Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Look how far we’ve come

Greg Downes

As reports of the Matildas’ historic victories over the USA, Japan and Brazil at the recent inaugural Tournament of Nations began to trickle home, I joined the many well-wishers in congratulating them. I did the contemporary thing and got on social media. I immediately tweeted “look how far we’ve come.”

As Australian women’s soccer starts to receive the media attention it deserves, I have begun to think more about this phrase. It seems to sum up the journey women’s soccer has taken.
Record attendances, television viewers and online supporters caused me to reflect on my time researching the history of women’s football in Australia, particularly the role of the pioneers in the development of their game. I followed my tweet with another, ‘the pioneers of the women’s game are cheering’.

Warwick Daily News 26 September 1921, page 5.
Sourced from Trove
Australian women’s football can be traced back over a century. They played informal games during WWI, the Great Depression and WWII. Organised games were reported in NSW and QLD during the early 1900s; in 1921 a Gabba crowd of 10,000 witnessed a game between North and South Brisbane. Yet it wasn’t until the 1970s that women’s football took on a more structured form. This was the decade in which women’s football began to take a foothold worldwide. During this period the Matildas took their name. 

Australia entered its first international competition in 1978 at the World Women’s Invitational Tournament in Taiwan. The first international women’s competition to be officially recognised took place in October 1979 when New Zealand agreed to compete over three tests for the Trans-Tasman Trophy in Sydney and Brisbane.

Now, some 39 years later, the Matildas are celebrating a long and proud history in international football, in FIFA Women’s World Cups and Olympic games. Yet, until the recent flurry of attention, women have played with little fanfare. A near total lack of media attention did not help. Australian Sports Commission (ASC) identified this as one of the contributing factors to the difficulties faced by all sportswomen in their fight for equality.

How times change.

The Matildas returned to Australia in September to face Brazil in two international friendly games held in NSW. Both events sold out with crowds of 31,000 collectively. The Matildas won both games and are now on a winning streak of seven games. They have attained a world FIFA ranking of 5th.

Sam Kerr celebrates her recent goal against Brazil. Courtesy Foxsports
Unprecedented media attention is now focused on the Matildas. They are being heralded by some as the nation’s top sporting team. How did this happen? Matildas’ coach Alen Stajcic believes the victories over Brazil were a watershed moment. Perhaps the victories mark the day the Matildas officially became mainstream. Ambitious talk of winning next year’s Asian Cup, a World Cup victory and staging the 2022 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia seems no longer a pipe dream. Women’s sport seems to be the flavour of the month. Cricket Australia and the AFL are promoting their women’s competitions and negotiating much deserved salaries.

With so much media attention, it is easy to forget about the Australian history of the game. The success of the current Matildas has provided the pioneers with an opportunity to celebrate their untold achievements. It was great to see a group of past Matildas on the field at the half time break of the Newcastle game being applauded by the large crowd. Social media was once more full of congratulations, this time including the rejoicing of past players at functions after the game. Old teammates and friends celebrated both the latest Matildas victory and also the role they played in the development of the game.

Football Federation Australia (FFA) and the Victorian Government recently announced that Victoria is next on the list to host an international series involving the Matildas. In the coming week the Matildas will play two matches against arch-rival China with games planned for Melbourne and Geelong.

This will provide another opportunity for the Victorian pioneers, and there are many, to get behind the Matildas and to bask in the joys of victory knowing that they have all played an important part in the development of women’s football in this country.

Greg Downes' main area of research interest is in  the history of women’s soccer in Australia.
He was awarded his PhD by Victoria University (2016) for his thesis on the
'oral history of women’s football in Australia’.