Feature

There’s something about Lisa

Lisa De Vanna's leadership qualities have been rewarded (Gett Source: Getty Images

In all my time as both a studying and practising journalist over the past eight years, I’ve never met or interviewed anyone like Australian footballer Lisa De Vanna.

Whether she’s scoring goals, firing up the opposition or telling me: "I am black and white, there’s no secrets about me - I have no time for crap", I find De Vanna simply fascinating.

Just days before the Matildas boarded their flight to Canada for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, I had the pleasure and honour of sitting down with a selection of the players.

Along with De Vanna, my experiences with everyone I spoke to were unique and completely devoid of the usual clichés, pre-prepared answers or ego.

It was refreshing because, as has often been the case, a player’s repeated exposure to the media can mean they become desensitized and present a stilted version of themselves.

That night, holed up in a conference room at a Parramatta hotel, I didn’t encounter that with any of the women that joined me for a chat.  

When De Vanna initially sat down I could sense her nervousness.

Facing up to a journalist with a camera and a bright light shining on your face is unsettling at the best of times - even for a seasoned professional.

As time went on though, I discovered that what I interpreted to be nervousness, was something else altogether – it was passion in its purest form.

Born in Fremantle on 14 November 1984 to a Portuguese mother and Italian father, De Vanna declared, "I honestly believe I was born to be a footballer. I don’t think there was any other path but to be a footballer."

Mastering the art of juggling a football at age six, her love affair with the beautiful game began on the backstreets of the schoolyard and playing with her brother, who was a goalkeeper.

Mixing it with the boys became second-nature to De Vanna and as the years went on, she quickly established herself as a promising young talent capable of holding her own.

Playing for hours a day, where she would often disappear from her family’s sight.

"In Portuguese, my mother would always say 'the lady with the football, come over here' because she didn’t know where I was," De Vanna explained.

When I ask her at what point she realised her dream was to play for her country, she paused for a moment before answering.

"I always knew it was going to happen, it was just a matter of when it was going to happen," she said.

Carving out an enviable career in the years that followed, De Vanna has spent time in England, Sweden, the W-League and the United States - where she says playing for Washington Freedom in the Women’s Professional Soccer League was "probably the hardest thing I could ever do".

"It was mentally, physically and emotionally tough. I was playing with Abby (Wambach), Sonia Bompastor – you name it, I was playing against all these big superstars. It taught me professionalism, it taught me to never give up," she said.

Now, as she approaches a third World Cup appearance for the green and gold in a week’s time, the significance of what this means to the girl, who used to sleep with her football, is unmistakable.

"When I think about the World Cup it means all the sacrifices that I’ve made," she said. "It means my friends and family that supported me and made their sacrifices for me."

As she begins to describe her love for the game, her voice wavers, her eyes begin to flicker and the breath through her chest is obvious.

"I love my football so much, it’s probably the one thing where I know I can excel and be me," De Vanna said.

"To be able to do that in front of millions of people is a great honour."

For De Vanna, her personal and professional journey over the last six to 12 months hasn’t gone unnoticed.

After being announced as the co-captain of the Matildas Women’s World Cup squad along with Clare Polkinghorne, De Vanna admitted: "When Staj [coach Alen Stajcic] told me, I just cried.

"I never thought that anyone would ever consider seeing me as a leader or let alone a captain of a country."

In the years leading up to this point, De Vanna has often paid the price for her temperamental behaviour,  which has earned her a reputation of being difficult to work with.

However, she believes she’s just misunderstood.

"I am a completely different person on the field," she said. "I am passionate, I am feisty, I want to win.

"I don’t care what jersey it is or how I do it. The feeling of winning, you can’t compare that to anything you do outside of football."

As a player, she’s lightening quick, physical and a world-class dribbler equipped with a desire to win and an unrivalled hunger in front of goal.

Yet she’s never been one to get caught up in her public persona.

"I don’t really care what other people think of me but I care about what my team-mates think of me," she admitted.

"As a captain, when it comes down to that last minute, I want to be able to look them in the eye and say, 'we’re going to work and we’re going to win this – the score doesn’t matter'.

"I want them to feel that because if they feel that, magical things can happen."

When it comes to who De Vanna is as a person, I discover she’s raw, real, straight to the point and fierce.

"A lot of people say, I’ve misjudged you completely to how you’ve been portrayed," she explained.

"I am actually a very compassionate person. I care about people and I am very loyal.

"I say it how it is and I respect people the way I want to be respected."

Through steely eyes she goes on to add: "If you treat me bad, well, you’re going to get it back. If you treat me well, I am going to look after you like you’re my blood.

"All in all, I am not the person people portray me as, I am a good person."

She conceded she’s still learning the role of a captain but that it’s also a moment she’s been waiting 10 years for.

When I speak to Stajcic, he tells me that had someone told him a year ago De Vanna would have been named captain of the national team, he wouldn’t have believed them.

When I ask De Vanna why she thinks he would have said that, her answer doesn’t disappoint. 

"I don’t know. It’s the same for him," she said.

"If you asked me a year ago what I think of him as a coach and a person, because we always played against each other, I’d probably think he’s a d**k."

Despite the reference, De Vanna’s respect and admiration for the man chosen to lead the Matildas on their next dance with World Cup destiny is obvious.

"The one thing that me and him have common is the love for our country, the love for the game and winning and that’s all that matters," De Vanna explained.

"When I talk to him, that’s the passion we have and that’s what I think he sees that we need more of on the field.

"He sees that I bring a lot of that."

Working under Stajcic, De Vanna goes on to say: "He’s pretty blunt and just says it how it is but he has faith and belief in all of us. He’s actually surprised me."

When it comes to kind of captain she’ll be, De Vanna credits an experience with Cheryl Salisbury, her former team-mate and captain of the Matildas for teaching her the power of positive thinking.

Needing a goal to stay alive in a match against Canada, Salisbury pulled De Vanna aside and told her 'it’s not over until the full-time whistle blows'.

That motivated De Vanna and she went on to deliver a ball to Salisbury that would see Australia claim that much-needed goal. 

"If you can believe and you can put that into someone’s head, it’s powerful," De Vanna said.

I wrapped up our interview by asking De Vanna why the Matildas deserved to win the World Cup.

"There’s no team in the world that can stop us," she said with a grin.