Australia’s local women in football have been championing the game for decades
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Australia’s local women in football have been championing the game for decades

May 26, 2023

As the nation celebrates the success of the Matildas so far, having the FIFA Women's World Cup in our backyard also provides the chance to highlight the local heroes who have been championing women in football for years.

Football is for everyone, and some of the game's greatest ambassadors are at Australia's local clubs, giving their all to bring more women into the game no matter their age, skill or experience.

If you'd told a teenage Rachael Oberleuter that the Women's World Cup would be held in Australia one day, she wouldn't have believed you.

"It would have been huge. It would have been incredible. It was different then," she said.

"Our role models were the men. We didn't know any different. All we saw was the boys play."

Despite not seeing women in the games shown on television, Rachael fell in love with football and it led to her coaching for the past 31 years.

"It was either netball or football — there wasn't a lot of choice when I was that age," Rachael remembers.

Now she has been involved in the Sawtell Football Club for three decades. The club has had a women's team since 1974. Quite the feat for a small town in New South Wales.

At the club, Rachael's innovation in coaching saw her named Female Football Week Coach of the Year, with Sawtell picking up Club of the Year.

She may have had to stop playing the game herself, but she's not walking away from football any time soon.

"For me, it's about showing the kids the game, instilling the love of the game so they keep playing," she said.

"To get to elite level in Australia is nearly unattainable, particularly from a regional area.

"I really focus on just trying to coach the kids, to teach them to love it.

"I promote the fun and the enjoyment of the game.

"I'm coaching kids of kids I've coached."

Rachael has coached the top men's and women's teams at the club, right through to the smallest children.

She is now Sawtell's coaching coordinator and coaches with the Liverpool International Academy in Coffs Harbour. There she coaches six to eight-year-olds, instilling in them the "Liverpool Way".

"I create coaching sessions and these are sent off and approved by Liverpool Football Club. The sessions, once approved, are distributed worldwide."

One of Rachael's sessions was selected by Liverpool's technical staff in the UK as its global session of the month.

Rachael hung up her boots two years ago, after over 30 years on the field, including playing with her daughters.

"As much as I would like to play until I die, my body is done," she said.

For now, Rachael will continue to coach.

"I just love it. When I run into people and they ask if I'm still coaching, I say, 'Of course.' What else would I do?

"The day I stop loving it is the day I walk away."

Game days are the highlight of the week at the Eastern Suburbs Football Club in Queensland, where families fill the sidelines supporting the girls.

Kiran Sarai's son and daughter started at Easts in its Tiger Cubs program when they were five years old.

They chose to join Easts as it is local, but also because of its great girls' program. The club is currently at 46 per cent female participation.

And many parents also travel to Easts, forgoing closer clubs, so they can have their daughters play there and take advantage of its strong pathways for girls.

"My involvement in girls' football started when the club asked if I would coach the U8 girls' team and if my daughter, aged six, would play up in the U8 girls' team," Kiran said.

"My team was of girls aged six, seven or about to turn eight, with most not having played football before. I am very proud that all those girls except one have continued to play football (and at Easts)."

Easts have some great individuals at the club who are committed to the girls' program, from the board down to the grassroots.

Junior president Anna Guidfrida and girls' and women's coordinator Trish Da Rin are the backbone of the club.

Their commitment to supporting girls and women being included across all aspects at the club, from playing to coaching and refereeing, is why more and more girls are coming to Easts each year.

Without the drive and focus of these women and the support of the club, the pathways would not be possible.

The momentum of girls playing football has continued and the club fields full girls' teams in all age groups.

To continue to encourage and inspire the young girls, Kiran points to the powerful connection the club has with the Women's NPL team.

"The club also organises the opportunity to do the walkout with the Women's NPL team. This is something both the senior and junior girls love," she said.

"The junior girls stay to watch the full game and are in awe of the speed and skills the seniors have.

"They love to see how their walkout player performs and keep that special connection going by cheering them on. It is incredibly powerful that the girls see who they can become, and having this experience at junior club level is an important piece of that."

For Kiran, that is why the Matildas are so important — they are pioneers for these young girls.

"The Matildas grew up without as many visible female football role models, and they have changed that irrevocably for our future footballers at Easts," he said.

Nicole Jones didn't start playing outdoor soccer until the age of 23.

Now, 12 years and two daughters later, she captains Croydon City's State League 1 side in Victoria — the club her grandfather helped found in 1957.

Despite a lifelong love of the world game, and having played futsal since she was 15, Nicole was hesitant to sign up for that first season.

So hesitant, in fact, that she spent it playing for a rival club.

Overwhelmed by the fear of not being good enough, having missed key developmental years, it was encouragement from her now-husband, Leigh, that ultimately coaxed Nicole into trying. He told her there was "no point in being fearful if you don't try".

Life at Croydon City is now a family affair. Nicole's weekly schedule at the club includes playing, being involved in committee fundraising duties, occasionally assisting in training for some of the junior teams and the teams of her young daughters (currently aged seven and five), and watching her husband play.

She hopes that her enduring commitment to the club inspires other players around her to continue playing, especially if they are considering starting a family.

"It's not always celebrated that [women] keep playing sport," Nicole said.

"What you find in girls' and women's sports is that they drop out at the same age that boys thrive."

Thinking about the Women's World Cup, she's already excited about the opportunity to further grow the game in Australia.

She took her daughters to watch the Matildas last year and saw the impact it had on them.

After the game in Sydney, the players took their time to talk to the girls and now they want to play like their idols," Nicole said.

As for her future in the game, Nicole is happy to play whatever role she's needed in at the club — even if it means playing in the thirds.

She fears taking a spot from the next generation and emphasises the importance of a supportive environment for keeping women and girls in the sport.

She looks forward to the day she'll be able to kit up and play with her daughters. Mother and daughters, all in the same game.