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Pararoos captain Ben Roche: “Football has the ability to start important conversations”

Ben Roche has played 54 times for the Pararoos – Australia’s only national team for people with cerebral palsy – and captained the team around the world. He spoke to Soccerscene about what the Pararoos have done for him, the future of the team after the exclusion of the sport from the Paralympic Games, and how the footballing community can further embrace the squad. 

Q: How has the exclusion of 7-aside football from the Paralympic games impacted the Pararoos?

Ben Roche: For us, it almost instantly had an impact. Obviously, for the young kids pushing to want to play for the Pararoos, their attention has turned to other sports, and for Pararoos players who are in the program who had the ambition to be Paralympians have chosen other paths, which means you can lose key players and things like that. We’ve had to work hard to grow the game and we are probably in a stronger position than we’ve ever been in, in ensuring that we qualify for the World Cup.


Q: Funding has been an issue for the Pararoos, where does most of it come from?

Ben Roche: We don’t actually receive government funding anymore, we used to get a little bit from the Australian Sports Commission, which was cut in 2015 because of their winning edge policy, which means if they don’t think you’ll win a medal funding will be cut or limited. Since then we have survived off donations through the Australian Sports Foundation. With the work of Football Australia, they set a fundraising page and we try to raise $200,000 plus each year to go towards getting a team to a tournament, a couple of camps, and hopefully a national championship to identify the next generation. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any sustainability for us, we are always pushing to raise those funds and take the program to the next level. 

Q: It is a pretty horrific way to fund Paralympic sport, isn’t it?

Ben Roche: Yeah, it came to light this week that the Paralympians don’t get any funding if they win a medal, like the Olympians who win do. The Paralympians don’t get anything for doing the exact same amount of work if not more, and that isn’t the way it should be.

Q: What brought about the change in funding?

Ben Roche: The Australian Sports Commission at the time, they have to allocate across sports, and they probably saw that the sports might be better allocated to individual sports which they thought could secure more medals, whether that is athletics or swimming, I don’t know. For me I am a big believer in football being the game played around the world, and cerebral palsy is the most common physical disability for children in Australia. For me that is perfect, you’ve got the world game and the most common physical disability, what a perfect format. We’ve worked really hard to get that message out there and show what the power of football can do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s coming from poverty, or having a disability, or having a different background, football has the ability to start important conversations. For us that is where our messaging comes into it, our goal is to create inclusive opportunities for people across the country. Not just for cerebral palsy and things like that, we want to lead the way for inclusive football in all versions of the game. 

Q: How Important has football been to you?

Ben Roche: It has shaped everything I’ve done. I joined the Pararoos when I was 12 years old, and it has taken me around the world. It’s been really eye-opening in terms of that, but it has also put me in front of role models with cerebral palsy and other disabilities who have successful careers, families, social lives, and all those kinds of things. Being able to see that at a young age really shaped who am I today, and gave me the confidence to go and do the things I’m doing. I love football so much that I’ve been working in it, I was working for Football Australia as a team manager because I wanted to be in and around football, and it’s something I am extremely passionate about.

Ben at his first tournament with the Pararoos in Argentina.

Q: How important is it to have visible role models like these growing up?

Ben Roche: It’s massive, for me it was meeting those role models that shaped me. I launched a few programs across the country for people with disabilities, and the conversations I get to have with kids, and the conversations I get to have with the parents as well, the amount the community means to them is huge. For me to see someone who has faced similar challenges doing great things is the best thing I could have come across. By us having a successful Pararoos program we can hopefully empower and not only support these young kids that may want to play football but support them in their careers and everyday lives.

Q: Could the wider football community better embrace the Pararoos? 

Ben Roche: I don’t blame them for not doing so, we weren’t really a common name and still aren’t among the football community, which has been a big push for us to put emphasis through social media and get our messaging out there, to include us in conversation along with the Socceroos and Matildas. I hope that when people do get to see it, it’s something they can get behind. The game is quite fast-paced, it can be high scoring, really physical and we don’t hold back. I’d love to see the Australian football community embrace it more – and I’m not saying they don’t – but the more we can get them behind us the bigger reach we can have.

Q: What is the future of the Pararoos program in Australia?

Ben Roche: COVID has made the last couple of years tricky, just in terms of being able to fundraise for the program. For us we are really interested in taking it to the next level, to not only further develop the men’s program but a women’s program too, which more information will come out for in the next couple of months. We are looking to really create more opportunities throughout Australia, not only have our state teams which are filtering into nationals but also launching academies and programs that will feed into inclusive opportunities. On top of that hopefully we can keep having important conversations around disability.

If you want to help support the Pararoos you can donate through their website.

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.

Football Coaches Australia presents ‘The Football Coaching Life Podcast’ S3 Ep 4 with Gary Cole interviewing Belinda Wilson

Gary Cole

Belinda Wilson began her football journey in Byron Bay on the far north coast of NSW. She is currently enjoying autumn in Zurich, Switzerland where she is the Senior Technical Development Manager, Women’s Football with FIFA. A remarkable achievement for a young Australian Coach and Administrator.

After falling in love with the game on a family holiday to the UK, Belinda returned to Byron Bay unable to play as she was a girl. At the time there were no girls’ competitions and girls weren’t allowed to play with boys. She was eventually allowed to play as a twelve-year-old in the senior women’s team.

Her coaching journey began as a teenager coaching her younger brothers’ team from U6 through to U13’s. Her talent saw her be rewarded as coach of FFNC U14 girls’ representative team.

Belinda has worked as the Coach Education Manager for AFC, been in fulltime club roles in Sweden and Denmark. She returned to Australia to work with FNSW, NSWIS and Head Coach of the Australian U17 team, also winning a Premiership with Brisbane Roar in 2013.

She was appointed as Head Coach of the Guam Women’s National Team and National Technical Director in 2017 and has also been on the FIFA Technical Panel for World Cups in 2007 and 2011 and the 2008 Olympic Games.

Belinda’s ‘One Piece of Wisdom’ was: “Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Go out there and challenge yourself to see who you are as a person but also as a coach. Take the opportunities and take a risk, the worst that can happen is you end up where you started, and sometimes that’s not a bad place to be.”

Please join us in sharing Belinda Wilson’s Football Coaching Life.

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