Opinion

Female Football Festival kicks off new decade for women’s game in Australia

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It has been a historic week for women's sport. On Sunday, the MCG attracted a world record attendance for a women's cricket match as Australia defeated India to claim the ICC Women's T20 World Cup.

A few days later, the Matildas defeated Vietnam 7-1 on aggregate to qualify for their second consecutive Olympic Games tournament, which will be hosted in Japan later this year. 

But amongst the sold-out stadiums and prime-time television broadcasts, it’s easy to forget that Australia’s newest sporting idols all started their careers on local pitches and fields around the country.

And it’s the grassroots level – the foundation of sport’s pyramid – that Football Federation Australia and state federations are aiming to better engage with as a new era for football begins. 

One of the areas that shows the most promise is with women and girls, according to the newly-released national football census.

22% of Australia’s 1.95 million players identify as female; an 11% growth on 2018’s figures.

This has been accompanied by an increase in the number of coaches and volunteers – many of whom are women – thanks in no small part to the heightened exposure of the Matildas and the W-League. 

As new FFA CEO James Johnson said when launching rebel Female Football Week on Monday, "women’s football represents one of the biggest areas for potential growth in Australian football, and with the possibility of hosting the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, we have more than enough impetus to renew our focus in this area."

Football Victoria is one federation that has taken up that call. On Saturday, as the grassroots winter season kicked off, FV will run their first ever Female Football Festival at the Darebin International Sports Centre just outside of Melbourne. 

The festival’s coordinator, Andrea Swain, said that the goal of the event isn’t just to celebrate the role of women at the professional level of Australian sport, but to also recognise and create opportunities for more women and girls to participate at the community level. 

“The Female Football Festival was put together to celebrate women and girls regardless of the aspects of football they’re involved with,” Swain told The World Game.

“If they’re players, coaches, referees, volunteers, administrators – it was designed for everyone. 

“You can’t have the professional game if you don’t have the foundation at the beginning.

"All football starts at the grassroots. It doesn’t matter what level of football you’re looking at, everybody started at the grassroots level.

"It was that first kick in a park with your parent being a coach. It was your first refereeing game you’re being tossed into in your own backyard.

"We just need to make it wider; if you look at the pyramid of the professional game, we need to widen up the opportunities for the grassroots and make it so that they can live and love football anytime, anywhere.” 

One of the ways Football Victoria has looked outside the box to engage more women and girls in football is by offering it in non-traditional formats.

While most of us think about football as 11 v 11 on a full field, Female Football Week – which all member federations will celebrate over the coming months – offers activities such as Kick-On For Women, Soccer Mums, and Walking Football for women and girls who aren’t able to participate in the conventional way. 

“Wherever you are, whatever form you are, whatever stage of life you are, we want to provide you opportunities so you can step in and step out as you need and as it suits your lifestyle,” Swain said.

“If you’re a young girl, if you’re aspiring to go further, if you’re a mum, if you can no longer run – all the social solutions we offer to grow football are really helping grow our participation and it’s reflecting on our members. We just need to continue offering what our communities desire. 

“We’ve got the Soccer Mums training session [on Saturday] which is the try-outs, the gala day, and the deliverer course so we’ve got participants who can learn to deliver a course which they can then go to their clubs and run a Soccer Mums program.

"And there’s a gala day which all of our existing teams have been invited to come and have a friendly tournament.

"There’s no friendly games, though – they love it. You always say 'friendly' but last time I had mums slide-tackling me. They just want to get out of their comfort zone and have fun because no one is watching. I love the program. 

“Then we’ve got an all-ability program and walking football. We have noticed that the participation is more male-orientated than female, so for us, this is the first time of actually introducing female-only sessions just to give them the confidence to participate.

"Because once you fall in love with the game, you go; it doesn’t matter what’s happening later on. It’s just the first step that needs to be a little bit more nourished.” 

For Swain, the festival is about more than just bringing more participants into the game; it’s about sending a message that women and girls matter.

And during Female Football Week, which launched off the back of International Women’s Day last weekend, this is a message that carries more and more weight as Australian sport pushes towards gender equality. 

“If you go down the history path, women have never been recognised for their work.

"If you can’t see it, you can’t be it – simple as that. It’s really important for us to showcase that women want to play, they want to take the space; they deserve to take that space because they’re great athletes. 

“What’s happened in the last decade was magnificent for women’s sport.

"To live in this era is not a privilege, it’s a duty [for us] to carry on the responsibility for the next decade.

"We’re starting with 2020 – that was our aim – we wanted to step in with a great event that will showcase and invite all the women to carry on the legacy for all the work that’s been done in the past.

"Women are fantastic athletes. If you give opportunities, just look what can happen: 86,000 people at the cricket is only because it’s been given an opportunity. Give them that opportunity, women will take it and grow it because they deserve it.”