We look at how women’s football has developed in Australia over the past century.
Women’s football is currently one of the fastest growing sports in the country. Australia and New Zealand hosted the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2023 and participation in the sport in 2022 was up by 21% on the previous year, according to Football Australia.
But the women’s team have travelled a tough road on their path to recognition and success.
The first official women’s football match on record took place in Brisbane in 1921 between North Brisbane and South Brisbane. The game attracted a healthy crowd of around 10,000 spectators.
However, the women’s game failed to get momentum as an official sport in Australia and, in 1922, some states actually banned women from playing organised matches for ‘medical and aesthetic’ reasons.
When women’s club soccer, as it was known then, began to make a comeback in the late 1920s, the matches and players were not always taken seriously – as seen (and especially heard) in this Cinesound Review newsreel excerpt.
Titled 'Women Play Soccer', it shows coverage of a 1939 match between the Yagoona Eleven and Deepwater in Bankstown, NSW. The newsreel makes plain the patronising and chauvinistic attitudes that women athletes faced at the time.
The camera gratuitously pans across the players’ legs and the narration is full of sexist and inappropriate comments about the women's gender, bodies and their talent as footballers:
While this commentary may have been designed to be lighthearted and amusing, the attitudes it expresses were not acceptable then and are unthinkable today.
Despite the lack of support, women continued to play organised local club and social games which mostly flew under the radar, receiving little media coverage and almost no funding.
The following clip is from a silent home movie in the NFSA collection and dating from circa 1968. It was donated to the NFSA with several other home movies in the 1980s.
If you have any information about this home movie the NFSA would love to hear from you:
There is little information accompanying this film and we can only guess that it may be a local club match, as there are many spectators on the sidelines and a male referee can be seen in the background blowing a whistle and making hand signals.
You can see that only one team is playing in matching jerseys, evidence of the lack of financial support for the women’s game at the time. There is also a strong likelihood that the jerseys were borrowed from their male counterparts, which was common for 1960s and 70s male-dominated club sports.
Subsequent decades saw a surge in participation and the formation of a national league in 1974, consisting of teams from five states competing in the National Women’s Championships.
The game went through a period of expansion from the 1980s and into the mid-90s, when the Australian team qualified for their first FIFA World Cup. At the 2007 World Cup – by which time they were nicknamed 'the Matildas' (after 'Waltzing Matilda') – they made the knockout round for the first time.
The documentary Never Say Die Matildas (2008) follows the team’s 2007 campaign, going behind the scenes as they prepare for the World Cup in China.
This clip shows the end of their thrilling 1-1 draw with Norway as Lisa De Vanna kicks a goal to level the score. We also see snippets from interviews with players after the game and scenes of the Chinese fans cheering De Vanna’s name as she stops to sign autographs.
The documentary shows the Matildas emerging as a team to be reckoned with on the world stage:
In 2010, the Matildas won their first international tournament at the Asian Cup in China, where they defeated North Korea in a penalty shootout. That tournament win sealed their qualification for the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup.
Here’s a snippet from the journey towards their Asian Cup victory – this news report from Fox Sports’ Long Lunch shows the team's win against South Korea, allowing them to advance to the semi-final round:
By this time, Football Australia had established the W-League, now called A-League Women, as the highest division in Australia for women’s football. The league, which began in 2008, had an affiliation with men’s A-League and was designed to nurture and develop homegrown talent in women’s football and build its fan base.
Since 2010, the women’s game has gone from strength to strength in Australia. The Matildas have now qualified for every FIFA Women's World Cup since 1995. And in the 2019 tournament, captain Sam Kerr made history, becoming the first ever Australian player (in men’s or women’s football) to score a hat-trick of goals in a World Cup match.
This TEN News report includes SBS footage from the tournament, which captures the action and excitement of the game. It shows Kerr scoring a total of four goals in the match against Jamaica, cementing her status as a superstar of world football:
Women’s football in Australia has come a long way since 1921. However, women still fight for equal footing with the men’s game in terms of salaries, funding and prize money despite growing popularity and sellout crowds.
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Main image: Never Say Die Matildas (Helen Barrow, 2008). NFSA title: 756304