Former Matildas player Sarah Walsh was just five years old when she decided she wanted to play football like her big brother.
“He only played for a year and then quit,” says Walsh. “I went on to play for 35 years.”
Football quickly became Walsh’s passion. “I absolutely loved it,” she says. “I played it any minute I had. After school, before school, on weekends – I couldn’t get enough.”
With fewer girls playing football in the ’80s and ’90s than today, Walsh was often the only girl on the team. She has memories of getting dressed at home because the clubhouse had no second change room for girls.
“I think I sit in the one percent. I had the talent, but I also had the drive and commitment and dedication”
Still, she was unfazed. Nothing was going to stop her from playing the sport she loved. “To be perfectly honest, I think I sit in the one per cent, where I was probably always going to be a professional footballer,” she says. “I had the talent, but I also had the drive and commitment and dedication.”
A gifted athlete, Walsh also participated in Little Athletics, competing against Jana Pittman in her pet event, the 60-metre hurdles.
However, Walsh’s heart wasn’t in track and field. “When I look back and think about athletics, I really disliked doing it,” she admits. Part of the problem was that “it’s an individual sport, and I absolutely love being part of the team”.
When it came time to focus on one sport, it was an easy decision for Walsh: football won hands-down.
At 14, she joined a New South Wales senior representative team, another challenging competitive environment where she played alongside grown women – an experience she says helped set her up for success years later when she joined the Matildas, the women’s national team. At 16, Walsh made her first junior national team, but before the team went on tour, she suffered a serious knee injury that required a knee reconstruction.
She returned to the pitch after 10 months of rehab, only to injure her other knee. After another reconstruction and recovery, she made a second comeback – only to suffer the unimaginable: a third knee injury and reconstruction, all before the age of 18.
“It really tested my resolve,” says Walsh. “Those injuries taught me a lot as a teenager. Up until the point of having my first knee reconstruction, things had been quite easy for me.”
“Given all the setbacks I’d had, I played every single match like it was my last"
Walsh took a little longer to make her third comeback, finally debuting for the Matildas when she was 21.
She believes her arduous road to the national team gave her a unique appreciation of what football meant to her. “Given all the setbacks I’d had, I played every single match like it was my last,” she says.
Walsh’s knees held out, and she enjoyed a long representative football career, notching up 70 appearances for the Matildas and serving as captain of Western Sydney Wanderers FC in Australia’s W-League.
Among Walsh’s proudest moments on the pitch was the goal she scored in the Matildas’ match against Ghana in the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The Australians won the match 4-1, a morale-boosting result that confirmed their place in international football. “It really gave us the confidence and belief that we belonged there,” Walsh says.
Walsh retired from playing in 2013 but didn’t leave the sport. Instead, she completed a business degree at university and pursued a career in sports administration, joining Football Australia, the sport’s governing body.
Today, she serves as the Head of Women’s Football, Women’s World Cup Legacy and Inclusion at Football Australia.
"I’ve always been focused on improving the game and making sure that it’s better for the next generations,” she says. “I thought the best place I could influence change was within the system.”
In 2019, the Matildas were crowned Australia’s most-loved sporting team. Then, in 2021, a record-breaking 1.5 million people tuned in to watch the Matildas take on Sweden in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Women’s Football Tournament.
Walsh hopes to capitalise on the Matildas’ ongoing success in her mission to expand the sport and make it more inclusive in the lead-up to the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023. Two billion people are expected to watch the tournament when it kicks off in Sydney in July 2023.
"The measure of the Matildas’ success isn’t just how they perform on the pitch, it’s how they inspire new generations of players, and how they represent the values of Australians”
“Everyone across the globe will be looking at us next year,” says Walsh. The measure of the Matildas’ success isn’t just how they perform on the pitch,” she says, “it’s how they inspire new generations of players, and it’s how they represent the values of Australians.”
Football Australia has set an ambitious target to achieve gender parity by 2027 under the five-pillar Legacy ’23 plan, developed to ensure hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 delivers a long-lasting benefit to the sport in Australia.
“We’re going to have a massive influx of interest from women and girls during the Women’s World Cup, and we want to make sure that our clubs are ready,” Walsh says.
The Legacy ’23 plan aims to increase the number of women “from all backgrounds, ages and abilities” in official roles within the sport and improve facilities at the grassroots level, after a recent audit revealed that just 36 per cent of the nation’s community clubs are considered inclusive for women and girls.
It also includes the launch of the inaugural National Indigenous Advisory Group (NIAG).
Walsh says the 2019 equal pay collective bargaining agreement between the Matildas and the Socceroos (the national men’s team) was a “watershed moment” for the sport in Australia, describing it as a “blueprint” for achieving gender equity at all levels of the game.
Girls today are more attuned to equity and equality, according to Walsh. “When they turn up to community clubs, they know what respect and equal access and opportunity look like.”
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