Emerging Sports Writer Program participant Sienna Nobile on the challenges faced by women and girls playing football in regional Australia and why investment is so important.
As a six-year-old girl growing up in South Gippsland, watching my Papa coach his U/16s girls football team was a treat. The smell of the damp grass gave me some sort of comfort as I sat on the steel benches watching training, so to the sound of football boots on the gravel as the girls made their way to the pitch. There wasn’t a lot of entertainment in our small town, so tagging along to football matches in neighbouring towns was an adventure. The smoke from people’s wood heaters in the cold Kurrumburra winter would stick to my hair, and the aroma of hot chips from the club’s canteen would make my mouth water.
I remember joining the team’s training sessions. They were so much taller than me that I could only see their legs. So skilled that they made me look clumsy. I was so proud when they won their grand final. I thought they were superheroines. But it wasn’t until years later that I realised how difficult it was to play football as a woman in regional Victoria.
According to Football Victoria’s 2019 Women in Football report, only 55% of football clubs in Victoria offered programs for women and girls. Of these 200 clubs, 58 of them were in regional Victoria. For women and girls who want to play football, overcoming a challenge, or two, or three is far from unusual. But when you throw geography in the mix, things get a little more complicated. In regional Victoria, playing football can be arduous for women and girls. Not having enough players to keep a team or a league running, the perils of distance, no or limited access to facilities or change rooms and even sometimes no consistency around ball size.
I began playing football when I was 11. I can still feel the rush of adrenaline from my first training session. I had white boots with gold Adidas stripes and trained with a black and white Juventus kit my Dad bought for me from a little Italian store in Melbourne. I remember washing my boots after every practice so they didn’t lose their shine, and leaving them in front of the gas fire so they’d be dry to play in the next day. I was yet to turn 12 and was still growing into my shinguards, but I was thrown into an U/14s team with teammates both older and younger than me. Most of us shouldn’t have been there; we were forced to play above our age group because there weren’t enough girls playing in our region in central Gippsland. “We should be playing in an U/12s league,” we’d whisper to each other at our Thursday night training. “Do you think it’ll be hard?” we’d asked each other when they announced our league. And it was hard. Consistency is key when developing junior players and the fluctuation in numbers of girls wanting to play was damaging. It was rough not knowing if the teammates you had for your first match would be the same teammates you had for your last.
Our small four-team league doubled in size the following year, but in 2016, the competition collapsed. We were back to square one. The solution? Throwing an all-girls team into an all-boys league. We were exposed to more injuries, depreciation in self-confidence and tension amongst team members. We hit the bottom of the ladder hard and fast. It was the opposite of what we wanted. We didn’t want male opponents if we had no males on our side. We didn’t want to be defeated with a clean sheet every Saturday morning. This wasn’t a battle of the sexes, we just wanted a fair opportunity to play football and score some goals.
Imagine playing the same team every two weeks. Imagine being laughed at for being the only girls’ team in the league and finishing with 0 points at the end of the season. Imagine playing on a team with one substitute on the bench. Imagine playing a 90-minute game injured, because if you come off the pitch there would be no substitutes left for your teammates. I don’t have to imagine it.
This is not an experience unique to me or my teammates. So what’s behind this instability? Well, it’s a mix of things. Obviously, there are not enough girls playing sports in Australia full stop. And in regional Victoria, the options provided for playing sport are often limited and football is up against sports like netball and Aussie rules. On top of this, you also have junior players leaving junior comps for the stability of the senior comps, and players leaving their local comps for others that can provide sustainability for girls and women within their club.
In their Gender Equality Action Plan, the FFA say they are ‘committed to achieving 50/50 women and men players at grassroots level over the next ten years’. To do this, they need to be able to recruit almost 600,000 girls and women to play in local club teams around the country. The FFA’s own research says that inequality forces girls and women from the game. From the Gender Equality Action Plan: ‘Almost half of the girls who stop playing football report they do so because “the clubs do not treat girls’ teams equal to boys”’. In the plan, the FFA acknowledges that it is not acceptable for girls to not have female toilets or change rooms at their local clubs. Their aim is to provide these facilities accompanied by the same level of access to quality pitches (including synthetic) and well-lit, safe grounds that ‘their male counterparts enjoy’.
Despite the challenges and the inequality faced by women and girls in the game, female football participation continues to grow in Victoria. Ausplay’s most recent data shows that the number of female football players for club teams in Victoria has more than doubled in the last five years to 55,000 players. There is unfortunately no data on regional players, but we do know that women and girls are driving participation rates across the country. This growth—with no exceptions—is a result of the rising success and prominence of the Matildas and, no doubt, Australia’s successful bid to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023.
It’s expected that the upcoming World Cup will deliver an explosion in participation, however, the challenges for women and girls in the sport will continue to grow and extend without serious work to counter them. Hosting this momentous event is such an incredible opportunity for the game to grow—from the W-League right down to grassroots regional football. But Australia needs to provide the right support to raise future Matildas.
We need to be specific and find solutions that speak directly to the challenges for women and girls playing regionally and design a framework that benefits different regional areas, because one idea may not work for all. We have to think creatively. We have to keep pushing. We have to keep working. Because the risk of not doing so could throw our sport backwards.
If we mess this up, the huge amount of anticipated players flooding in from the Women’s World Cup won’t stay, and women’s football in Australia will return to where it was 30 years ago. We have to get this right so that the next eleven-year-old Sienna out in central Gippsland doesn’t have to play in a male-dominated league. So she doesn’t have to play a 90-minute game with an injury so her team has a substitute. So she doesn’t have to worry about whether there’ll even be a team for her to play in.