Matildas' success highlights need to ‘pledge for parity’ in women’s football

Forget the Socceroos of Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell’s era, this is Australian football’s true ‘golden generation’ and the Matildas should be recognised as such

Could there be a more fitting start to International Women’s Day than the news that one of Australia’s most beloved sports teams, the Matildas, has secured qualification for the Rio Olympics?

In incredibly testing conditions – with five games scheduled in 10 days – including four against sides ranked in the top 20 in world football, the Matildas have achieved what neither men’s nor women’s teams have since Beijing 2008, and will once again fly the flag for Australian football on the international stage.

It is difficult to overstate the quality of performances seen at this tournament. From beating World Cup runners-up Japan home soil – for the first time in Matildas history in eight attempts since 1989 – to edging the combative and highly physical North Korean team, themselves ranked sixth in the world.

As they did in winning the Asian Cup in 2010, and as they did in surviving a “Group of Death” pool to reach the quarter-finals of last year’s World Cup, the Matildas have once again overcome the obstacles presented to them. They now travel to Rio not just as Olympians, but as genuine shots at earning Australia’s first ever medal in football at the Olympic games.

And whereas the Japanese squad, Asia’s preeminent team of the last decade, has begun to show its age, the Matildas boast the youth to become the dominant side of the next decade.

Thirteen of the squad of 20 at the AFC Olympic qualifying tournament are under 25 years old, including Asia’s 2014 footballer of the year, Katrina Gorry, Fifa’s 2015 World Cup All Star team selectee, Elise Kellond-Knight, and tournament top-goalscorer Kyah Simon.

Women’s football in Australia has had plenty of trailblazers, but never has it boasted such depths of talent – forget the Socceroos of Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell’s era; this is Australian football’s true “Golden generation” – and it’s not just a top side today, but one that could shine until well beyond 2020.

But you can’t achieve sustained success on mere goodwill alone.

A central pillar of International Women’s Day is a campaign asking people to “pledge for parity” – to help women and girls achieve their ambitions, to challenge conscious and unconscious bias and to further gender parity resources.

Football Federation Australia on Monday launched Female Football Week – a promotion and celebration of women and girl’s participation in Australia, and the governing body, and in particular CEO David Gallop and Emma Highwood, the head of community and women’s football, deserve commendation for their ongoing efforts to address gender parity in this sport.

FFA set aside unprecedented levels of financial support to aid the Matildas’ World Cup preparations, but in the protracted and acrimonious pay dispute and strike of late last year the governing body badly damaged its own reputation. That the Matildas have a collective bargaining agreement that enshrines contracts at above minimum-wage levels is to be applauded, but to see this as an endpoint of aspiration is a massive disservice to the sacrifices of female football players now and in decades gone by.

The fact still remains that entire W-League squads are paid a salary roughly equivalent to that received by the youngest members of A-League teams, and that despite the increased professionalism and pay brought to Australia’s top-tier women’s football league by new side Melbourne City, broadcasters and corporate sponsors still need to commit considerable resources before the league can fulfil its potential.

The Matildas’ third match of the Olympic qualifying tournamnet against South Korea was watched by an average of 194,000 viewers, peaking at 373,000, with the Australian Financial Review reporting the opening fixture as a 34% rating increase for broadcaster 7mate on the previous month’s equivalent time slot.

With ratings well in excess of free-to-air A-League offerings, how long will it be before corporate sponsors back the women’s national side to a degree commensurate even with local men’s sides?

In this corporate age of brand and cut-through, the Matildas are the full package. Not only are they successful on the field, but the squad dubbed “so easy to love” by former Matildas star Joey Peters, are an example worth following off the field.

If Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios’ Davis Cup exploits have demonstrated the evident shortcomings of modern sporting individuals being thrust into a team environment, then the spirit of camaraderie and sacrifice shown by the Matildas should be the example sports-loving children across the nation aspire towards.

Anyone who watched the Matildas on Monday night saw not just flashes of brilliance but also obdurate determination in the face of adversity.

The product is there, the eyeballs are there – it’s time for FFA, PFA, media broadcasters and corporate sponsors to “take the pledge” and to give this remarkable squad of athletes the ongoing financial support they need to reach the very pinnacle of world sport.

Contributor

Richard Parkin

The GuardianTramp

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