Australia

The Matildas had to pose naked for a calendar to get noticed 20 years ago

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World Cup Fans looks at some of the nations competing in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, through the eyes of their fans in Australia.

Much has changed for women's football in Australia over the years and the Matildas are now one of the country's most popular sporting teams.

But that wasn't always the case. 

The Australian women's football team first came together in 1978 to play in an invitational tournament in Chinese Taipei. A year later, Australia played its first official game against New Zealand in Sydney.

Leigh Wardell was a member of those pioneering teams.

"I went to that first tournament in 1978 thinking that I was going to be professional footballer," Wardell told SBS News. "It wasn't really at that stage yet."

It would take until the 21st century for Wardell's dream to become a reality. 

Calendar controversy

It's been a long journey to professionalism for women's football in Australia since the Matildas first World Cup appearance in 1995.

Twenty years ago, 12 Matildas players agreed to pose naked for a black and white calendar to help raise funds and awareness of the team.

The Matildas in 1999.
A number of Matildas players posed naked for the calendar in 1999.
AFP

Nudity didn't bother player Katrina Boyd, she told CNN this week

"It was all done very tastefully, at no time did we feel preyed upon, no-one felt that we were just objects ... It was no different to the changing rooms," she said.

The calendar reportedly sold tens of thousands of copies but didn't come without its critics. 

Alicia Ferguson
Alicia Ferguson of the Matildas with the calendar in November 1999.
AFP

"It rocked the boat a little bit over here, but we did get a bit of coverage and the word 'Matilda' started to mean something, though probably not for the reasons we wanted," Boyd said. 

"I wasn't surprised by the negative reaction. That would still happen today. We were more surprised by how much people were into it, but half of them were blokes, of course.

The next generation

Two decades later, the team is more popular than ever before, based on their performances on the pitch. 

And they have sponsorship deals to match, with captain Sam Kerr the face of Nike Australia and reportedly set to become the first Australian female footballer to earn more than $1 million in a year. 

Sam Kerr
Sam Kerr poses for a selfie with a fan.
AAP

"It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been proactive in telling people that I played for the Matildas because people now know who the Matildas are," Wardell said.

"If I had said that in years gone by, they would have gone who are the Matildas?"

"Even if I said I play in the national team, which I wouldn’t have done that often, people would go, oh we have got a national team?"

Wardell is now the technical director of SAP (Skill Acquisition Program) at the North West Sydney Koalas. The club is a microcosm of the changing landscape of Australian football.

From under 10s upwards, the Koalas have a girls team for every age bracket.

The number of girls and women playing the sport across the country has never been higher.

North West Sydney Koalas
Members of the North West Sydney Koalas Football Club.
Adrian Arciuli

Former Matildas vice-captain Joey Peters says the upcoming World Cup will help young girls aspire to become professional footballers.

“I think it will have a big impact on the next generation," she said. 

"They’ll be dreaming of succeeding and that’s a great message for all young Australians that they can really pursue their dreams and be good at it."

"That’s why I feel like this next generation are going to take the game to a whole new level in terms of equality and social issues."

"This is where the game needs to head and the Matildas are certainly inspiring the next generation in that direction."

More popular than ever

For the first time ever, the Matildas will wear their own specifically designed jersey for the World Cup.

Ultra Football General Manager, Matt Adams says it has sold at a higher rate then the Socceroos World Cup shirt did last year.

Matt Adams
Ultra Football general manager Matt Adams with a personalised Sam Kerr jersey.
Adrian Arciuli

"We've launched Manchester United, Manchester City, Germany; every federation you could imagine and traditionally you won’t see something go this quick," Adams said.

"When it came into the store the guys were saturated with phone calls and people requesting the jersey."

"It's quite crazy in essence that it's obliterated the men's sell-through."

Australia will start the World Cup as one of the teams to beat.

Former Matildas forward Catherine Cannuli believes the Matildas should be aiming to make the tournament's last four.

"If they make it to the semi-finals, it’s going to be a fantastic achievement for them and our country," she said. 

The Matildas are in Group C along with Italy, Brazil and Jamaica. They play Italy at 9pm (AEST) on Sunday. 

The 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup takes place in France, 7 June-7 July.

Read more news from the Women's World Cup and see the rest of the stories in the World Cup Fans series.  

SBS will offer all Matildas matches, the opening game, the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final live, free and in HD. All SBS games will also be live streamed on The World Game website and app.

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