Sport

For Jenna McCormick, a defection from AFLW to soccer was all about wearing the national colours. Now, as Australia and New Zealand win the right to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023, the green and gold icing is really on the cake. By Joe Gorman.

Hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup

Jenna McCormick soaks up the atmosphere of her Matildas debut against Chile last November.
Credit: Westfield Matildas / Football Federation Australia

Jenna McCormick’s decision to quit the AFLW was a step into the unknown. It was April 2019 and she had just won a second premiership with the Adelaide Crows in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 people at the Adelaide Oval. It would have been easy for her to stick with footy and bask in the glory and the prestige that come with being part of the best women’s AFL team in the land.

But McCormick, who juggled her footy commitments with a professional soccer career, harboured a desire to represent her country on the world stage. And in soccer, her first love, there were looming opportunities to play at the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the Olympic Games. “I wasn’t involved in any national team stuff at the time – I still had never been to a Matildas camp – so it was definitely not guaranteed that I would get what I wanted,” remembers McCormick.

She missed out on selection to the Matildas for the 2019 World Cup, but her international debut arrived a few months later, in a friendly match against Chile. It was, she says, a revelatory experience.

“I thought I knew what pressure was. Going back to the AFLW grand finals, which was played in front of 15,000 people in the first year and 53,000 in the third year – I thought that if I can get through that, I can get through anything. But when I got to the international level of football – to the training camps that are a month long and you’re required to be at 120 per cent, every single day – I’d never experienced pressure like that. It was a really, really challenging experience for me to cope with the requirements of being an elite footballer for your country.”

Now, with the announcement that Australia and New Zealand will host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, McCormick is satisfied with the choices she made 15 months ago. Although there is still a long road ahead – McCormick has made only four appearances for the national team and is vying for a spot with incumbent centre-backs Clare Polkinghorne and Alanna Kennedy – a Women’s World Cup on home soil provides her with a focal point for the next three years.

The same is true across the entire soccer industry, which, after months of political infighting, falling attendances and an exodus of sponsors, has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight. The Women’s World Cup may not be on the same scale as the men’s event, but last year the tournament in France had a global television audience of more than one billion people, and in 2023 it will expand from 24 to 32 teams. Matildas striker Sam Kerr reckons it is “bigger than the Olympics”.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Young Matildas coach Leah Blayney, who worked at the 2019 World Cup in France as part of the Matildas coaching set-up. Blayney is certain Australians will be shocked by the magnitude of a soccer World Cup. “If I use my experience in France as an example, I was travelling to a game and I had to leave an hour early because the Netherlands had thousands of fans storming the streets with music and beach balls and their passion and love for their nation,” she recalls. “It was something that I hadn’t experienced. I’d been to the Olympics in 2016, but at a World Cup everyone is there for football, and that sets it apart.”

Put simply, no other sport comes close to soccer for global reach or importance. “Football is the only global game,” says Heather Reid, a long-time women’s football advocate and board member of Football Federation Australia. “Netball and cricket are played in a lot of countries, but they’re not global games. Rugby league isn’t even in the mix; neither is the AFL. That’s the difference: we’re talking about the world game compared to domestic, local or provincial games.”

That fact has not always been recognised by state and federal governments, however. “We often hear that football doesn’t get its fair share of funding by government, and that’s true,” says Joseph Carrozzi, another FFA board member. “If ‘fair share’ means per capita, then the number of participants in football is more than AFL, NRL and rugby union added together. But for some reason, we’ve been much less unified in our approach and in our narrative to government. I don’t think we’ve made a strong enough case as a sport.”

The hope for soccer fans is that this World Cup will create lasting connections between the FFA and the political class. “It’s been a really long road for football in terms of getting funding from governments,” says Nita Green, a Labor senator for Queensland and co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Football. “I think one reason people are so excited about this successful bid, and about the potential of having the Women’s World Cup here in Australia, is because football has had to fight against other codes to get funding and bipartisan support. It’s a sign of real progress that this bid was supported in a bipartisan way, by both sides of politics and state governments as well.”

Senator Green, a lifelong soccer fan and former player, wants the images of the prime minister wearing a Matildas scarf to be supplemented by funding that is commensurate with the massive numbers of women and girls taking up the game across the country. A 2019 report by the FFA found that female participants grew in every state and territory, but particularly in the Australian Rules strongholds of Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. Investment in facilities – pitches, dressing sheds, floodlights and so on – will be necessary to support the many clubs across the country that are struggling to cope with the sheer number of people wanting to play the game.

“Speaking as a previous football administrator for a grassroots club, I certainly think that we need funding around grassroots football in the same way that the AFL has done a good job in funding grassroots AFL for women and for men,” says Green. “We need to make sure this World Cup is capitalised on.”

Perhaps the most important legacy of hosting this tournament will be in encouraging women and girls to play soccer – whether it be for fun, for exercise or in the hope of one day becoming a Matilda. The FFA has set a target to increase female involvement from the current 21 per cent to a 50–50 gender participation split by 2027. “The message needs to be that we’re not done,” says Blayney. “We’re not where we want to be yet and we’re still very ambitious to drive the game further forward.”

The AFLW has been good for McCormick, and she is grateful for her experiences with the Adelaide Crows. But now there are bigger things on the horizon: a move to play professionally in Europe, and then, if she can establish her place in the Matildas, the Olympic Games next year and a World Cup on home soil in 2023. “In all honesty, the reason why I left AFLW was to pursue my international career and wear the green and gold jersey,” she says. “And I’m doing that now. I have no regrets about leaving; I know it was the right time.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2020 as "Tomorrow the world".

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Joe Gorman is an independent journalist and author. His most recent book, Heartland: How Rugby League Explains Queensland, won the 2020 Queensland Premier’s Award for a Work of State Significance.