Australia’s interest piqued last week when FIFA’s determination to push on with the formal process of deciding a venue for the 2023 Women’s World Cup became clear.
It is a debate that has raged in silence for nearly half a century. Who should be recognised as the first ever Australian women’s national team?
While the official records show it was Julie Dolan’s team that played New Zealand at Seymour Shaw Park on October 6, 1979, there are many who believe the honour should go to the 1975 Australian XI who went to Hong Kong to compete in the first AFC Women’s Championships.
Pat O’Connor’s ladies put on an impressive display, coming third against fully fledged international teams from New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Of the 16 players that went to Hong Kong in 1975, only three ended up being officially capped by Australia later on – Dolan, Cindy Heydon and Kim Coates – meaning the remaining 13 have never been properly recognised as having represented their country.
Former Matildas legend Joey Peters, who played 110 internationals from 1996 to 2009, admitted it would be nice to right this wrong and acknowledge the 1975 team, but was aware of the can of worms it would open.
“I certainly don’t want to start a conflict but the point is these women should be recognised, valued and included as much for their place in history as the rest of us, and if we have to re-write history, isn’t it worth it?,” insisted Peters.
“It’s a tough one because all these rules and regulations mean you have this rigidity in achievement but also at the same time this keeps its integrity, yet if the integrity at the time wasn’t able to tick all the boxes, it was the closest we had so should it be recognised as that?
“I actually don’t know the right answer, how does it affect either way?
“Probably more pros than cons, but one thing is for sure, it would mean a lot to those women.”
Shelley Youman, who earned 24 caps for the Matildas in the 1990s, agrees with former teammate Peters.
“For me, every player counts and I know that if I had played in 1975, I would like to be counted,” admits Youman.
“It’s tricky but these girls are part of our history.”
A major point of contention is the 1975 team was made up of players from NSW only, with the bulk of the team coming from powerhouse club St George Budapest. NSW won the Australian National Championships that were held in Sydney in 1974, with nine members of that team from St George.
The original version of the 1975 AFC Women’s Championships were supposed to feature club sides only, but this changed just before the tournament kicked off. The Australian Women’s Soccer Association (AWSA) wanted to then send their own team but the Australian XI from NSW had been planning to go for 18 months, so the Australian Soccer Federation (ASF) stepped in and supported them. This caused controversy at the time with many labelling the team a club side rather than a pure national team.
The ASF started in 1961 and officially joined FIFA in 1963. FIFA only recognised one governing body per country, and in Australia in 1975 that was the ASF.
The fact the ASF president Sir Arthur George gave the ladies permission to wear the Australian XI badge gives further strength to the case for the team being recognised as a fully fledged national team.
Trixie Tagg, the young striker who was on the trip to Hong Kong, explains the background to the story.
“The process started a few years before the 1975 Asian Cup,” explains Tagg.
“Kay de Bry and her husband Nick went to an important meeting in Hong Kong prior to the tournament.
“Initially it was going to be a competition for clubs from different countries. The organising committee with representatives from the different countries then changed it to a tournament for nations and it became the Asian Cup.
“Our St George ladies team had been fundraising for 18 months for this tour. Our team got the approval and blessings from the men’s ASF, who allowed us to wear the Australian XI badge. They were aware that nine of our girls represented NSW in 1974 and became the national champions.”
Dolan, who is recognised as cap number one for Australia after captaining the 1979 team against New Zealand, was also part of the 1975 XI, representing her country as a 14-year-old.
If the history books were changed, O’Connor would have the distinction of not only being cap one but also the first ever goal-scorer for Australia, after netting her team’s opening goal against Thailand in 1975.
Tagg, who was one of the 13 who never went on to receive an official cap, insisted her teammates wouldn’t want to overshadow the 1979 team, but admitted it would be special to receive recognition from the FFA for their achievements in Hong Kong.
“I would never expect that cap numbers would have to change,” insisted Tagg, who went on to be Australia’s first female coach in 1981.
“Just to be officially acknowledged would mean the world to us. Especially for Pat and Joe (O’Connor), we owe them everything.”
There are two major obstacles with recognising the 1975 team as the first national team.
The AFC Women’s Championships in 1975 were not actually sanctioned by FIFA. In fact, the five tournaments held from 1975 to 1983 were organised by the Asian Ladies’ Football Confederation (ALFC), a body that operated separately from the men’s governing bodies AFC and FIFA.
The ALFC were initially stopped from linking up with the AFC and FIFA, before eventually joining in 1986.
Another problem is the record books show the games at the 1975 AFC Women’s Championships were only 60 minutes in length. FIFA regulations generally require games to be 90 minutes in length, although it is uncertain if this was official back then.
Interestingly, the Australian team that went to the 1978 World Women’s Invitational Tournament in Taiwan, was acknowledged by the FFA last year at the 40th anniversary celebration of the 1979 team.
The 1978 team consisted mainly of players from NSW and Western Australia, with 1975 Australian XI player Connie Selby nee Byrnes being the captain. However, this team played against club sides from different countries rather than actual national teams, therefore never received international caps at the time.
While this topic is bound to raise emotions and promote vigorous discussion, the bottom line is those women who went to Hong Kong 45 years ago felt the same amount of pride and passion that any athlete representing their country would feel.
Whether the history books will officially acknowledge this one day remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: the 1975 Australian XI were pioneers and those who have followed have kept the legend going.
Members of the 1975 Australian XI: Pat O’Connor (captain), Christel Abenthum, Gundy Zarins, Lynn Everett Miller, Kim Coates, Julie Dolan, Cindy Heydon, Stacey Tracy, Sue Larsen, Sue Taylor, Lynn McKenzie, Connie Selby, Sue Binnes, Trudy Fischer, Vicky Kohen and Trixie Tagg.