support to migrant communities as a whole, including those who aren't elite athletes.
"Australian football will very gladly hold up Awer Mabil as an extraordinary story of courage, inspiration and achievement without having the more difficult conversation about what's occurring and being perpetrated on his own community in Australia.
"His friends, the people where he grew up in Adelaide, they're not extended the same consideration, empathy, sympathy and support because they don't happen to play football."
Few individuals have had as significant an impact on the world game in Australia as late broadcasting legend Les Murray, who came to Australia as a refugee after fleeing the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary at age six.
Foster says his great friend, who anglicised his name from Laszlo Urge because Australians were unable to pronounce it, was a staunch advocate for refugee rights and multiculturalism.
"He also always recognised the incredible value of the game for grassroots; for kids, for multicultural communities.
"And so this quadrennial event is so important, because it's our opportunity to bring multiculturalism and cultural differences to life through the game that unites so much of Australia."
Australian Associated Press