Australian women's sporting teams are world class, what makes them best in the game?
Stage and Screen speaks with The Matildas to find out what the view's like from the top and what it means to be part of the shift that's happening in women's sport.
She says it took just five minutes, but honestly it may not have taken that long for the love affair to begin.
A then five-year-old Clare Polkinghorne had tagged along to her elder brother’s soccer game. With five minutes remaining her father – the team manager – put his little girl on. That was it.
“It was rare for girls to be playing then, but I just loved it from those first five minutes,” Polkinghorne recalled. “I was the only girl when I first started and was still the only girl until I was 11 or 12.
“I just remember being out there for the Wynnum Wolves and having fun. I think some of the other players and parents were surprised there was a girl playing, but as soon as I was on the field and doing really well, they didn’t mind.
“How times have changed. It’s just awesome to see there are so many young girls playing and having fun with the sport.”
Things have dramatically changed since that first day in 1994. She continued with soccer, and in 2006, was selected for Australia. Seven years later she was bestowed with the co-captaincy, and will now lead the Matildas into the Rio Olympics.
“When I was growing up I’d never really heard of the Matildas and didn’t know they were at World Cups or the Olympics,” she said. “It wasn’t until I was about 13 or 14 I realised you could represent Australia and do all these great things, and since I debuted it has just progressively got better and better, and to be where I am now … it’s such an honour.
“And in terms of the women’s game, the more exposure and interest the team gets is reward for a lot of hard work that not only we have done, but the players who came before us and started the trail blaze. We’re just following in their footsteps.”
Unlike Polkinghorne, Ellie Carpenter had heard of the Matildas growing up. The 16-year-old, the first player born this millennium to play senior international soccer for Australia, was 12 when she made a crucial decision.
From the NSW country town of Cowra, Carpenter was a talented sprinter, who dreamt of the Olympics. It came down to a choice.
“It was difficult, but I always wanted to play in a team sport. That was the key factor in choosing soccer, and I think my decision has been proven already,” said Carpenter.
She left family and friends and moved to the city to attend Westfields Sports High School, but as she says, the decision has been vindicated. She is now herself a Matilda.
“When I was growing up I would watch the Matildas and dreamed that one day that could be me, on that team, going to the Olympics. I think it’s great that young girls can have those dreams and strive to be like the players I’m now playing alongside. I did, and here I am.”
Rio will be the first Olympics the Matildas have qualified for since Athens in 2004, where, despite not advancing past the first stage, showed the world just how competitive they were, drawing 1-1 with gold medal winners the USA, losing 1-0 to silver medallists Brazil, and beating the home nation 1-0.
“Twelve years is a long time to be out of the Olympic spotlight,” Polkinghorne said. “It’s such a prestigious event and attracts worldwide attention, and for us to be on that world stage and to have that exposure to the public will be massive, especially if we can perform well it will not only be very beneficial for us as a group, but also for soccer and in Australia.
Female participation in soccer continues to swell, with now over 102,000 registered players. But it’s not soccer alone which has become a major growth sport for women.
“A few of us that have been through the last two failed qualifying attempts and I think we just thought it was our time. We didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity again.
“Sometimes the chance may never come around again, and we all are treating this campaign that way.”
The Matildas played five tough matches in 10 days in the qualifying tournament in Japan, winning four to gain a berth in Rio.
But it’s not only on the pitch where the Matildas have been getting results. After beating Brazil during last year’s World Cup, many sat up and looked, and now their public popularity compares favourably with many of the higher profile national teams.
“I think any player who gets to wear the green and gold wants to leave a mark on the game and we want to leave the game in a better place,” Polkinghorne said.
“We have seen rapid growth in the last four or five years in young girls playing soccer and I think that has coincided with the success of our national team.
“The more exposure we can get and the bigger the fan base at home, and more girls coming to our games, and seeing what we are about, will hopefully get them excited to be involved. And the more people we have participating, the more talent we will produce in the long run, and the flow on effect is great for the growth of the game.”
Like the Matildas, Australia’s women's rugby 7s will be headed to Rio, and on the back of their recent World Sevens Series win, the Pearls will be one of the gold medal favourites.
In AFL, there will be a women's league from 2017, while in rugby league the women’s game took a massive step earlier this year when the Australia-New Zealand Test was televised on Channel 9 and broadcast live on Fox Sports and Sky Sports New Zealand.
“It is great to see women getting more exposure in other codes as well,” says Polkinghorne. “First and foremost it gives younger girls sporting role models they can look up to, and it’s just so good to see that a lot of the other sports are buying in as well.”
By Michael Cowley