Fiona Crawford, writer and researcher, Brisbane Writers Festival
Visibility that inspires all people of all backgrounds and skill levels to watch and play and invest in football would be everything I could hope for and then some ...
On September 24 1921, roughly 10,000 spectators gathered at the Brisbane Cricket Ground to watch what was reportedly one of the first women’s representative football matches ever to be held in Australia. What should have been a pivotal moment for a burgeoning movement was quickly relegated to a giant ‘what-if’ in the history books, as months later national sporting bodies banned women from playing the sport – citing medical and financial reasons. Roughly 100 years later, Australian women’s football is growing by leaps and bounds, thanks largely to the players, coaches and fans that have spent decades growing the game from a grassroots level to international notoriety. Fiona Crawford and Lee McGowan have documented women’s football’s growth from stymied grassroots beginnings to international renown in their new book Never Say Die: The Hundred-Year Overnight Success of Australian Women’s Football. The duo will be chatting about the work as part of the 2021 Brisbane Writers Festival program on Sunday May 9, however we couldn’t resist chatting to Fiona Crawford about the sport’s history, the challenging hurdles that remain and football’s bright future in Australia.
In addition to writing about the game of football for FourFourTwo, you’ve worked as media manager for the Matildas, the W-League and Girls FC. Such a resume indicates that you’re far more than a casual football fan – can you tell us where your passion for the game began and the role it’s played in your life so far?
Quite fittingly, my mother was the original football fan in our household. She signed my older brother up to play club football and I spent a lot of time eating lollies on the sideline watching him play. (I used to tell my mother I’d shared the lollies with other kids so she’d buy me more, when the reality is I’d smashed the lollies all by myself. I never actually saw any girls playing when I was young—I grew up at a time when girls were steered towards more ‘feminine’ sports — so I watched football and played netball and have only come to playing football as an adult. Although I feel like I missed out on that formative football experience, not to mention some crucial ball skills, that non-playing aspect also set me up for my contribution to the game through my writing, media and social media management.
Your recent work – Never Say Die: The Hundred Year Overnight Success of Australian Women’s Football – is an extremely thorough chronicle of the journey of Australian women’s football and its marquee team the Matildas. What first inspired you and Lee to embark on this project together?
The project was borne of lots of conversations about how few women’s football’s stories were known and how extraordinary those stories were. Because it’s been so tricky for women to get to play football (whether through lack of access or investment or pay or opportunity), women have had to be creative and dedicated to play and make it possible for others to do so too. It makes for some rich contributions, and the more we learnt (and are still learning) the more we realised these stories really needed to be documented and celebrated. Given that we’re both researchers and writers, writing a book was a logical next step.
In piecing together the narrative surrounding the growth of women’s football stretching back to the 1920s, the book also shines a light on some of the social issues that are chiefly responsible for arresting the development of the sport nationally. What were the major contributing factors that stymied the growth of women’s football, which was starting to gain momentum 100 years ago?
This one’s a tricky one to answer without sounding simplistic, but women’s football was essentially stymied by fear, jealousy, and greed. Reasons why women shouldn’t play football were often couched in safety and modesty concerns, but really it was a fear that women’s football would attract more attention and ticket sales and would distract and detract from the men’s game. The perception was/is that there’s only so much of the pie to go around, but the reality is that supporting women’s football (and women’s sport more widely) actually grows the pie. Australia was fortunate not to have the same strictly enforced ban on women playing football as in the UK and Brazil, but it was still hampered by less obvious issues such as a lack of access to good pitches with good lighting, good coaching, medical support, media coverage, and pay. We’re now starting to see improvements in many of those areas, so that’s really encouraging.
There is a lot of forgotten history that would have occurred over the 100-year lifespan of women’s football in Australia – what was the most interesting discovery you unearthed through your research that might surprise those uninformed about the sport’s legacy in Australia?
So many! Often it’s the smaller stories that provide insight into the bigger issues. For example:
- Former Matilda turned lawyer and football administrator Moya Dodd taking her rice cooker on tour to ensure the players could access crucial carbohydrates before their matches.
- Former team physiotherapist Kate Beerworth literally putting players up in her own home (‘Hotel Beersy’) to ensure they received good medical care after undergoing knee reconstruction surgery.
- Australia almost hosting the 2003 Women’s World Cup. At the last minute the hosting rights were awarded to China, which hadn’t bid for the tournament, as part of some FIFA political manoeuvrings. Then, the tournament had to be moved to the US due to the SARS outbreak. It’s an interesting historical quirk given that 20 years on we successfully bid for and are planning the tournament in the middle of a pandemic. In retrospect, I think it was a blessing in disguise Australia didn’t host 2003 because I think it’s now (2023) that we’re really ready as a country.
Australian women’s football has certainly come a long way, as your book details, but there’s clearly more to be done in order to elevate the sport further into the mainstream. What are some of the biggest roadblocks impeding Australian women’s football, and other women’s sporting codes, from further growth?
Lack of visibility and investment. As we’ve seen in the pandemic, women’s sport is the first to go when money gets tight. We need to flip that so it’s an ‘and’ equation, not an ‘either/or’ one. So it’s men’s sport and women’s sport, not men’s sport or women’s sport, which is actually win–win.
You and Lee will be discussing the work and the growth of the game on Sunday May 9 as part of the Brisbane Writers Festival, and will be joined by former Canberra United coach Rae Dower. What sort of unique insight do you envision Rae contributing to the discussion surrounding the past, present and future state of Australian women’s football?
Rae is one of the most knowledgeable, humble, and hilarious contributors to the women’s game. Seriously, she’s one of the unsung heroes and is also a fantastic storyteller. She is uniquely placed to give insight to the history of women’s football when there were few resources or opportunity but also – given that she’s literally coaching future Matildas – insight into what a bright future women’s football has leading up to and beyond 2023. I am certain this panel is going to be an hour of jam-packed banter that will likely also continue long afterwards in the State Library of Queensland foyer.
Your previous work has touched a broad spectrum of societal issues – your PhD in particular investigated how transmedia activism could drive social change. What are your thoughts on the most effective ways to spread awareness and address issues not only surrounding inequality in women’s sport, but attention-worthy causes in general?
That’s a big question and probably warrants a thesis to answer it, but the power of storytelling — and in particular positive, solutions-focused storytelling — is key to engaging audiences, raising awareness, and inspiring social change. From Humans of New York to the Homeless World Cup, stories provide insight and personal connection and hope and cut through in ways facts and figures aren’t as easily able to.
Finally, Australia and New Zealand have been announced as host nations of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023, which is a huge milestone for the sport in our country. What do you think will be the chief benefits of hosting such an event will be for the sport and its profile in Australia?
Apart from improved infrastructure (for example, one in five clubs doesn’t currently have adequate change-room facilities), I’d have to say visibility. By that I mean proper, dedicated, comprehensive media coverage that will inspire not just girls but also boys and women and men. Coverage that recognises the players’ athleticism and professionalism and skill, and visibility that I hope will bring girls and women to the game who haven’t played before or who fell away from it because of the various obstacles put in their way to play. In short, visibility that inspires all people of all backgrounds and skill levels to watch and play and invest in football would be everything I could hope for and then some.
Fiona Crawford and Lee McGowan will be discussing their book Never Say Die: The Hundred Year Overnight Success of Australian Women’s Football alongside Rae Dower as part of the Brisbane Writers Festival. You can catch their panel at the State Library of Queensland on Sunday May 9 at 10:00 am. Click here to snag a ticket!