As the Australian women's soccer team gets set to face Japan in the 2014 Asian Cup decider, we talk to Matildas midfielder Tameka Butt. By Richard Cooke.

Credit: Richard Whitfield

Front and centre: Tameka Butt, 22, soccer player

Tameka Butt is a midfield player for Australia’s national soccer team, the Matildas. She also plays for the Brisbane Roar in the W-League, and has played professionally in Germany and the United States. She is currently playing in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup.

Richard Cooke There’s a paradox in women’s sport: it doesn’t get enough attention, except when there’s some controversy. Then it gets too much.

Tameka Butt Yeah. You can see a couple of examples of that – it’s a bit unfortunate for female athletes in general. But there’s not too much we can do about it. I think it’s more for the organisations in women’s sport to handle.

RC Does it get to you?

TB On the field, not too much. I think we all enjoy the sport we play, so once we’re there, we’re not so affected. But, of course, it always comes back to us. Even when you’re talking to your friends outside the sport, they’ll ask you questions about things that you don’t even talk about within the team. It’s just what’s been put out in the media. Even your parents will read something on the internet and then ask you about it. [What they’ve read is]completely different from what’s happened.

RC One story that came out recently was that the Matildas’ coach, Hesterine de Reus, was sacked after player complaints. It got a lot of attention.

TB I saw there were a couple of photos in the paper here and there, but I honestly didn’t read any of the articles. I think it was a bit unfortunate that everything burst out in the open during our series against Brazil, because we actually did really well against Brazil. That’s the best we’ve played in a long time.

RC But the achievement was overshadowed by off-field controversy. And it ended up being more public than people were expecting.

TB Yeah, definitely. Especially when you look at [last month’s sacking of US coach] Tom Sermanni and how the US team handled that situation. They just kept everything more private, and really not many questions were asked. Internationally, a lot of coaches come and go. It’s part of the game and it’s not necessarily to be blamed on the coaching staff or the players. It’s just where you’re at as a team.

RC One of the points of controversy involved the amount of personal time players got on tour. When remuneration is low in the women’s game, are people reluctant to make even more sacrifices?

TB The fact is that Australian female athletes are usually paid a lot less than our male counterparts, when we do the same hours. It’s always going to be a hurdle, but I’ve been in sport maybe 10 years; semi-professionally about five years. I’ve seen the game change a lot with regards to off-field respect. It’s getting there, but it’s also moving slowly. I think the next generation is going to struggle with the same things we do.

RC Where is that off-field respect coming from?

TB Just one instance I can think of is the merger of the Brisbane Roar women’s team and the men’s team. It’s been massive this year, not just for the W-League but also the A-League. And they’ve developed youth programs as well, which is also filtering through for the women. So I think we’re getting a lot more structure for females, especially with what we earn off the broadcast. With netball and basketball as well, media and coverage is definitely taking a step up for female athletes.

RC You’re at the Asian Cup again. What was that experience like for you the first time around?

TB The first Asian Cup I went to was a massive eye-opener. Especially watching Japan and North Korea play. To see the quality among different nations, and how Australia fits into the Asian region at the moment… I think I matured a lot just from that one tournament. Winning the 2010 Asian Cup really helped me and it was pretty memorable for most of the girls there. You look forward all year to something major like that.

RC It’s also a rare scenario where people from North Korea come into contact with the outside world.

TB Yeah, it’s pretty insane. We’d stay in the same hotel, but everything of theirs was just so regimented that you would hardly see them. It was crazy to see how one Asian country can be so different to another, and then to Western civilisation as well. We’d interact with a lot of the other countries, like Japan, South Korea and China. They probably spoke a little bit of English, and we’d just have a laugh at each other. But North Korea is generally not involved with any of that.

RC When you’re not playing football, you play paintball. Does it help?

TB I don’t get the opportunity to shoot someone with a paintball on the field, but it kind of does. I’m an instructor and I do control what happens on a paintball field, so it does help with my leadership in football. Paintball is just enjoyable. People think it’s painful, but at the same time it’s also funny to hear guys who think they’re big and tough squeal or see them get shot by a girl or their girlfriend. It’s just funny to watch, and to play.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "Front and centre".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.