‘Incredible growth’: The rise of Australian women’s football | Women’s World Cup

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When Australia’s Sam Kerr leads the Matildas out for their World Cup opener against Ireland on Thursday, she will enter a cauldron of noise with more than 80,000 fans expected in Sydney.

It will mark a significant milestone in the story of the women’s game in Australia, with global superstar Kerr captaining a talented team hoping to challenge the world’s best over the next four weeks.

A packed Stadium Australia will also reflect the interest and enthusiasm that women’s football is generating down under.

But this is a relatively recent phenomenon. The women’s national team played their first official international match only in the late 1970s, and it was not until the 2000 Sydney Olympics that the Matildas really caught the public’s eye and women’s football was finally given the necessary funding and support.

From players selling cakes to finance their careers to sand-covered pitches in Taiwan, the journey of women’s football in Australia has not been without its hiccups.

‘They needed to break the cycle’

The roots of the sport can be traced back to the early 1900s, with Football Australia recording the first public women’s association football match in 1921.

That game took place in Queensland, with North Brisbane defeating South Brisbane 2-0 at The Gabba in front of a crowd of 10,000.

It was an impressive start for the sport, but the success was short-lived.

“Women were banned from playing football in 1921 in England by the English Football Association. This significantly slowed the game’s progress in Australia,” said Lee McGowan, a researcher at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

The stance from the footballing authorities in England spread down under, and in 1922 a committee in Australia recommended that football was a medically inappropriate sport for women to play.

“It didn’t stop women from playing. In fact, there is evidence that women have played the game in Australia in one part or another for close to a century,” explains McGowan.

The first known Australian women's football match
The first recorded Australian women’s football match [Courtesy of Football Queensland]

Various one-off games were recorded in the subsequent decades, but the story of women’s football was fairly stagnant until the 1970s when an English-born Australian led the way in developing the sport.

Pat O’Connor was born in Coventry but emigrated to Sydney in 1963. A pioneer of the game, she successfully campaigned for a national competition to bring together the various leagues that had sprung up across Australian states. The new championships began in 1974.

“The National Championships allowed players from the states around Australia to see how they fared against each other, the best against the best,” said Heather Reid, a former Australian football administrator.

The annual tournament was rotated around different states, resulting in some costly travel fees for the participants.

“Some players couldn’t afford to be on that journey, or they had to go and do a lot of fundraising, a lot of lamington cake sales, all sorts of different kinds of fundraising activities that payers and their clubs and federations had to do in order to get to these places,” Reid told Al Jazeera.

The inaugural 1974 tournament was held in Sydney and coincided with the formation of the Australian Women’s Soccer Association.

With the women’s game growing domestically, the 1970s also saw the beginning of international participation for Australia’s female footballers.

The origins of the national team remain hotly contested, with differing opinions on exactly which match marks the first women’s international.

An Australian team travelled to Hong Kong in 1975 to compete at the Asian Women’s Championship, but the games are not recognised as having full international status.

Three years later, an Australian team headed to Taiwan to compete in the Women’s World Invitational Tournament. It gave an insight into the prestige, and the perils, of international football.

“We went to have a look at the field, and it was immaculate,” said Connie Selby, who played for Australia in the tournament.

“But then a big cyclone came in and destroyed the ground. They brought in soil and sand for the pitch and it really played havoc with everybody’s legs.

“But just the crowds and the whole way it was set up, it was just something that we’ve never seen before and it was just amazing,” said Selby.

Despite Australia sending a national team to Taipei, there have been some doubts over whether the games can be classed as full internationals due to the nature of the opposition.

“Before we left Australia, we looked at all of the documentation and we thought the others were all national teams. But after competing in the tournament, we found out that they weren’t,” explains Jim Selby, who coached the team in Taiwan and later went on to marry Connie.

Selby discovered that some of the other national teams in Taipei were actually leading club sides from their respective countries.

Despite the confusion over the nature of these fixtures, they still provided the Australian players with invaluable experience of international competition.

“Coming from Australia and not really knowing what was on the other side of the world and how big the game was – that was the biggest eye opener for all of us, seeing how good some of the players from around the world were,” explains Connie.

An Australian player in Taiwan for a football tournament
Connie Selby in Taiwan for a football tournament in 1978 [Courtesy of Selby]

The following year, Australia faced New Zealand in a three-match series in Sydney and Brisbane. The Trans-Tasman fixture became something of a regular occurrence.

The women’s game was undoubtedly growing in Australia, but it was still struggling to gain a higher level of attention and respect.

“I was told by the hierarchy that if I wanted to continue my career, I needed to get out of women’s football,” said Jim Selby.

“I said ‘No, I’m OK. I think there’s a big future in women’s football.’ They just needed to break the cycle where the girls didn’t really know how good they could play because of the level of coaching that they got,” Selby told Al Jazeera.

From strength to strength

Australia missed the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, losing out to New Zealand on goal difference in the qualifiers.

But the next big milestone for the women’s game in Australia was qualification for the 1995 edition, with Angela Iannotta becoming the first Australian to score a goal at a World Cup.

Despite the significance of her strike, Ianotta was not immediately aware that her name would enter into the record books.

“I actually found out after two years when reading an article that I had scored the first goal at a World Cup for Australia,” she told Al Jazeera.

The Matildas went out of the 1995 and 1999 tournaments at the group stage, but the 2000 Sydney Olympics was another major moment for the women’s game in Australia.

As hosts, the Matildas were guaranteed a spot in the women’s football tournament, granting them a first shot at a gold medal. Olympic participation also allowed for government funding for the women’s national team.

“It brought full-time scholarships for the players, it brought a national training centre programme where every state had its own institute or academy of sport that featured female football players for the first time,” said Heather Reid.

While Australia finished bottom of their group at the Sydney Games, they went on to reach the quarter-finals at the Athens Games in 2004 and the semis at the delayed Tokyo Games in 2021.

They reached four consecutive World Cup quarter-finals between 2007 and 2015, and in 2010, they won the AFC Women’s Asian Cup on penalties against North Korea.

Such achievements captured the interest of a sport-mad public in Australia, with the Matildas selling out a match for the first time on home soil in 2017.

Australian player Angela Ianotta in action against the US in the 1995 Women's World Cup
Ianotta in action against the USA at the 1995 Women’s World Cup [Courtesy of Ianotta]

The domestic game also continued to go from strength to strength, with a new women’s league formed in 2008.

In 2021, the league was rebranded as A-League Women, with 11 teams from across Australia currently competing.

But the domestic game has struggled to capitalise on the recent success and popularity of the Matildas.

“The women’s league is lacking something at the moment. When I have a look at it, they haven’t got many 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’d be great if they could actually play in Australia”.

Ianotta also believes that more funding should go towards developing women’s coaching and improving the game at a regional level, outside the major cities.

“It’s growing so much and it can keep growing a lot, but we need more women coaches in women’s football in Australia because they’re lacking.”

General view outside the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium
The Melbourne Rectangular Stadium is one of the 2023 World Cup venues [Hannah Mckay/Reuters]

Now Australia is set to co-host a feast of women’s football over the next month.

For those involved in the early days of the sport, the tournament is likely to stir many emotions.

“The growth of the women’s game from 2000 to now has been quite incredible,” said Reid. “The growth of the game with the visibility of the game as well.

“You can feel it, you can touch it, you can almost smell it now it’s everywhere in terms of women’s participation and women’s contribution to football in Australia.”

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