SEPTEMBER 16, 2017 was a massive day in Australian sport.
Both the AFL and NRL hosted blockbuster finals matches in Sydney, but something much more significant was taking place just up the M4 on the city’s outskirts.
At Penrith Stadium, football and Aussie women’s sport as a whole was experiencing a landmark day. A sell-out crowd flocked to the foot of the mountains to see the Matildas take on Brazil as they entered the mainstream.
It was a symbolic day for the code, as a shoddy ‘Kerr 20’ tape-job to an old Socceroos jersey emerged as the defining image of what was the beginning of something special.
Fast-forward almost exactly 13 months, and Australia’s most beloved national team return to the scene of that day. Penrith plays host to the Matildas’ first ever clash with Chile on November 11, as Alen Stajcic’s team return home for the first time since March.
And so, as they go full circle, following a non-stop 12 months that featured an Algarve Cup, an Asian Cup and another strong Tournament of Nations showing, the time for reflection arises.
Foxsports.com.au spoke to coach Stajcic, and FFA Head of Women’s Football Emma Highwood to assess the on-field and off-field success of the Matildas, and why this period was so important to Australian football as a whole.
WERE THE PENRITH AND NEWCASTLE CLASHES A TURNING POINT?
If you ask Stajcic what the biggest moments for the Matildas were this year, he doesn’t hesitate.
“I think last year had two massive turning points on reflection and I think I mentioned even last year. The sell-out crowd for a Matildas match was certainly a high watermark for the team and then beating America for the first time in history was an on-field high watermark,” he tells foxsports.com.au.
The widespread growth of women’s sport in Australia is a priority across all sport. But on that day in Penrith, the Matildas emerged as trailblazers.
“Off the field I think it showed everyone the appeal of this team, the fact that women’s sport and women’s football can have the appeal where it can break through that barrier of being a mainstream sport that people love to be connected to, they love to come out and watch, come out and support,” Stajcic said.
That day, a women’s match in Penrith drew a bigger crowd than an AFL semi-final that was taking place in a major city. That’s a feat that would have been scarcely believable in years gone by.
“To show that this team has the capacity to outdraw well established male professional – you would almost say No.1 – codes in Australia on any given day shows the high watermark this team can have,” Stajcic said.
“So it was an important (day) for this team.”
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WHY WERE THEY SO IMPORTANT?
The fight for gender equality envelops all areas of society, and sport acts as a microcosm for the way women are viewed and treated. By having the Matildas enter the mainstream, via big crowds and a groundswell of support, it allows more female role models to arise.
Highwood revealed since those matches, there has been a surge in female participation even at the lowest level of the game, correlating with intensifying promotion for the women’s game.
“We’ve seen a knock-on effect in the grassroots, increased girls playing the game due to the increased focus and promotion that the Matildas bring,” she told foxsports.com.au.
The Matildas are undoubtedly role models for the next generation of young women, and this is something that those involved with the team are acutely aware of. Within the squad, Cathy Freeman is a hero of many of the players – not a surprise considering they grew up only able to watch men’s football on television.
“I think this will now be the first generation of young Australians growing up, boys and girls, who have female footballers as their role models,” Stajcic said.
“Now they can see them on TV, they can see them (play) live, they’re well known throughout mainstream media, they actually have female footballers as role models and people they can connect with, which certainly wasn’t the case when our players were youngsters growing up.”
Even further, Stajcic pointed to research that suggests there’s a link between how women are perceived in sport and domestic violence.
A perception of women as strong and capable in the public eye is understood to reflect in attitudes towards women in the home
“The Victorian state government had found some research that the way that women are perceived in sport is a reflection of the way that women are perceived in their household and had a link towards domestic violence as well,” he said.
“So, in terms of that there is the big picture outlook which is very important for all of us within football, and then there is those extra things that underpin how our society has evolved over the last few years as well and to see the Matildas as part of that change is certainly pleasing for everyone involved within our team and rewarding.”
WHAT HAVE WE ACHIEVED SINCE?
While there’s been no silverware to show for the Matildas’ efforts over the past year, Stajcic reflects on a stronger all-round squad has emerged from “a tough year”.
But with a World Cup on the horizon, the coach continues to champion flexibility and stability of his broader playing group, something that will no doubt aid them upon arrival in France in June.
“It’s been a tough year on the field, in terms of our stability within the team,” Stajcic says.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries starting out in the Algarve Cup – we had seven or eight injuries moving into that. Half of those players rehabbed and got back into the team for the Asian Cup but half didn’t.
“It’s been really tough for that continuity and fluency we had towards the end of last year when we won seven or eight games in a row and set the record for the history of the team in terms of wins in a row.
“So, in terms of fluency it’s been a tough year but I still think we’ve shown an amazing amount of resilience, an amazing capacity to still play at a high level regardless of who’s been in the team and regardless of which position players have played in. So, on the field it gives me a lot of confidence moving forward that if we can get our full-strength team together there’s no reason we can’t be an extra strong contender come the world cup.”
Injuries have plagued this team of late. The likes of Caitlin Foord, Michelle Heyman, Amy Harrison, Hayley Raso and Kyah Simon, to name a few, have all missed significant chunks of the last 12 months, but the squad continues to compete at the top level.
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They remain sixth in the world and have enjoyed varied success against some of the world’s best – although notably haven’t beaten a team inside the top five of late. The closest they got to achieving this was a nail-biting 1-1 draw against the USA at the Tournament of Nations.
The challenge for the FFA, and for the game in general, was – and is – to build on rising numbers and exposure to grow the game even further.
“From my perspective, what we want to do is ensure that Penrith last year wasn’t just a one-off event and that we can continue to build the Matildas to become mainstream and continue to build the interest in the Matildas and let that filter down to the rest of the game,” Highwood said.
With the W-League growing in interest, and Sam Kerr quickly emerging with star power capable of transcending gender boundaries, Highwood points to a number of signals that the women’s game has been successful on building from this foundation.
“Around the same time that we had the Penrith and Newcastle games, we went into the W-League and we had that landmark pay and conditions deal,” she says.
“Last W-League season was definitely fantastic, we had crowds up, the interest commercially has also started to come. Definitely more commercial interest in the Matildas but also in the women’s game more broadly – which has helped to continue the momentum into the W-League.”
Highwood highlighted the increased crowds in the W-League, with a significantly increased 1,500 fans getting along to Marconi Stadium for the first edition of the new-look ‘Hersday’ night football timeslot a few short weeks ago, as an example of heightened interest in the competition.
Meanwhile Kerr, now recognised as the first ever female marquee in Australian football history, continues to raise the profile of the women’s game, with Highwood revealing the Perth Glory star “came out as the most popular player in the A-League and W-League” last season, noting “her cut-through is across the whole game and outside of the game as well.”
WHAT IS THERE TO LOOK FORWARD TO?
The obvious answer to this question is the Women’s World Cup – which takes place in France next June/July.
Stajcic’s Matildas will learn their draw next month, as they seek to improve on their quarter-final finish four years ago in Canada.
But in the short term, these two clashes against Chile – in Penrith and Newcastle – will look to once again capture the imagination of the public, as the Aussies finally return to their own backyard after an extended period away.
The FFA are hoping to host more clashes in the lead up to the Cup, as they continue to hone in on public support, with the aim to ultimately compound their efforts with success in their bid to host the World Cup in 2023.
“We want to leverage this year as much as we can to get the benefits for the whole game,” Highwood says.
“Ideally we win the rights to hold the women’s World Cup and that would take us to another level.”
Watch the Matildas v Chile on November 10 and 13 LIVE on Fox Sports!