The 16th of November will always be a significant day in the history of Australian football.
The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup is over. I got up at various hours of the morning to watch most of the matches.
It was simply a brilliant tournament. Like many Aussies, I’ve become used to rising at unearthly hours to watch football matches beamed from around the globe, tuning in to FA Cup finals, Champions League and World Cup matches since I was a kid. This is the first time I’ve had an opportunity to do it while watching a women’s tournament.
I played my first season of football in 1998 as an eight year old. Since then I’ve missed only two seasons because of overseas travel. This means that 2019 is my 20th season. That’s 20 years of winter weekends revolving around football. I’ve played in mixed teams, boys’ teams, girls’ teams and women’s teams.
Growing up between the 1990s and 2000s, my brothers and I watched EPL highlights on Monday nights, we hung out with Les Murray on Sundays for SBS The World Game, we either stayed up late or got up early to watch live televised European matches.
My heroes were Dennis Bergkamp, Andy Cole, Ryan Giggs, Thierry Henry – all outstanding, inspiring players. All men.
Somewhere between 1998 and 2001, I discovered that Australia had a national women’s team thanks to a short article in a soccer magazine. Yes, a national team for girls!
Wow. I was awed… Women playing the game I loved for their country, against other countries. I instantly loved their name because obviously Matildas waltz and because we used to have a pet rabbit named Matilda.
From the article, I learnt that Cheryl Salisbury was the Matildas’ captain. She looked tall and strong and I think the article described her as a pioneer.
I cut out the photo of her and stuck it to my bedroom wall, along with a glossy A3 poster of the national men’s team. Cheryl stayed on my wall for a long time, as did the Socceroos. But pre-internet, pre-TV coverage for women, before widespread attention in print and social media, I didn’t get an opportunity to learn much more about Cheryl or the Matildas.
They were fixed to my wall and to the back of my mind.
I kept playing in school and club teams, I kept loving it, I argued with my friends about whether soccer or netball was a better sport.
My brothers and I stayed tuned to SBS and played in the backyard, in the street, in the park. We couldn’t believe our eyes when Manchester United won the treble in 1999. We loyally followed the Socceroos – heartbreak against Iran in 1997, the unparalleled joy of beating Uruguay in 2005, the emotional roller coaster of Germany in 2006.
In 2002, I became a teenager and Bend It Like Beckham was released. I went to the State Cinema in Hobart to watch it with a friend. It was another moment of awe – a story about women loving football, playing football, overcoming personal and cultural barriers to do it professionally.
It was moving and it was funny. I was so taken by the film I chose to study it for a high school English assignment. Some of my friends swooned over the team’s charming Irish coach named Joe. I swooned over the fact I saw women taking football seriously on the big screen.
A couple of years later, in 2004, Sepp Blatter, then President of FIFA, outlined his strategy to boost the popularity of the women’s game: Women players should wear tighter shorts to promote “a more female aesthetic”.
“Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so”, said the leader of one of the world’s most powerful and influential organisations. He said it to the 30 million women players registered worldwide at that time.
2004 was also the year I turned 15. It was the year I played my first season in a senior women’s team. A few others were around the same age as me but most were older. I was cripplingly shy and awkward around all of them.
They were fun, confident, strong, outgoing. Some had boyfriends, at least one had a girlfriend, others even had husbands and children. I had acne and I rarely spoke. But I was part of the team. My confidence grew as the years passed.
I played for the club for ten years and as I became increasingly part of it, it became part of me.
In London in 2011 (one of my seasons off), I was staying with my brother in Fulham. The UEFA Women’s Champions’ League final was being played at Craven Cottage.
Olympique Lyonnais vs Turbine Potsdam. What luck! Tickets were cheap and I was excited about seeing my first professional women’s match.
I went alone and vainly wore a brand new pair of desert boots (you know, because I was in London) and watched the match at the beautiful, and almost half empty, stadium. 14,000 people were there. I was impressed and disappointed at the same time.
How could more people not want to see this? More importantly the match, which Lyon won 2-0, enthralled me. I hobbled back along the Thames to my brother’s flat with blisters on my heels and a match programme tucked proudly under my arm.
So much has changed for the women’s game, even between 2011 and 2019. Club matches in Italy and Spain are attracting crowds of 50,000 and 60,000. This World Cup has smashed previous TV audience records.
The quality of play and athleticism is competitive, impressive, ever increasing. Young girls aren’t limited to distant role models or ones that don’t quite fit who they are. Their role models are real, present, available.
They’re everywhere and for everyone, regardless of gender. It’s inclusive. You can follow them on Instagram, read their Wikipedia entries, watch their video profiles and highlight reels on YouTube. You can wear a strip with their name on it.
Some of these role models are not only athletes but social advocates, powerful enough to refuse an invitation to the White House before it’s even been made, to be who they are and to make a compelling case for equal pay. Some are strong enough to recover from a fractured spine and debut at the World Cup.
I hope 2019 is a tipping point and that the momentum of the tournament’s success allows other countries to catch up with the mighty United States and the professional model that has underpinned their dominance for years.
It really feels like the world is sitting up and paying attention to women’s football and the stories, personalities and achievements that make it such a wonderful and compelling game.
The eight year old in me loved watching this World Cup as much as the almost-30 year old. And for the record, Sepp, we never got much choice about our shorts – they really only ever came in men’s sizes.