Marnie Vinall speaks with former Matilda and current Melbourne City goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri on her career and the scope of women’s football in Australia today.
The first official public women’s football game in Australia was played on September 24, 1921, at The Gabba in Brisbane to a crowd of 10,000 people. After this game, an increasing number of women wanted to take up the sport, as Queensland University of Technology researcher Dr Lee McGowan told the ABC.
But later that same year, in 1921, the English Football Association (FA) banned women from playing on official grounds in the UK, and Australia followed suit.
“They blamed it on medical and aesthetic reasons as well as being worried about damaging their reproductive systems,” McGowan claimed. “They could still play but not within official football grounds or in public view.”
Although women did continue to play football in Australia, it was at lower participation levels, and knowing exactly when and how is tough as there’s a lot of missing history on the matter. Flash forward to the 1970s, and the women’s national football team was formed and years later in 1996, the women’s national soccer league was created. The latter was replaced by the W-League in 2008, which rebranded last year to what we know today as A-League Women’s.
It’s in these domains where Melissa Barbieri, better known as ‘Bubs’, imprinted herself on the history of the game. And as a pioneer of football in the country, she’s seen what it takes for growth to happen and only wants to see the talent pool grow.
In her younger years, Barbieri made her way up Victorian and Australian youth representative squads as a dominant and agile midfielder. This was a role she dominated until age 20 when an unfortunate back injury forced her to move into a goalkeeping role. This proved to be a good position for her, as a year after making the switch, she earned herself a spot in the Matildas squad defending the goal. And there she stayed for 14 years.
As a mainstay with the national team, Barbieri played in four World Cups, the Athens Olympics, 86 A-internationals and, as she’s noted as her career highlight thus far, captained the team to victory in the 2010 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.
Now, she plays for Melbourne City in the A-League Women’s competition.
When I ask her about the growth of women’s football in Australia, she understandably replies, “It’s been a long journey.” This, I feel, is referring to both her own history and that of the sport.
The growth of women’s football in Australia
Women’s football in Australia has seen a rise in popularity over the last few years and continues to soar. Last year, the Matildas ran out to a record-breaking crowd of 36,109 people at Stadium Australia in a friendly match against the United States and during the Olympics, broke viewership records when millions of Australians tuned in to watch.
Barbieri says Australia’s women’s football may have had humble beginnings but has seen “rapid growth in the last few years, especially off the back of someone like Sam [Kerr]”.
“I think, with all the people that are naysayers about the Matildas, you can’t deny how much respect we have as a football team,” she says.
That respect has been cultivated from being a successful, exciting team to watch but not without hard work behind the scenes from players.
“Going from having to pay to play to then getting, you know, daily wage when we were on tour, then getting contracted, that was all through the hard work of a certain amount of players,” says Barbieri.
“Becoming involved with the PSA, boycotting when we had to in order to get the CBAs [collective bargaining agreements] over the line and then continuing to strive for the details in everyday life for professional footballer[s]. I’m certainly proud to see the differences it has made for players”.
Barbieri notes that there is still a way to go “but in terms of that growth, I’m hugely usually proud of the momentum that was gained through all the hard work of all the years.”
It’s not all Matildas or nothing
However, despite the Matildas being a highly respected team and an inspiration to strive for, Barbieri stresses that when it comes to being a professional footballer in Australia, it’s not the national team or nothing.
“It’s important to know that with more and more players picking up the game, they’ll be more and more talented ones. The difference between making the Matildas and not could be your left foot and your right foot. It could be as simple as that and it’s got nothing to do with how talented you are,” she says.
With only 23 spots on the national team roster and only a few retiring every few years, there’s a build-up of great players that shouldn’t be deterred by not making the cut.
“If Matildas is your only gauge of how good you are, then you’ll get destroyed, distracted, feel disrespected and then give up and move on,” Barbieri says, noting other avenues.
There are American scholarships, pathways through international countries, such as Brazil and Denmark, and of course, the A-League where Barbieri says players can “make great careers”.
Women’s football has come a long way since 1921 and the work of pioneers such as Barbieri have helped paved a way for so many more to follow. The talent in Australia is growing by the day and the fans are gaining in momentum right there beside them. Off the back of great careers, such as Bubs’, more can follow—on both domestic and international stages.
As Football Victoria claims, “Barbieri has made an enormous contribution to football in Victoria, as a player, a coach and an ambassador of the game”. And she’s still out saving goals at Melbourne City.