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Playing like a girl... and proud of it

by Francis Leach on Jul 22, 2011

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The Matildas Melissa Barbieri is a gifted International Footballer.
She captains her country and has done so for a number of years. Her talents have taken her to three World Cup finals where she has performed with distinction. While she stands all of five-foot-six, her physical stature is belied by her agility, bravery and reflexes.

She’s one of the best this country has seen – period.

Yet Melissa Barbieri could be standing next to most Australians at a 7-11 or pumping petrol at the bowser beside them and they wouldn’t have a clue that they were in the presence of one of our finest.

The unassuming Melburnian pursues her football career (like many of her teammates) while trying to balance a career to pay for it. Working part time at a local school, The Matildas’ number one relies on the good will of her employers and the hard work and sacrifices that she and her husband make to help her continue to chase her dream.

It’s a long way from the A-List lifestyle enjoyed by her male contemporaries in the men’s national team. No breakfast cereals to flog, gear to peddle or telecommunication company stumping up a big fat fee to phone in an endorsement.

Hard to believe in this day and age of fast talking footballers and grasping agents, but our most successful international football team is driven by the one thing money can’t buy – the love of the game.

It’s what makes the achievements of The Matildas, reigning Asian Champions and World Cup quarter finalists, all the more impressive and important.

Watching them (and indeed all the other participants at the recent World Cup) was a reminder of why we love the game in the first place.

The men’s professional game now borders on a pirate’s paradise, with iconic clubs being reduced to the status of a billionaire’s playground. So it was re-affirming to watch the Women’s World Cup knowing that the only thing motivating the players was the trophy, not a million dollar contract for being the smiling face for a multi-national sweatshop conglomerate.

The poverty trap in football (as it is in most sports) is being born female, and the fact that it remains so firmly and stubbornly entrenched should be a source of acute embarrassment for a sport that prides itself on being a game for all, but only shares its rewards with some.

Yet the one up side is that Melissa Barbieri and her peers play the game for the same reason you and I go to watch it. For the thrill of the moment that only football can give.

And by doing so, they achieve the impossible.

Because at the recent Women’s World Cup, with its heart racing final between USA and Japan, there wasn’t a men’s game or women’s game.

There was just football.

And to be able to take us to a place that defies the old debilitating straitjackets of gender, race, religion class and language is something extraordinary.

And it took playing like a girl to prove it could be done.