When the Matildas’ FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign hung in the balance two weeks ago, all eyes turned to Lydia Williams. After 120 minutes of soccer failed to separate Australia and Norway on a balmy Saturday night in Nice, the goalkeeper – a veteran of four World Cups – strolled to the thin white line and prepared to face the music.
Shootouts are sport at its cruellest. Outfield player against goalkeeper, just 10.97 metres separating the gladiators as they do battle. One error can sink the hopes of a team, and a nation. When Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen dispatched the first spot kick past a diving Williams, Australia held its collective breath. The Matildas’ other potential penalty hero, captain Sam Kerr, placed the ball on the appointed dot. Williams watched on as her opposite number, Norwegian goalie Ingrid Hjelmseth, steadied herself and looked to the heavens. With Australian hopes resting on Kerr’s shoulders, the superstar striker blazed high and wide.
“Those things happen in a penalty shootout,” Williams tells The Saturday Paper. “There was no blame – it just wasn’t our day.” And so, when the World Cup concludes in Lyon on Sunday, Australia will not be there. Despite the Matildas entering the tournament among the favourites, determined to exceed the team’s best prior result – three consecutive quarter-final appearances – Australia crashed out in the round of 16.
“It’s hard to believe that the World Cup is still being played and we’re not there,” Williams admits. “It feels surreal. We had really high expectations – we believed we were going to win the World Cup.”
This blow is not the Matildas’ first encounter with adversity, nor will it be their last. “This group has been through so much,” reflects Williams. “We’ve had each other’s backs through so much. This is only going to make us stronger.” But even on a team full of players who have overcome immense obstacles to succeed, no one’s story tops that of their goalkeeper.
Lydia Grace Yilkari Williams was born in Katanning, a town of 3000 about three hours south-east of Perth, to an American mother and an Indigenous Australian father. “My mum was working on Wall Street, and thought, ‘I don’t really know what I am doing with my life.’ ” The Oklahoman thus decided to embark on a church-led missionary trip to the West Australian desert.
“She went for three months, lived in a tent and met my dad,” Lydia explains. “They exchanged addresses and wrote to each other for four months.” Ron Williams proposed, via letter, and his new fiancée was on the first flight back to Australia.
Williams spent her first 10 years between Kalgoorlie and the West Australian outback, where her father was a respected Indigenous elder. It was a childhood of two cultures. “What’s the best way to describe it?” she ponders. “During Christmas there was always a pumpkin pie and turkey, and then a kangaroo tail and damper.” Williams had two pet kangaroos, rescued as joeys from the pouches of roadkill. She jokes that “it is definitely a bit cliché” – the story has become a favourite with foreign media.
The Williams family then relocated to Canberra, where their daughter made a fateful decision. “I had been playing every sport in Kalgoorlie,” she says. “In Canberra there was no AFL. Soccer was the closest thing, and goalkeeper was the only position left on the division one team. I thought, ‘Ah yeah, I can kick and catch.’ I thought I would rotate out, but I never did.”
So began a journey that would lead to Williams becoming, in rapid time, one of the best goalkeepers in the world. With agility, height, composure and unparalleled shot-stopping abilities, Williams was a member of the Young Matildas within four years – before debuting for the senior national team at 17.
But Williams’ memories of Canberra are also tinged with sadness. During her teenage years, Williams’ father passed away from cancer. A member of the Stolen Generations, Ron Williams was an inspiration to his daughter. “He had been through a lot,” she says. “Even though people had been racist to him as a child, he found such a love to help people. His generosity and how he saw the world really shaped who I was growing up. Losing him hurt a lot, but it also taught me how to be strong and appreciate the little things.”
The goalkeeper is one of just a handful of Indigenous Australians (male or female) to have represented their country on the football pitch. While Football Federation Australia and other groups are working actively to encourage the round ball game among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Williams – a regular contributor to such initiatives – argues that much remains to be done. “To see so many Indigenous people getting involved in sport is amazing,” she says. “But we are only scratching the surface – there is so much potential.”
Williams has also been at the heart of ongoing efforts to improve the lot of Australia’s female footballers during the past decade. When the 31-year-old reflects on her early years with the national team, she admits to feeling immense pride at the progress that has been made. “It has come a long way,” she exclaims. “When I first started with the Matildas, we were only paid for the duration of each tour. We had to wash our own underwear!”
The challenges of Williams’ early career, when full-time soccer opportunities in Australia were unthinkable and pathways to Europe and the United States less trodden, saw her take up an unusual vocation. As national team colleagues worked variously at petrol stations, Pizza Hut and sporting stores, the goalkeeper volunteered at the National Zoo in Canberra.
“I have always loved animals – obviously I had kangaroos growing up,” says Williams. “Eventually they offered me a job – I worked there for three years and really liked it, so decided to study [zoology] part-time.”
Williams enjoyed her studies and hints that she may pursue a career in the field after hanging up the gloves. But the fact she had to undertake them – and also at different times work as a waiter and tour guide at the Australian Institute of Sport – is illustrative of how an absence of funding has plagued women’s football. After the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, where the Matildas shocked heavyweights Brazil in the round of 16 (with Williams in a starring role), the team returned home to find their collective playing contracts about to expire. On the eve of a tour to the US, they became the first Australian national team to go on strike.
“It is simply unfair to continue to expect us to make enormous sacrifices to play for Australia,” said Williams at the time. In 2015, a basic Matildas contract was just $21,000 a year; a typical Socceroos player earned about $200,000 from national team duties, despite the men being almost 50 places lower than the women in FIFA’s world rankings at the time.
“It was terrifying,” Williams says. “All of us were really nervous. But we felt as a team, having done so well at the World Cup, that we needed to make a stand. We had to fight, not only for us, but for the future of women’s sport in Australia.” Backed by the Professional Footballers Association, the team ultimately struck a new deal with significantly improved pay and conditions. “It was tough but looking back, it was something we needed to do,” she adds.
The steely determination that Williams and her teammates demonstrated during that industrial action will serve them well as they look to rebound following a premature 2019 World Cup exit. The Australians need to regroup quickly: qualification for the 2020 Olympics begins in six months and, if they qualify, expectations in Tokyo will be high.
“When we face adversity, we fight back,” the goalkeeper says. After their bitterly disappointing failure in France, expect the Matildas and this indefatigable goalkeeper to come out swinging.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 6, 2019 as "Williams the conqueror".
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