The beautiful game

27 June 2024

  • The CommBank Matildas stormed their way to the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023, inspiring girls and women of all ages to sign up to their local football clubs
  • Read from the women who advocate that playing sport cultivates a sense of community, empowerment, diversity and inclusion, is a great way to make friends and is something worth doing purely for fun
  • CommBank has been a proud supporter of Australian football since 2021 and has helped Football Australia to launch the Growing Football Fund

What difference can a $5,000 grant make to a sports club? Journalist and media commentator, Dilvin Yasa, speaks with five recipients of the Growing Football Fund and discovers the future of football might just be female.

Photography by Remi Chauvin, Helen Orr, Mark Lehn & Nigel Lough

Inspired by the CommBank Matildas' electrifying performance in the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023, making it to the semi-finals, there has been a significant surge in girls and women signing up to play football in clubs around the nation. It’s fast becoming known as the “Matildas effect”.

CommBank has been a proud supporter of Australian football since 2021 and the increased interest in playing football from girls and women doesn’t come without its challenges. That’s why Football Australia, with support from CommBank, launched the Growing Football Fund. Created to empower women and girls, the fund will focus on supporting coaches and community teams across Australia to meet their collective goal of attracting and retaining 50,000 female participants over the next two years.

Among the inclusions are a dedicated online Coaches Hub designed to support coaches with resources and technical training, as well as grants of up to $5,000 for community clubs and associations to support key initiatives for women and girls in football. Here, we speak with five players about their love of the beautiful game and the difference those grants can make to their clubs.

Shani Mackey is a mother of one who plays for Taroona FC (just south of Hobart).

“When you’re a mum, much of your identity is tied up around this other little person. So a great deal of why I’m so committed to sport isn’t just the thrill of the game – although that’s certainly a big part of it – but also taking time out to do something for myself."

"It’s not work, it’s not about meeting expectations or doing everyday activities, it’s doing something purely for fun.

"I’ve been playing since I was 14 and I’d say one of the sport’s biggest drawcards is its community. When you’re playing, it’s about working together as a team and accepting players’ different personality traits. In football, you get to meet and befriend those you never would have otherwise because you have this shared interest. And as the captain of my team and coordinator of the social teams for our woman and non-binary players, I feel like I’m giving back in my own way.

"Being a role model is important and something I’m mindful of when my three-year-old daughter watches me play. It’s good for her to see her mum doing something that isn’t serious or boring, and she’s growing up seeing that girls can do anything they want and hopefully she won’t let anyone tell her otherwise. I feel like we’re going in the right direction – up until a year ago it was tough for women and non-binary people to find places to play but since the CommBank Matildas showed the world what we’re capable of, the change has been extraordinary. Taroona went from having four teams to 22!

"We’re going to run a Kick-On for Women program with our grant money, which is where we’ll have someone coach a more social group once a week to train them in basic skills and drills and then play a fun game at the end. This way more people can have a go to see if they enjoy the sport without having a big commitment hanging over their heads.

"The more women are involved, the better we can take on the world.”

Isabella Millhouse is a psychology student who plays and coaches for Port Darwin FC.

“I had just left the army in 2020 when I signed up to play football. I didn’t know anyone in Darwin and I figured this would be the best way to make friends. It wasn’t my first foray into the sport – I’d played as a young child and with a club as a teenager. Still, I enjoyed the camaraderie so much that now, not only do I play but I coach and manage the under 6s and volunteer with the club where I can.

"With my psychology background, I know that encouraging kids to be active is one of the best things we can do for them. It’s important for their fitness but also their brain and mental health. The more kids I can encourage to get into football and be around their friends –moving, running and socialising from a young age -the better. It gives me such joy to see this next generation idolising the likes of Sam Kerr. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

Tamsin Groves is a Year 11 student who plays and coaches for Port Darwin FC.

“It took a bit of convincing to get me on the pitch. Although my brothers played and my dad coached, when I was 10, I wound up one of the only girls playing in a boys’ team, which I didn’t love. In the Northern Territory, that’s still a problem. I played in boys’ teams with one or two girls until I started playing in the National Premier League Women’s at the age of 14. Funding up here can be hard to come by so often girls either move south to pursue further playing opportunities or they quit the sport altogether, which is a shame.

"The sport challenges me to be a better player on the pitch and a better person away from it. And since I’m in year 11 at school, it’s also nice to have a chance to get away from the stress of schoolwork."

"The biggest highlight of my footballing experience so far has been representing the Northern Territory on multiple occasions, including captaining the under-14s team at the National Youth Championships. Another highlight is coaching two all-girls MiniRoos teams this year, which allows me to give back and inspire young girls to continue playing.

"The grant has allowed us to buy new goals and equipment for our girls’ teams and to pay the registration of senior and junior players to encourage more girls to join, which has been great.”

Kelly Polkinghorne is an interior designer and mother of two who plays for Westside Grovely FC (about 35 minutes from Brisbane).

“I’ve always been sports mad but I really only got into football through my children. As the training time for my boys – aged nine and 12 – increased, I started thinking how fun it would be to play. This led to the club launching an over-30s Summer 6’s competition two years ago.

"I’m not a competitive player – it’s more a social thing for me, which is why we formed our masters team this year.

"It’s been great for my fitness but it’s also a fantastic way to make new friends and get involved in the local community."

"Our club, like many others, runs solely on volunteers so for me it was important to give back and support the club that we spend so much time at. Community spirit shines through when we get together to help the juniors or drive each other’s kids to games. As a single parent, I find a lot of joy and solace in the ‘it takes a village’ mentality of our club community.

"I’ve noticed a big change in the perception of women’s football in Australia since the CommBank Matildas made it to the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 semi-final. A number of boys joined the club after watching them and we’ve certainly had an increase in the number of girls. It shows how important awareness of the sport is, especially women and girls playing the sport. That’s why I became a female football ambassador during the World Cup, which means I promote women’s football within the club and boost its presence on our social media platforms.

"The grant has given our club a huge boost, allowing us to put a number of initiatives into place. Playing in male kits can make players feel undervalued, so we’re continuing to invest in buying female uniforms for our teams to wear and we’re training female coaches to help increase female participation in the sport.

"It’s amazing how much of a difference sponsorship and funding can make for the next generation of players coming through.”

Retiree Sue McAdam is a mother of four and grandmother of seven who coaches for Doyalson Wyee Soccer Club, on the NSW Central Coast.

“There was a fair bit of confusion when I moved to Australia from England at the age of 15 and tried to join a local ‘football’ team. There was such a difference in how the game was perceived here compared with the love we had for it at home. When I took my husband to a second division match back there in 1990 – we met through our local football club in 1980 – he couldn’t believe the number of people in the stands. It was really eye-opening for him.

"We joined the Doyalson Wyee Soccer Club in 1994 but I didn’t get back onto the field myself until 2000. Those first six years were about raising the kids and watching them play. But once I got back on the field and kicked the ball into the back of the net, that familiar rush came over me and I realised how much I’d missed it. I got back into football in a big way, also spending the first 13 years on the committee. Now I’ve had a knee replacement so I can’t play, but I coach the women’s all-age team (well, in between minding my grandkids, all aged between one and nine) and driving around to watch their games. All but one plays for Doyalson so it’s a family affair.

"Coaching is different to playing.

"I’m highly competitive as a player, but you want to guide players in a way that not only teaches them the skills but encourages them to continue so we have quality teams as they get older."

"I’ve had plenty of experience – when my children were in primary school they were always volunteering my time to coach their school teams. When you love the sport as much as I do, you really don’t mind.

"Playing can be expensive. Registration fees are high and even though clubs subsidise what they can, once kids get to a certain level, many parents can’t afford it. The grant has allowed us to push costs down and open up opportunities for some of those players.”

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An earlier version of this article was published in Brighter magazine

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