A football league for disadvantaged central Victorians will be created next year following the success of a statewide competition.
Reclink Australia hopes to field six teams in the central Victorian league, which will include sides from the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre, Bendigo, Ballarat, Melton, Kyneton and Sunbury.
The organisation, which aims to reconnect isolated community members through sport, has run a Melbourne league for more than 25 years, however Reclink Australia’s state manager Chris Lacey said local demand had driven the expansion.
“Having a local league, you can get some of those inter-town rivalries and it also expands the opportunities that a league like this presents,” he said.
Those opportunities – for many people struggling with homelesness, mental illness and long-term unemployment – include work, socialising, or simply getting a kick.
“It provides a lot of natural highs for people who might have struggled with addiction,” Mr Lacey said.
The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation will fund the league, along with a similar competition in Gippsland, for two years at a cost of $310,000, which it hopes will break the cycle of disadvantage and pathways to risky behaviours, such as gambling.
The league would not necessarily be restricted to six teams in future years, added Mr Lacey, who suggested the organisation would look to expand further if demand was strong in a particular area.
The news was a welcome boost for Bendigo Victory Football Club, who recently won a grand final in Melbourne against the South Peninsula Swans.
The club was struggling with its finances at the end of 2016, but a local organisation stepped in to ensure it remained afloat.
“It’s going to be great for us because we travel a lot to Melbourne – it’s a long day for us and especially the volunteers who turn up each week,” Bendigo Victory coach Luke Smith said.
“These guys don’t get much of a chance outside of anywhere else.”