For star Matildas veteran Lisa De Vanna and other Australian players, the worldwide shutdown of soccer is having devastating consequences – both financially and psychologically. By Joe Gorman.

Lisa De Vanna tackles soccer lockdown

The Matildas’ leading goal scorer, Lisa  De Vanna, playing for Fiorentina in Florence, Italy, on January 1.
The Matildas’ leading goal scorer, Lisa De Vanna, playing for Fiorentina in Florence, Italy, on January 1.
Credit: Independent Photo Agency / Alamy Live News

For the past three weeks, Lisa De Vanna has been stuck in an Italian apartment, trying to maintain her fitness and her sanity. As the Covid-19 death toll rises in Italy and the nation remains in total lockdown, one of Australia’s greatest soccer players is worried about the continued spread of the virus, her family back home, and how and when she is going to get out.

De Vanna has been playing for Fiorentina, a Tuscan club in Italy’s Serie A Feminine, since September last year. At 35 years of age, she is a seasoned professional: 150 appearances and 47 goals for the Australian women’s national team, participation in four World Cups and two Olympic Games, and countless matches for club sides in five countries. Nothing, though, could have prepared her for the uncertainty and social isolation of Covid-19. “Mentally, it’s really hard to not have a routine in your life when it’s been in your life for so long,” De Vanna tells The Saturday Paper from her home in Florence. 

Before the Italian government’s decision to order the country into lockdown, De Vanna’s life was a pleasant pattern of Italian language classes in the morning, followed by lunch with her teammates and training in the afternoon. During her downtime, she would stroll into town, sip strong coffee and marvel at a historic city renowned for its art galleries and Renaissance architecture.

And there were games every weekend, either at home in Florence or in cities such as Milan, or Rome, or her ancestral home town of Bari. She was scoring goals and creating many more for her teammates. It did not take her long to win the affection of Fiorentina’s Italian–American owner, Rocco Commisso, who loves her direct style of play and forthright manner. “I haven’t felt so happy in a team environment for a very long time,” she says.     

The novel coronavirus has negatively affected all professional sport, but the global nature of soccer makes it particularly exposed to the economic and logistical fallout of the pandemic. Domestic competitions – male and female – have been postponed or cancelled. The European and South American continental tournaments, which were due to kick off in June, have been rescheduled to 2021. Worldwide, the number of soccer identities who have tested positive to the virus – players, managers, club owners, federation officials – continues to grow.

Here in Australia, the W-League conducted its grand final last Saturday in a closed stadium and the A-League has been postponed, while the calendar for the men’s and women’s national teams has been thrown into disarray.

The players’ union, Professional Footballers Australia, is currently providing guidance and support to 700 members in 35 countries. “This is the biggest crisis our game has faced,” says John Didulica, the chief executive of the PFA. “Most of our players are based in Australia, but equally, we’ve got 100-plus players who have deals with clubs overseas. Each of those need to be dealt with in a very bespoke way because of all the different contracts in different countries with different personal circumstances.”

De Vanna confirmed she has been contacted by the PFA and Football Federation Australia, yet she remains totally confused by her predicament. The decision to stay in Florence, where she is under contract until the end of May, was made in the hope she could eventually play out the rest of the season. “We’ve still got seven games left,” says De Vanna. “Do we play those seven games? And if we do, when do we play them? If we don’t play, who finishes one, two and three on the ladder? We’re equal second with Milan – will Milan accept that? It’s just very unknown at the moment.”

Her desire to get back to Australia has been complicated further by the fact that her sister, with whom she used to live in Melbourne, is pregnant; and her mum, who lives in Perth, is 66 years old and in a high-risk category. “It’s a hard one, because I don’t want to put them in danger if I’m sick or have the virus,” says De Vanna.

In the meantime, to deal with the unrelenting boredom of enforced isolation, she is cooking, jotting down notes for her biography, watching true crime shows on Netflix, juggling a ball indoors and doing shuttle runs across the living room. She is also scrolling through social media a lot more than usual and chatting to family and friends on the phone.

“We talk regularly,” says Ella Mastrantonio of her chats with De Vanna. “She calls me at random hours of the night.” A midfielder who last played for the Western Sydney Wanderers, Mastrantonio, 28, is facing a Covid-19 crisis of her own. Like many footballers in the W-League, she jumps from one low-wage, six-month contract to another, with no job security and rapidly diminishing employment options outside soccer.

Mastrantonio’s contract with the Wanderers finished last weekend. She had expected to sign a contract with a club in Europe, but until the leagues resume she is a free agent with no income, precious little savings and rent to pay. “My plan was to go overseas straight after the end of the W-League season,” she tells The Saturday Paper. “I’ve always wanted to push myself and play in the best leagues in the world. But now, it’s just really uncertain times. I have no other income for who knows how long, because it all depends on how long they push the football back for.”

This shutdown of sport has exposed the precariousness of life as a female footballer. W-League players have only recently won the right to a guaranteed minimum wage, but most still earn apprentice wages to train and play like professionals. Consequently, many are forced into a peripatetic lifestyle with little opportunity to accumulate savings for unforeseen circumstances such as these.

To make ends meet, many of the best players shuttle back and forth between the W-League, which runs from November to March, and the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States, which runs from April to October. The past year, though, has been a boom time for women’s soccer in western Europe, leading Australians to sign for clubs in the “big five” nations of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France. Now, all these players – whether they are locked down in Australia, Europe or the US – face an anxious and uncertain future.

In Italy, with Europe now the global epicentre of the virus, De Vanna is desperate to return to football. “When am I going to kick a ball next?” she asks. “It’s my way of expressing myself. When I play football it takes a lot of stress off, it allows me to focus on something I love doing. When I don’t have that, I overthink things, and then I get frustrated and start becoming a little bit negative. I don’t know if I can handle this for another two weeks. It’s hard not kicking a ball, it’s hard not having freedom. It’s really, really tough.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2020 as "Tough to tackle".

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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.

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