Women’s football has taken a massive leap over the past couple of years, let alone further back a generation or so to where it all began.
The main seating at Seymour Shaw Park in Sydney’s south for the visit of New Zealand was four rows of planks laid upon scaffolding, that were fruits of regular Working Bees from enthusiasts of the local club (Sutherland Sharks).
The pitch, at the tail-end of a full winter’s use, was equally rough-hewn. In attendance were a handful of friends and family, and some curious onlookers. Media coverage was virtually non-existent.
Dolan, the inaugural captain of the latterly-named Matildas, and her team-mates sewed their own badges on their shirts. Some finished Saturday morning work as shop assistants before getting to the ground for the afternoon kick-off.
Fast forward to the present day and the contrast could not be greater. On Thursday (Australian time) the Matildas will have the honour of being Australia’s first athletes to feature at the Rio 2016 Olympiad. They will step up onto the pristine surface of the 50,000-capacity Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo to face Canada witnessed by TV viewers from every corner of the globe.
The vastly changed landscape is in itself a metaphor for how far women’s football has come, and Dolan couldn’t be happier.
“It is fantastic to see the growth,” Dolan says. “Sometimes people think there is some kind of feeling about ‘why couldn’t it be like that in my time’, but in general people that were pioneers [of any sport] are very proud of what has happened since, and certainly that is the case for me.
“Our push and aim when I played was simply to look at new opportunities internationally. The Olympics were never talked about. It was quite a way off at that point.”
As Australia’s first captain, Dolan maintains a unique status within the Matildas’ story. Her standing is further accentuated with the Julie Dolan Medal awarded annually to the W-League’s best player, and previously to the NWSL’s (National Women’s Soccer League) best player since the first season in 1997. In 2016, football was the first major Australian sport to jointly name its prestigious awards event in honour of two legendary female and male Australian footballers - the Dolan Warren Awards.
Dolan, however, is far from a mere figurehead. She is currently the Director of Sport at the International Football School – literally a high school with football as a key focus and the first of its kind in Australia. The school, which is based on the NSW Central Coast, also counts Matildas’ great Joey Peters on its staff.
Dolan’s playing motivations were, of course, purely sporting. It is a mentality that still resonates today among most of Australia’s modern sportswomen “I think back to times when I led out the team,” Dolan says.
“To me it didn’t matter if there was two people watching or two million. The whole point was the green and gold, and representing your country.”
Dolan believes that recognising history – and the struggle that previous generations have endured is important.
“Without history you are pretty much nothing,” she says. “It’s important that history is known, and I think we have a bit of a way to go there in terms of general knowledge out there. The current players I think, at least subconsciously, realise that it hasn’t always been like this.”
Football Federation Australia commenced a Hall of Fame in 1999, and started to retrospectively award caps to players in 2007. Dolan says that recognition of previous generations is at a reasonable level.
“What has gone on before is vital, but that needs to be tempered by what resonates with the public. People don’t want to hear about the old days all the time.
“There is always more you can do, but in general I think the history of the game has been better recognised for the women in recent years. There is perhaps a little way to go but it [the topic] seems to be on the agenda.”
The fight for recognition is of course ongoing. The Matildas went through an ugly pay dispute last year, resulting in missing the opportunity for a high-profile match against newly crowned world champions USA. The team came out the other side with improved, though still modest, benefits.
What is not in dispute is the momentum behind the sport. The W-League was initially launched on the back of the successful 2007 Women’s World Cup campaign where the Matildas reached the quarter-finals for the first time. The new league’s free-to-air TV coverage brought with it a new degree of publicity and public awareness. Now the successful Olympic qualification and unprecedented coverage on Channel 7 has continued to build momentum for the team’s profile. And nothing builds a profile in Australia like success at an Olympics.
“Maybe it will go up another level after Rio,” says Dolan when asked about the team’s recently enhanced profile.
“There has been all this build-up and build-up [over decades], and then all of a sudden, bang. The last few years has been a bit of a juggernaut. The TV coverage has proved that there is a desire to see more of these players and more women’s sport on TV.”
A medal in Brazil would add priceless impetus for the game. So how does Dolan think Australia are looking heading into Rio?
“They negotiated that pool of death last year in Canada and came out with a new belief because of it. I think they will do very, very well.
“It is a great thing that they are able to have access to such preparation. That is completely different to teams of the past, which was more a case of getting together for a couple of sessions and then out we go.
“There is not too many weaknesses in the current team. [Goalkeeper] Lydia Williams is absolutely outstanding, one of those dynamic players, with the character to go with it. I love the solidity of the engine room, being the midfield and also the defensive line.
“The team’s profile is great for the sport, great for women’s sport. They are almost household names, and who would have thought that would ever happen. People know who they are now, and that is a great thing.”