Co-hosting the 2023 World Cup is a significant milestone in Australia’s mixed history of women’s football.
With more than 80,000 fans expected in Sydney, Australia’s Sam Kerr will lead the Matildas out for their World Cup opener against Ireland on Thursday.
It will be a watershed moment in the history of the women’s game in Australia, with global superstar Kerr captaining a talented team that hopes to challenge the world’s best over the next four weeks.
A crowded Stadium in Australia will also reflect the interest and excitement that women’s football generates in Australia.
However, this is a relatively new phenomenon. The women’s national team played their first official international match in the late 1970s, and it wasn’t until the 2000 Sydney Olympics that the Matildas caught the public’s attention, and women’s football was finally given the funding and support it deserved.
Women’s football in Australia has had its ups and downs, from players selling cakes to fund their careers to sand-covered pitches in Taiwan.
‘They needed to break the cycle.’
Football Australia recorded the first public women’s association football match in 1921, which can be traced back to the early 1900s.
That game occurred in Queensland, with North Brisbane defeating South Brisbane 2-0 in front of a crowd of 10,000 at The Gabba.
It was a promising start for the sport, but it was short-lived.
“The English Football Association banned women from playing football in 1921.” This slowed the game’s progress in Australia significantly,” said Lee McGowan, a University of the Sunshine Coast researcher.
The English football authorities’ stance spread down under, and in 1922, an Australian committee recommended that football was a medically inappropriate sport for women to play.
“It didn’t deter women from participating.” There is evidence that women have played the game in some form or another in Australia for nearly a century,” explains McGowan.
Various one-off games were recorded over the years. Still, the story of women’s football remained relatively stagnant until the 1970s, when an English-born Australian led the way in developing the sport.
Pat O’Connor was born in Coventry but moved to Australia in 1963. She was a game pioneer, successfully campaigning for a national competition to unite the various leagues that had sprung up across Australian states. The new championships were launched in 1974.
“The National Championships allowed players from all over Australia to see how they stacked up against each other, the best against the best,” Heather Reid, a former Australian football administrator, explained.
The annual tournament was rotated between states, resulting in some expensive travel expenses for the participants.
“Some players couldn’t afford to go on that journey, or they had to go and do a lot of fundraising, a lot of lamington cake sales, all kinds of different kinds of fundraising activities that payers and their clubs and federations had to do in order to get to these places,” Reid explained to Al Jazeera.
The first tournament, held in 1974 in Sydney, coincided with the formation of the Australian Women’s Soccer Association.
The 1970s saw the beginning of international participation for Australia’s female footballers as the women’s game grew domestically.
The origins of the national team are still hotly debated, with differing perspectives on which match was the first women’s international.
The Asian Women’s Championship was held in Hong Kong in 1975, and an Australian team competed there, but the games were not recognized as having full international status.
A team from Australia travelled to Taiwan three years later to compete in the Women’s World Invitational Tournament. It provided insight into the prestige, as well as the dangers, of international football.
“We went to look at the field, and it was immaculate,” Connie Selby, who represented Australia in the tournament, said.
“However, a large cyclone came in and destroyed the ground.” They brought soil and sand for the pitch, which messed with everyone’s legs.
“But just the crowds and the entire setup, it was just something we’d never seen before and it was just amazing,” Selby said.
Even though Australia sent a national team to Taipei, some questions have been raised about whether the games can be considered full internationals due to the nature of the opposition.
“We looked over all of the documentation before we left Australia and assumed the others were all national teams.” “However, after competing in the tournament, we discovered that they weren’t,” explains Jim Selby, who coached the team in Taiwan and later married Connie.
Selby discovered that some of Taipei’s other national teams were leading club teams from their respective countries.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the nature of these matches, they provided Australian players with invaluable international competition experience.
“Coming from Australia and not really knowing what was on the other side of the world and how big the game was – seeing how good some of the players from around the world were – that was the biggest eye opener for all of us,” Connie says.
The following year, Australia played a three-match series against New Zealand in Sydney and Brisbane. The trans-Tasman meeting became a regular occurrence.
The women’s game was undoubtedly growing in Australia, but it was still battling for more attention and respect.
“The hierarchy told me that if I wanted to continue my career, I needed to get out of women’s football,” Jim Selby explained.
“I said, ‘No, I’m fine.'” ‘Women’s football has a bright future.’ “All they needed to do was break the cycle of the girls not knowing how good they could play because of the level of coaching that they received,” Selby told Al Jazeera.
From one football victory to the next
Australia failed to qualify for the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, losing to New Zealand on goal difference.
The next big step for the women’s game in Australia was qualification for the 1995 World Cup, where Angela Iannotta became the first Australian to score a goal.
Despite the significance of her strike, Ianotta was unaware that her name would go down in history.
“I actually found out two years later when reading an article that I had scored the first goal for Australia in a World Cup,” she told Al Jazeera.
The Matildas were eliminated from tournaments in 1995 and 1999 at the group stage, but the 2000 Sydney Olympics were a watershed moment for the women’s game in Australia.
The Matildas were guaranteed a place in the women’s football tournament as hosts, giving them the first shot at a gold medal. Olympic participation also enabled the government to fund the women’s national team.
“It brought full-time scholarships for the players, a national training center program in which every state had its own institute or academy of sport that featured female football players for the first time,” Heather Reid explained.
Despite finishing last in their group at the Sydney Games, Australia reached the quarter-finals at the Athens Games in 2004 and the semi-finals at the postponed Tokyo Games in 2021.
Between 2007 and 2015, they reached four consecutive World Cup quarter-finals, and in 2010, they won the AFC Women’s Asian Cup on penalties against North Korea.
Such accomplishments piqued the interest of a sports-crazed Australian public, with the Matildas selling out a home match for the first time in 2017.
The domestic game also grew with forming a new women’s league in 2008.
The league was renamed A-League Women in 2021, with 11 teams from across Australia currently competing.
However, the domestic game has struggled to capitalize on the Matildas’ recent success and popularity.
“The women’s league is currently lacking something. “From what I’ve seen, they don’t have a lot of crowds in there for the local league,” said Ianotta, who follows the Australian women’s game from her home in Italy.
“A lot of the Matildas play overseas, but it would be fantastic if they could play in Australia.”
Ianotta also believes that more money should be directed toward developing women’s coaching and improving the game nationally outside major cities.
“It’s growing rapidly and has a lot of potential, but we need more female coaches in women’s football in Australia because there aren’t enough.”
Over the next month, Australia will co-host a feast of women’s football.
The tournament will likely elicit strong emotions in those involved in the sport’s early days.
“From 2000 to now, the growth of the women’s game has been quite incredible,” Reid said. “The expansion of the game, as well as its visibility.”
“You can feel it, touch it, almost smell it now that it’s everywhere in terms of women’s participation and contribution to football in Australia.”
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