Football has been a part of my life (at least on the fringes) for as long as my younger sisters have been old enough to play. I’ve spent many a chilly Saturday or Sunday morning on the sidelines, clutching the warmth of a sausage sandwich or bacon and egg roll from a park’s canteen against bitter winter winds. I’ve seen my sisters laugh, cry, score goals, defend, get injured, foul and occasionally even vomit. I’ve also seen the way they’ve been treated as young women who play football.
The fact that their games are sometimes less attended or considered less important, that their team’s needs are often passed over in favour of the men and boys at their clubs. The fact that even in Female Football Week, the one week of the season where associations have to at least look like they care, the support they’re given is not up to scratch. It’s a tale as old as time itself but I know so many fiery passionate powerful girls, who have slowly faded off the field and hung up their boots because they just weren’t supported. Because the road wasn’t seen to be as long or as golden for women in sport. That is, until now.
Over the last month, Australia has been gripped by the tale of the Matildas, a team of fierce, fabulous and talented women who never say die and won’t rest till it’s done. The power they’ve held over all of us has been a force to behold from the record crowds in sold out stadiums to the kind of television ratings not seen either in decades, or in fact ever before. In their do-or-die semi-final against England, it’s estimated that 11.15 million people (measured in TV’s, so that’s excluding groups/Optus Sport or actual spectators at the stadium) tuned in across the country. That’s about 42% of Australia’s entire population.
Never before have we seen that kind of feverish passion: when people are talking about ‘the game’ last night and they mean a women’s football match. Never has so much attention been paid to one woman’s calf muscle in a non-objectifying way. Little boys are turning up to training, pretending to be Sam Kerr and Hayley Raso. That’s incredible. It’s meant the air lately has felt charged with a rare electricity, the kind that tells us the needle is moving. That buzz we can all feel? Those are times actually changing.
Now, there are two things about this kind of real change that people don’t necessarily talk about. The first is the fact that we wouldn’t be here in this moment, watching the tides turn and the air shift around us without the hard work, sacrifice and love of so many unsung heroes. Women who never got their due but did it anyway because they believed that one day, we’d get somewhere better. Women who have never been rightfully recognised by history. Women who played in front of barely anyone and still gave it their all. Who played without pay, balancing the work of elite athletes with livelihoods and families. We can’t forget or diminish any of them.
The second? How many people (read: men) get uncomfortable or defensive when the script is flipped and the status quo tossed out the window. While it’s true that Missing Perspectives (the media company of which I am Editor-in-Chief) has seen its biggest growth and transformation ever as a result of the Women’s World Cup, the flipside is we’ve also seen a massive increase in trolls, nasty comments and the spread of misinformation. It’s nothing we can’t handle and has honestly been altogether predictable and amusing; yes I can name players other than Sam Kerr, (the whole team in fact), yes I DO actually understand the offside rule and you know what, Bob? Women’s sport does make money. $900 million AUD worth in fact, the highest grossing revenue of any sporting event behind only the men’s World Cup in Qatar. That’s hardly something to sneeze at nor is the unparalleled commitment from the Albanese government to invest another $200 million into women’s sport. An easy win for the government perhaps, but nonetheless a commitment from those in power that women’s sport is not headed back into the shadows now that the confetti has settled. Nor should it. If these past four weeks have been proof of anything, let it be that there is reason to invest in women (spoiler alert: there always has been), our success and our stories.
This is not going to be the end of women’s sport having its moment in the spotlight. In fact - this is only the beginning. And I for one, on behalf of my sisters and any woman who has showed up to play even when no one watched, who has fallen out of love with sport, who has been made to feel like ‘playing like a girl’ is the worst thing they could do, can’t wait to see just how bright it shines.