Matildas centurion Emily van Egmond speaks as rapidly and decisively as she responds on the pitch. It’s 7.30am in wintry Melbourne but 2.30pm in sunny San Diego, where the 29-year-old midfielder – who’s played her club soccer with San Diego Wave since January last year – chats via Zoom before heading home for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which begins on July 20.
“Obviously it’s come such a long way,” the Newcastle native replies when asked what’s changed in Australian women’s soccer since she first played at age five, stepping in for her twin brother at the local under 6s. “I was fortunate enough to grow up in an era where we had pretty established players,” she says, citing fellow Novocastrians Joanne Peters and Cheryl Salisbury, the latter of whom became Australia’s most-capped footballer in any code.
Despite their skill, however, early Matildas never attained the visibility of male soccer players. After I ask about female role models, her gaze rests on the ceiling. For a long beat on the screen she’s just bright blue eyes below a red beanie emblazoned with “Just Women’s Sports”. “To be honest, I don’t think I had a female role model growing up because I was always watching men’s football. So I grew up idolising the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Steven Gerrard.”
The daughter of former Socceroo Gary van Egmond, Emily has played for clubs across Europe and the United States. She represented Australia in the Young Matildas before overcoming a broken ankle to make her senior debut against North Korea in 2010. Just 17 at the 2011 World Cup, she scored a goal that contributed to the young line-up’s strong showing. Many of her teammates from that tournament will be on the field next month.
Australian women’s soccer has progressed rapidly since the 1970s when athletes representing their nation bore their own costs. But van Egmond still came up in a cohort that had to do more with less. Her childhood coach, Mark Jones, ran the northern New South Wales Institute of Sport’s development program. “Because there was only about six or eight girls at the time who were representing Australia, he combined the [boys and girls]. So I was fortunate enough to grow up training with, and playing against, boys up until around age 15,” she says.
“Honestly, it served such a purpose not only for my development but [for] other girls within the area. I know Sammy was similar,” she adds, referring to her Matildas camp roommate and close friend, striker and captain Sam Kerr – the most clutch player in women’s soccer today, if consecutive Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year wins are any indication. “A lot of the girls that’ve come through the national team at a similar time had the same experience.”
Such opportunities aren’t guaranteed. ABC’s The Ticket reported on a new Tasmanian rule barring girls from playing with boys once they turn 16. The state lacks an under-18 girls’ team.
Much has changed “from year one of the W-League to now”, which is clear from the fact Australia’s top-division women’s league, established in 2008, is now named the Liberty A-League for sponsorship reasons. Initially, things were different. “I think the whole league was sponsored by [Denmark-based clothing manufacturer] hummel,” van Egmond remembers, laughing. “Everyone had this one sponsor and wore the exact same uniform … Now a lot more money and resources have gone into the game.”
She loves playing in the US. “I still think it’s the No. 1 league in the world. From a competitive standpoint, top to bottom, any team can beat any team on any given day.
“I’ve been lucky enough to experience Europe and, as much as that’s been great playing for a top [German] side like Wolfsburg, it’s just not the same.
“The USA girls are just so successful. It not only shows on the field but off as well. They’re massive over here,” she says, mentioning San Diego striker and captain Alex Morgan. “Being fortunate enough to be on her teams, I’ve seen the impact she has not only in the teams but [in] every single city we go to – it’s like an Alex Morgan effect. She’s bringing in bums on seats.”
Hearing that, one thinks of Sam Kerr, a once-in-a-generation player so uniquely skilled and supremely staunch that all commentators speak her name with reverence. An anticipated two billion viewers will watch the global game played in Australian and New Zealand stadiums, a 90 per cent increase on 2019. With allocations quickly exhausted and more than a million tickets sold, it’s tracking to become the most-attended Women’s World Cup. And yet, as commentator Rob Gilbert has noted, when Australia plays Canada in their group match on July 31 at AAMI Park (capacity 30,000), the 100,000-seat MCG over the road will be empty. Two days prior, however, that iconic venue will host rugby union’s Bledisloe Cup, touted as “the biggest sporting event in Melbourne of the year”.
Van Egmond says the US National Women’s Soccer League has done “a tremendous job” with development. “You can see this year, with the World Cup on the horizon, the investment in the youth … There’s a boast of young talent coming through the ranks.”
The same might be said about the Tillies squad where young powerhouses such as Cortnee Vine, Clare Hunt, Charlotte Grant and Kyra Cooney-Cross, who’s been called “the baby-faced assassin”, have recently stepped up. “It shows we’re heading in the right direction with our youth programs,” van Egmond says. “Hopefully we can keep developing more players because the more we can, the better we’ll be.”
A question hovers, however, about players we aren’t seeing because of access issues. Journalist Samantha Lewis recently described what’s needed. “I would love to see every A-League club having an academy system for girls and boys,” she told Tracey Holmes on The Ticket. “The same number of teams expanded out, the same number of rounds, the same number of opportunities. The same media coverage. The same number of coaches that are paid full-time to develop these players. You want to see … the other half of this game being given the resources and the opportunities that the [men’s] half has been given for the past five decades.”
Since 2019, FIFA has increased the prize pool for the Women’s World Cup by about 300 per cent to $US110 million. That is a quarter of the men’s prize pool.
“Fortunate”, “lucky”: humility and optimism are embroidered throughout van Egmond’s vernacular. They’re qualities intrinsic to the Matildas’ “Never Say Die” motto, an ethos that includes the mutuality and resilience required for years of hard-won growth. Still, the vicissitudes of the day mean that goals don’t always come. That was true of their 2022 Asian Cup defeat. But naysayers were humbled in April when, 100 days from the World Cup, an injury-plagued Australia ended the English Lionesses’ 30-game unbeaten streak, winning 2-0. Add recent wins over Sweden, Czechia and Spain, and nobody should take the Matildas lightly.
Currently recovering from injury, van Egmond says, “I’m in good hands and very confident that, once I’m back, I’ll be ready to go. It’s an honour to put your jersey on for your country at prestigious tournaments like the World Cup. You can’t match it.”
Playing on home soil is “a once-in-a-lifetime experience”. “Hopefully we make great memories. I can’t wait for the tournaments to get under way.”
Distance is just another hurdle the Matildas had to overcome. With players scattered across far-flung club land, coach Tony Gustavsson “only gets us for 10 to 12 days at a time”. But many senior players have been training together, on and off, since they were about 12. That “very special bond” is often apparent in the speed of support on the field. “Some of my best friends are in that team,” van Egmond explains. “That’s one thing that separates our team compared to most.”
The endurance required to quickly recover from the longest-haul travel has been known only intellectually by most other teams. That changes when 64 matches are played in Australia and New Zealand. What does the Matildas No. 10 reckon about everyone else having to travel across the world for a change?
“It’s about time,” she answers, with a smile.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "Playing by heart".
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