FOUR years since Melbourne’s project began, the ‘MCG of the Desert’ has officially been launched.

What was once a fantasy for the locals of Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) and Atyenhenge Atherre Aboriginal Corporation (AAAC), a newly grassed oval was opened to the community on Thursday, spreading joy far and wide.

The dream of a lush, green oval was first shared with the Melbourne Football Club in 2017, with Santa Teresa’s red dirt ground an obstacle for sport participation.

But the hard and unstable surface is no longer, instead replaced with a spectacle in the middle of town.

While the oval was originally set to be launched in 2020, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic saw delays with the sowing of the grass and subsequently, the opening pushed back until this year.

“The community of Santa Teresa and the oval project are incredibly close to the heart of our football club,” Melbourne CEO Gary Pert told Melbourne Media.

“Since the concept of grassing the oval was first proposed to us, the club has worked incredibly hard to help make this dream a reality for the people of Santa Teresa.

“Yesterday’s launch was an amazing celebration for the community and a fitting acknowledgement of many years of hard work and determination that has seen this project brought to life.”

Originally set to coincide with Melbourne’s Round 12 match against Brisbane – the game was fixtured in Alice Springs, before being moved due to Victoria’s COVID-19 outbreak – the launch saw the first match of football played on the oval.

Two teams, made up of players from the Ltyentyies Football Club, took to the field, with one donning a red and blue playing kit for the occasion.

“While COVID-19 has impacted our ability to be in Santa Teresa, everyone involved with Melbourne has been filled with immense pride and excitement seeing all the photos and videos coming in from the event and the joy it has brought to so many in the community,” Pert said.

“The oval really is the centre piece of the community and a place that fosters connection and purpose for people in Santa Teresa.

“As a football club, we feel humbled to have played a role in making this project happen and blessed to be part of the Santa Teresa community.

“I would like to make special mention of Melbourne’s internal project working party, particularly Jimmie Martin, whose immense passion and commitment to this project have been the key driver in turning the Santa Teresa Oval green.

“I would also like to thank all those who generously donated to the project via the Red and Blue Foundation, as well as the Northern Territory Government, MCC Foundation, AFL NT and all the other stakeholders who have helped make the dreams of the Santa Teresa community come true.”

For the locals, its much more than just a grassed oval.

The bright green field is a meeting place, for the locals to gather at; men, women, boys and girls to play sport on, without health risks; and the rest of Central Australia to visit and appreciate.

And CEO of the AAAC and Santa Teresa Enterprises Limited Ellie Kamara said the impact is set to be substantial.

“The idea to grass the oval in Santa Teresa was born from a random, wishful remark and the Melbourne Football Club has turned our crazy idea into a reality,” she said.

“The support of Melbourne, both in a financial and practical sense has been invaluable and they are an amazing friend of our little community.

“Our relationship started out via Santa Teresa’s support of the club’s Cultural Immersion Program and has grown into a true friendship and partnership that has seen our very own MCG of the Desert brought to life.

“We look forward to the new horizons that the oval will bring to our community and are so thrilled that our children and sports men and women will have a facility to rival any small town in Australia.”

The Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) Foundation has been a major partner of the project, joining in August 2019 with the aim of assisting the oval’s feasibility and sustainability long into the future.

MCC Foundation Chair Sally Macindoe echoed Pert’s comments regarding the launch.

“It is wonderful to see the Oval come to life”, she said.

“The Santa Teresa community have been patient and waiting for this day for a long time, and while it is a shame not to be there for it on the day of its launch, we cannot wait to see photos and video of the locals enjoying and playing on their own hallowed turf.

“Making sport, and the opportunity to participate in sport, available to everyone and breaking down the barriers that prevent anyone participating in sport, is a key principle of the MCC Foundation and also our MCC members.

“Projects like these rely on the contribution of many parties, and this project wouldn’t have been possible without the partnership of the Atyenhenge Atherre Aboriginal Corporation and Melbourne Football Club, which will go well beyond just today.

We hope that this oval becomes the central point of connection for local communities.

The complete oval features goalposts delivered from the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and brand new lights, funded by the Central Land Council.

The long-term sustainability of the project is also taken care of, with future grants already secured and necessary maintenance equipment donated to the community to ensure it can maintain the oval’s upkeep on an ongoing basis.

Melbourne’s connection with the Santa Teresa community runs far beyond the oval project, with local Arrernte artist Amunda Gorey designing the club’s 2021 Indigenous guernsey.

The club also undertakes its Cultural Immersion Program within the community and works closely with local Santa Teresa enterprises to provide in-kind support to extend their reach and become more sustainable, through activities such as creating an eCommerce website for the communities Traditional Craft Centre.