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No overnight success: The slow transformation of women’s football in Australia

While the jury is still out on Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson following the performances in the two-game friendly series against reigning World Cup champions, the United States, there’s one thing for certain – women’s football has never been more popular.

A total of 56,604 people turned out to the two games against the US in Sydney and Newcastle, including a record-breaking 36,109 at Stadium Australia on November 27.

A further 457,000 people tuned into the game on Channel 10’s free-to-air coverage, highlighting the incredible rise in accessibility for Australia’s flagship national football teams to the mainstream audience.

With a Women’s World Cup on the ever-approaching horizon, the outlook for women’s football has rarely looked better.

However, the so-called overnight success of women’s football has been 50 years in the making.

And for some of the pioneers who helped champion the game’s cause in the face of countless doubters, the delight of seeing the women’s game reach the incredible heights of recent years leaves many thinking, where would we be if women’s football had been backed since day dot?

It’s a question that long-time football administrator Maggie Koumi has, who currently sits on Football Victoria’s Historical Committee and Women’s Committee. She was also recently featured in the Fair Play Publishing title, Dedicated Lives – Stories of Pioneers of Women’s Football in Australia by Greg Downes.

“If people had believed in us at the start, it could have been 50,000 people per game this time,” Koumi told Soccerscene, reflecting on her earlier days in the sport.

“But it is what it is. We can’t worry too much about the past now, although I do feel for the friends of mine, the former Matildas, who had to go through a hard slog and used to have to ry and pay their way to play.

“The good thing is that we’ve come a long way since then, and the difference between what my friends had and what the Matildas get now is amazing.”

In a mark of just how quickly the women’s game has propelled forward, it was not even 25 years ago that women’s football in Victoria was administered completely, and separately from the rest of the game.

Koumi, who played a key role in the amalgamation of the Victorian Women’s Soccer Association and the Victorian Soccer Federation in the late 1990s, explained that when change did eventually come for the women’s game, it came quickly.

However, it was a long, hard slog before those changes took place.

“For a long time, I think we were just a pain in the ass to most people in the game,” she said.

“We were just sort of tacked on without any real support. There was no money for the women’s game and no one seemed to care about it. There was just an assumption that no one was interested in it and that attitude pretty much floated around football in Victoria.

“For the most part, they just made women’s football mirror the men’s game and was really hard to get people to understand that that approach didn’t work. Trying to get people to understand that you can’t just mirror whatever the men do, because the women don’t have the resources that the men do was always very challenging.”

Koumi believes changes at the top of the game – in particular at Football Australia and Football Victoria – as well as the findings of the Crawford Report, were massive institutional changes that helped set the scene for the gigantic strides forward taken in such a short space of time.

“Football Australia started to take note of the women’s game and they had people come and talk to the different federations to try and start the conversation around changing things in football,” Koumi said.

“The changes to the Football Victoria constitution [in 2006, when FV was known as the Victorian Soccer Federation], was another big catalyst.

“It changed the voting system allowing clubs to vote for zone reps and the zone reps would vote for the board and from there the face of Football Victoria changed a lot.”

The groundswell of young girls looking to play the game opened the eyes of many grassroots clubs to better.

“Brighton Junior soccer club was one of the really, really big clubs that managed to get lots and lots of people playing good a great promotion on women’s football and it all started to change,” Koumi added.

“The numbers crept up and the club’s suddenly realised that they can have a whole stack of girls playing and increase their membership and revenue, which helped.

“It didn’t necessarily change the attitude towards women’s football, but at least we started to get some serious numbers of girls playing football.”

Further efforts to provide access to education at clubs about how to run a successful women’s program – as well as greater funding for high-performances teams in women’s football – further propelled the trajectory of women’s football in Australia as a new generation of brilliant women’s footballers emerged and helped the Matildas to become a genuine force in the game.

Of course, there is still work to be done.

Koumi argues greater media recognition of women’s football, a more professional A-League Women competition and a further improvement of attitude and embracement of women’s football at grassroots clubs are crucial to the ongoing success and improvement of the game in Australia.

“A lot of clubs still do things like putting their women’s team on the back paddock while junior boys are playing on the main pitch, so there’s still work to do,” she said.

“That attitude is changing, but in some places, it still exists.

“The World Cup coming to Australia is great and I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to promote women’s football and improve the facilities we have.

“We produce good players but they have to go overseas to prove themselves or to play with the best and improve and I’d like to see that be able to happen here one day.”

You can read more about Koumi’s journey and experiences in Australian football – and those of 17 other people who pioneered the women’s game in this country – in the new book titled Dedicated Lives – Stories of Pioneers of Women’s Football in Australia.

Matthew Galea is a sports journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and industry matters, drawing on his knowledge and passion of the game.

Victorian Government launches female football network

Football Victoria

The Victorian Government has officially unveiled a new female football networking group, Our Game Network – Victoria for the state.

Our Game Network – Victoria’s aim is to unite Victoria’s footballing public to share ideas, celebrate the game, learn, and continue to challenge gender biased attitudes which exist in sport. The group strongly aligns with Football Victoria’s (FV) Strategic Plan 2019-2022 which set the ambitious strategic objective to reach 50:50 gender equity by 2027.

A sold-out crowd packed into the Royal Brighton Yacht Club to connect, network and build relationships with other members of the football community.

Hosted by Andrea Swain, Football Victoria’s (FV) Women and Girls Manager, the night was headlined by a line-up of guest speakers who shared their experiences and discussed the ongoing need to grow women’s and girl’s football.

The event was launched to coincide with last week’s #OneYearToGo Campaign, celebrating what is an exciting and pivotal time for female football as the countdown begins toward the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2022.

Former Commonwealth Bank Matildas stars Melissa Barbieri and Tal Karp discussed their journeys and the influence networking and mentoring is having on the next generation. In addition, the ‘Leading the Change’ panel featured Dr Brent McDonald (Victoria University), Radmila Dyson (Officer City SC), Andrea Blair-Dempsey (Phillip Island SC) and Joanna Charaktis (FIFA Assistant Referee).

The group spoke in-depth about the Change Makers Program and the positive influence it was having within Victorian Clubs, changing attitudes and implementing gender equity across all areas of football.

Karen Pearce, Executive Manager Equity, Growth and Inclusion also addressed the room, discussing Legacy 23, the importance of community engagement and the vast impact clubs can have when uniting to drive positive change.

Overall, more than 110 guests attended, making the night a spectacular success.

Victorian initiative supports development of women’s leadership skills in sport

Women leadership

Applications for Victoria’s new Change Our Game Professional Development Scholarships Program are now open.

This will provide Victorian women the chance to build specialist skills tailored to leadership roles in the sport and recreation sector, thanks to the Victorian Government.

Offered through the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation, the Program provides grants of $5,000 and $10,000 for professional development opportunities for women working in the sector, so they can obtain and flourish in leadership roles.

In addition, the opportunity to receive personal career coaching to help women map their career paths and identify the skills they may need to reach senior leadership roles.

Successful applicants also have the chance to attend the world conference of the International Working Group on Woman & Sport, being held in New Zealand in November 2022, as part of a Change Our Game Delegation.

The group is the world’s largest network dedicated to advancing gender equity and equality in sport, physical education and physical activity.

Director of the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation Sarah Styles said in a statement that the Change Our Game Professional Development Scholarships Program pulls together a number of initiatives to provide a leadership program that is flexible and personalised – it will be a real game changer.

The Office for Women in Sport and Recreation and the Change Our Game campaign is working to level the playing field for women and girls in sport and active recreation.

This work also includes community events, research studies and sports broadcasting programs aimed at increasing the number of women and girls participating in sport and in leadership roles.

Applications for the Change Our Game Professional Development Scholarships Program close on August 22, 2022.

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