Adelaide-born AFL footballer Jimmy Toumpas may have only turned 23 this year but the Port Adelaide midfielder is already a veteran in his leadership role as an AFL Multicultural Player Ambassador.

In his fifth season as an AFL player, Toumpas is among 19 female and male players from diverse cultural backgrounds announced as 2017 Australia Post AFL Multicultural Player Ambassadors on Wednesday, alongside such names as West Coast’s Nic Naaitanui, Richmond’s Bachar Houli, North Melbourne’s Majak Daw and Essendon’s David Zaharakis.

According to the AFL, Toumpas must be doing something right as it’s his fourth consecutive year in the role. Based in Melbourne at the Demons for his first three seasons of AFL, Toumpas set up the Jimmy Toumpas squad which was a Dandenong-based academy designed to give young footballers from different ethnic backgrounds an entry point to the elite talent pathway. Toumpas says of his time working with the squad, “For me the buzz with that was working with kids. A lot of them felt like they didn’t fit in at football clubs because of their background. You know some were European, some were Sudanese, some were Asian. Just [to] try and make them feel a bit more welcome and see someone like myself who had made [it to] the AFL from a multicultural background, it made them feel a bit more comfortable I guess walking into a football club.”

The Toumpas squad emulated similar development squads in other regions of Melbourne run by AFL players Majak Daw and Bachar Houli. “David Zaharakis has a squad as well in the Northern Knights district. We were trying to emulate that in different regions… but now that I’m in South Australia, Paddy Carlisle had a squad, based in Adelaide, and I’m sort of going to take that over as well,” he said.

“We speak a lot about leadership, healthy living in terms of nutrition. A lot of it is explaining our stories. The kids like to hear about how we got to where we are at the moment, hearing our pathways. It’s about educating them about different pathways into the AFL.”

Toumpas has a Greek-Cypriot heritage with both sets of grandparent born in Cyprus and migrating to Australia in the 1960s with his mum’s side of the family settling in South Australia and his dad’s side moving to Brisbane.

He says, “I haven’t actually been back to Cyprus at this point but it’s definitely a goal of mine, to go to the village in which both my grandparents lived. I’m really passionate and really strong about my background. We grew up with a lot of little customs and things we do at home that are traditional to Cyprus. We speak Greek as well at home although I can understand it a lot better than I can speak it. And mum and dad, all the grandparents, aunties and uncles can speak fluent Greek. Yeah, it’s pretty special. And I know a lot of Greek and Cypriot people in Victoria and South Australia, they look up to me for playing AFL football.”

Being the son of a soccer enthusiast, Toumpas first played soccer when growing up, but started playing footy at school because a lot of his mates were playing Australian Rules. His parents were always encouraging. “Mum and dad just wanted me to be happy with what I was doing. They were happy for me to play footy; they saw the smile on my face when I was running playing footy. That was the main factor in letting me play.”

And now it seems they couldn’t be more proud of their son playing at the elite level. “Something like this hasn’t happened in my family and I guess in our community really, in terms of our background. They’re super proud. No matter how far I go it’s a massive accomplishment. They’re just happy for me to live out my dream.”

Toumpas believes one of the keys to removing barriers to participation and inclusion for players from a multicultural background is to present more visible role models and leaders.

“It’s one of those things. Fifty per cent of the Australian population is classed as multicultural while 15 per cent of AFL [players are] multicultural. I guess when you turn on the TV and you watch it, you want people from an ethnic background to watch it and see themselves on TV. Probably the biggest barrier we have at the moment, from the community point, is not having enough role models and leaders in AFL, looking like Majak Daw or Bachar Houli. We want them as role models. We want more of them. That’s probably the biggest barrier.”