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The Matildas' Long Road to Acceptance

From sexism to sellouts — the story of Australia's favourite team

On 7 October 1979, the day the Australian women’s football team played their first official international fixture, the Sydney Morning Herald didn’t publish so much as a column inch of preview.


The following day, however, after Australia and New Zealand played out a 2-2 draw at Seymour Shaw Park in the southern Sydney suburb of Miranda, the Sun-Herald did manage a feature story about the match – and in the seventh paragraph it even got around to revealing the score. The delay in getting to the result was, it seems, necessary, as if readers needed to be reassured that despite the playing of the historic match the natural order hadn’t been overly disturbed.


The opening paragraph read: “The first thing you notice about a women’s soccer match is the players. They ARE feminine.”

When Julie Dolan, Australia’s captain that day, is reminded of the media coverage – of a type that was typical at the time – her resulting sigh has echoes of old frustrations. “It was always difficult for us to get any funding, any recognition, and [the media’s angle] was part of that,” says Dolan, a dynamic midfielder and playmaker whose name now features on the medal awarded to the W-League’s player of the year.


“As it shows, it’s been a long road in terms of breaking down those barriers and for females to be accepted as strong athletes.”


Shona Bass was just 16 when she captained Victoria’s open-age women’s team and 18 when she made the Australian team for that 1979 game. The education consultant has a representative cap, numbered “2”, to show for it (Dolan, as captain, has No1). Though her family and friends were always aware of the enormous effort she put into the game she found her efforts, and those of her team-mates, were often dismissed as “kick and giggle” or else they had what you might call a mist of perfume sprayed over them. “As a young player I don’t think I quite understood how we were being portrayed. I do remember once being asked to put lipstick on for a [football] photo. I was just 16.”


‘Real women and not men in disguise’


Heather Reid, a leading administrator in women’s football ever since she helped found the Australian National University’s women’s team in 1978, drove to that 1979 maiden international from Canberra with a carload of female friends. “I was well and truly thrilled with what I saw. It was inspiring,” says Reid, a former president of ACT Women’s Soccer, former national director of Australian Women’s Soccer Association from 1986-92 and, until 2016, Capital Football chief executive. But Reid notes that attitudes such as the one evident in the Sun-Herald were the sort of thing women playing traditional male sports had to regularly endure. “It was as if women could only justify playing a rough and tumble ball game if they were able to maintain femininity.”


Although fund-raising was its main purpose, Reid believes that part of the reason that the Australian team posed for what would prove to be a controversial nude calendar in 1999 was to “basically show people that they were real women and not men in disguise. It was like, ‘Here we are, have a good look, now get over it. We’re playing football and we’re here to stay’”.


Although women in football were always marginalised within a sporting code that itself was elbowed to the fringes there are, as Roy Hay and Bill Murray’s History of Football in Australia points out, references to women’s football in Australia from the 1880s. It wasn’t until the early decades of the 1900s, however, that the women’s game took hold in any notable way. Indeed, in 1921, 10,000 people watched North Brisbane defeat South Brisbane 2-0 at the Brisbane Cricket Ground. An A-League team today would be happy enough with that. That same year “ladies” football associations’ were formed in both NSW and Queensland, and in 1929 it was reported that 7,000 people attended the NSW women’s state final.


Between the wars, however, media coverage of the women’s game was either scarce (“which may mean, of course, that regular leagues and games did not exist,” write Hay and Murray) or leaning, like a wolf on a barstool, to the chauvinistic. Regarding the lack of coverage, there’s a suggestion that the nascent women’s game in Australia was, if not capsized, at least knocked amidships by the ripples emanating from England as a result of the English Football Association “banning” women from playing the game in 1921. In deeming “the game of football quite unsuitable for females” the FA had decreed that “it ought not to be encouraged”.


Speaking after the release of a documentary on the subject, Prof Jean Williams told the UK’s Daily Telegraph in July that part of the reason for the ban was that the women’s game – which on occasion had been drawing crowds in England as large as 50,000 – was not funnelling the money it was making into the right pockets. Instead, postwar charities were the major beneficiaries.


“The FA wanted some of the money, a way of corralling the money into men’s football,” Williams told the Telegraph. “The ban had a dramatic effect: women were no longer allowed to play on grounds that were FA-affiliated, and had to go from stadiums to playing in parks or borstals. It fundamentally changed the nature of women’s football to be ad hoc, self-regulating and not condoned by the football establishment. It was a pretty spiteful way of trying to discredit women who had done their war work.”


The ban may well have had a flow-on effect in Australia, Heather Reid believes. While it was OK for women to be recruited as support workers, social committee members, canteen staff, fund-raisers and decoration (in regards to their taking part in club-related beauty pageants), Reid says the FA ban may have played a part in further fostering a dismissive attitude to female footballers. “


The FA ban was only lifted in 1971. So when we had this wave of migrants from UK they had this perception that women don’t play football. Even the European migrants that came here; they had their own expectations of women and playing football was not one of them.”


Sports journalism meets the Benny Hill Show


During this period, as Hay and Murray describe it, “antagonistic relations” between the women’s and men’s games remained at the institutional level. This, they say, was a result of a male belief that women might bring the game into disrepute or, perhaps worst of all, “that they might use playing a male sport as part of a broader campaign for social, political and economic equality”.


Attitudes hadn’t exactly changed by the 1970s. Especially in the media. Indeed it could be argued that the media’s slant in the hairy-chested 70s was even more retrograde than in previous decades. In 1970, for instance, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a feature piece in which the male writer refereed a Prague Ladies’ Soccer team interclub match, the day before the team was due to contest the Blacktown Spartan Ladies’ Shield. Based on his experience, the writer predicted the Spartan Shield would be a “boots and all, fur-will-fly affair”. He then recalled reprimanding a player “… who really caught my eye. I took her number, phone number, home address and vital statistics”. Sports journalism meets the Benny Hill Show.


Nevertheless, for all that, by the mid 1970s, an increasing number of women’s clubs, leagues and associations had been founded across the country. As Reid says, “It took a long time for women’s football to get some traction to be taken seriously – and not just by the media but by various football bodies as well. I think that’s why in the early days separate women’s associations were formed.”


And in 1974, building on that, the first women’s national competition was held, with five states taking part (there was both a NSW and a Northern NSW team). That same year, thanks to the efforts of women’s game pioneers like Queensland’s Elaine Watson, NSW’s Pat O’Connor, Victoria’s Betty Hoar and Western Australia’s Oscar Mate, the Australian Women’s Soccer Association (AWSA) was formed.


But this was just the beginning of a long and often fractious journey, as Reid recalls. “One of the keys things was that the AWSA needed to belong to the Australian Soccer Federation [ASF] in order to have recognition to play international games. Fifa only recognises one national association per country. That was the ASF. As the women’s organisation we didn’t have a direct affiliation to the ASF, so we had to rely on the goodwill of the ASF to sign off on our participation in various tournaments.”


Often at loggerheads, the AWSA and the ASF wouldn’t come together under the banner of the newfound Football Federation Australia until after the release of the 2003 Crawford Report.


Stepping onto the bigger stage


It was at this time that Australia’s female footballers began reaching out to the world. Four years before the Australian women played their first official international against New Zealand in Sydney, an Australian women’s team contested the 1975 Asian Football Confederation’s Women’s Championship (the Asian Cup) in Hong Kong. Playing in front of 4,000 odd spectators in both their pool matches, Australia’s first game was a 3-2 loss to Thailand while in their second they defeated Singapore 3-0. A scorer in both games was St George-Budapest star Pat O’Connor who, in the 1960s, had set up, in Sydney, the Metropolitan Ladies’ Soccer Association.


Although from the outside it seemed the team representing Australia in Hong Kong was a national one, it was really a rep side from NSW – who had chosen to sit out that year’s state titles to go to Hong Kong instead. According to what Reid calls “Elaine’s Bible” – Elaine Watson’s meticulous account of the early years of the AWSA – “when NSW arrived in Hong Kong for the Asian Cup they found that the organisers had publicised the NSW team as the Australian team without any background knowledge. The media in Australia adopted the terminology.” Accordingly no international caps were awarded to the players involved.


In any case, says Dolan, who was just 14 and a year into playing football with St George Budapest when she represented in Hong Kong, the experience “was the real beginning to Australia’s women stepping onto the bigger stage and trying to get organisation around our national team”.


Dolan, who these days is director of sport at the International Football School in Kariong on the Central Coast, says it was an eye-opening experience for a kid who’d barely been to the next Sydney suburb. “I’ve just come back from South Korea with a bunch of Under-12s and there they were playing against Santos and Celta Vigo. But at 14, back then, you’d probably been nowhere, apart from the next suburb, possibly interstate. Big sporting trips were not the norm. So I went to the tournament with all the wonder and youthfulness you have when you’re young. But I was never intimidated or nervous. When you’re that young you don’t get nervous, you go out there and play like you never played before.”


Dolan ended up as one of the players of the tournament, chosen in the Asian Cup all-star team.


1979: a watershed moment


For Reid, news of the 75 Asian Cup team reinforced in her mind that she wanted to do more in the sport. “Particularly as a feminist,” she stressed. “You have to remember this tour came on the back of 1975 which was International Women’s Year. It also came amid the Gough Whitlam government which reached out to women. So there were a whole lot of things happening for women. So why not women in football? We were really challenging the gender politics of the sport. It was a real eye opener and I wanted to be a part of it.”


In 1978 Australia sent a genuine national side – captained by Connie Byrnes, coached by Jim Selby (whom she’d later marry) and managed by Elaine Watson – to the first World Women’s Invitational Tournament in Chinese Taipei (Taiwan). The tour nearly didn’t happen, however. “In fact, we only went,” says Reid, “because the organisers of the event, the Republic of China FA, agreed to meet the cost of our international airfares and internal costs. The levy on players was $100 per player. That’s what the Australian players had to pay to represent their country.”


Australia ultimately finished eighth in the tournament after wins against Chinese Taipei and Thailand, draws against the USA and Denmark and a loss to Sweden. Unfortunately for the players involved no international caps were awarded to them as their opposition teams were really rebadged club or district teams.


Finally, in 1979, Australia played its first official international match. By this time Dolan was 18 and while she admits many of the finer details of the occasion have escaped her memory she recalls the pride she felt walking onto the ground and knowing she was representing her country. “It didn’t matter that the crowd was your mum, brothers, your aunty and anyone else vaguely interested. You were playing for Australia, and the intensity of the game reflected that.”


Shona Bass was on the bench that evening and she says she felt a sense of euphoria – playing for her country, playing for coach she admired in Jim Selby, and playing alongside “an exquisite player and playmaker like Julie [Dolan]”. “I loved the experience but of course was naïve about what was being undertaken. I always thought we were trailblazers but I could never foresee what it would lead to.”


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