I want to take a moment to extol the virtues of one of my country’s national teams – the Matildas, the women’s football team and especially its co-captain, Lisa De Vanna.
In case you’re not aware, the Matildas just dipped out of the Women’s World Cup in Canada after losing 0-1 to Japan in the quarter-finals. En route to getting there, they defeated Nigeria, drew with Sweden and were defeated by the USA in their ‘group of death’. They also dealt with Brazil in the Round of 16 match.
In doing so, they became the first Australian senior football team to win a knockout match at a World Cup. (The previous teams that have done so have been at U-17 and U-20 men’s level). Since the Women’s World Cup was introduced in 1991, they have been Australia’s most successful football team reaching the finals all but the first time. Their previous best was in 2007 in China when they met, and lost to, the mighty Marta-inspired Brazil in the second round.
But like many women’s sports the world over, the Matildas have struggled for recognition and reward. They are representative of so many women athletes who have to work that proverbial extra mile harder – balancing making a living with the demands of being an elite athlete.
Just as the team itself has a tale to tell, so does Lisa De Vanna and her story of how football saved her from herself.
A self-confessed ‘problem child’ who couldn’t focus at school, rebellious by nature but fiercely determined to succeed, Lisa credits her competitive ‘never say die’ spirit – which is emblematic of the Matildas – with growing-up playing backyard football with her older brother. She also says that being good at the sport, and realising that it could take her somewhere, kept her out of serious trouble. When many of her peers were into hard partying and recreational drugs, Lisa De Vanna says she was into training, being fit and staying focused on what she wanted – sporting success.
But that didn’t mean she didn’t have her problems. She did. For example, she was kicked-out of the U-19 Australian women’s team in 2002 because she was a disruptive influence on the team and was considered to be a ‘selfish’ player. She was sent home from training camp prior to the 2011 Women’s World Cup because of ‘behavioural issues’. The same year she was censured by the governing body for posting lewd images on her Facebook page.
The concern for officialdom was how to translate Lisa’s individual brilliance – she was twice a nominee for World Player of the Year in 2007 and 2013 – and troublesome temperament, into a team situation without losing her competitive streak and her ability to be a match-winner.
Enter Alen Stajcic, the Matildas coach. A former high school teacher, and coach of Sydney FC in the W-League, Stajcic was no stranger to dealing with young people in need of guidance and purpose when he took over the role last year.
Nonetheless, eyebrows were raised when he named De Vanna co-captain of the Matildas for the World Cup, along with Clare Polkinghorne. But his decision was on the money. I reckon it’s on a par with Guus Hiddink appointing the brilliant, but sometimes diffident, Mark Viduka as captain of the 2006 Socceroos.
After six months under the watchful eye of Stajcic in the Matildas training camp, De Vanna blossomed into being a mature and inspirational leader in Canada. Despite nursing a long-term ankle injury, she still had her moments of individual brilliance – and was the goalscorer against Brazil – but on and off-the-field she was everything a mentor and first amongst equals should be: inspiring, fierce, competitive, passionate … never say die.
Suggestions are that De Vanna may opt to retire from international competition before the 2019 edition of the Women’s World Cup, when she will be nearing 35. If she does, she should be well pleased with where she has helped take the Matildas in this World Cup.
But why I wanted to share this with you is because I think she’s a great reminder to all of us of the power of sport and the opportunity we all have for redemption and to reach our potential.
Well played Lisa De Vanna. Well played Alen Stajcic. And well played the Matildas.