Where I grew up, football wasn’t a big deal.
Unless you meant Australian Rules football, which most certainly was a big deal. But football football? What some folks call soccer? Not at all.
I grew up in Adelaide, Australia. My parents didn’t play, my grandparents didn’t play, and nobody in my family had any clue about football. Yet somehow it became the center of my life. I played on the Australian national team. I was one of the first few women on the FIFA executive committee. I’ve had some strange and priceless adventures, both on and off the field.
And now I’m excited to announce that this year I will be taking on a new role as the independent chair of the management committee of Common Goal, the charitable fund supported by professional footballers all over the world. I’ll be working to allocate money to various football programs across the globe — and I cannot wait to get started.
Nothing would have seemed more unlikely when I was 10. Early on, football was not a part of life in my unusual household.
My mum was an Australian-born Chinese, and my dad white — with a combination of English, Irish and German ancestry. They were a rare mixed-race couple when they married in the 1950s. My mum was a Seventh-day Adventist and made vegetarian school lunches for me, my brother and sister. My dad was a fireman, and so … we lived in a fire station.
My sister and I slept in a room above the two trucks in the engine room, and anytime there was a fire, the sirens would wake us up as the trucks pulled out of the driveway. After school, I spent hours and hours just running around and playing in the yard while the firemen rolled the hoses out onto the concrete to dry them.
I did kick a ball — obsessively. But back then the ball was egg-shaped, and I caught it with my hands. Australian Rules football was all that I knew. But I couldn’t play on a team because girls weren’t allowed. And even though I played every kind of game in the schoolyard, I never joined any teams. Because my family included three kids and a dad on shift-work, my parents chose activities that we could all do together — like going on ski trips.
And back then, since nobody I knew played football, I didn’t know a thing about it.
That all changed one afternoon in the summer of 1976 when my dad brought home our family’s first television.
I was 11 years old. And when I first saw football, my eyes lit up. I was captivated by the intensity of the players, the precision of their passing, the patterns of their movement. The way they danced around the ball. I was intoxicated by the cheering crowds. We got an hour a week of the English league, and I loved every single minute. I remember the first live match I ever saw: the 1977 FA Cup final, Liverpool vs Manchester United. For us, it kicked off close to midnight, and my father stayed up with me to watch all the way through the trophy presentations.
I just couldn’t get enough.
Every morning I’d sit with my breakfast cereal at the kitchen table and scan our local paper for rare football news. A friend at school gave me three second-hand copies of a football magazine called Shoot. I read them until I knew each one by heart.
It was like a whole new universe was being presented to me. But it slowly sank in that football ran on gendered lines, and that I was the wrong gender. There were no women footballers in my magazines.
I mean zero.
And not just in those magazines.
Nowhere had I seen or heard of girls playing. There was no Women’s World Cup, and there certainly wasn’t any W-League like we have in Australia today.
But I still imagined myself playing football, even if it just meant kicking a ball against the wall on my own day after day. By then my family had moved out of the fire station and into a proper house, with a grass lawn and a garage. The neighbors would complain to my parents about the constant thudding of the ball against the garage wall well after dark.
That didn’t stop me, though. I wanted to play like my heroes Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish of Liverpool, and our front yard was my home ground. I took penalties and corners, and played one-twos against the wall with fantasy teammates as the imaginary crowd urged us on.
After two years of scouring the paper for mentions of football, I happened one day upon the results of a small women’s soccer league, printed in the tiniest of fonts on the last page of the sports section.
It was like discovering that there really is a Santa. I could actually have real teammates, compete against real opponents and play real games on a real field!
There was no youth football in the area then, so when I was 13 I signed up to play for a women’s adult team in Port Adelaide, within cycling distance of my home. I pedaled off twice a week after school for training.
It was a strange mix of sporty teenagers and older women who seemed like they were from another world — some of whom were already married, and some of whom smoked and swore and could get through practice with a roaring hangover.
I loved that team.
The more I played, the more I loved the game, and I did everything I could to get better. Because I’d played Australian Rules, I was naturally good at reading the ball in the air. I could head the ball better than anyone, but my first touch was poor because I was used to receiving the ball with my hands.
So I went to the library and borrowed as many football books as I could find. I studied the techniques of control and passing, and immersed myself in the stories of the game.
And I continued to practice against that garage wall.
Back then, many of the players in our leagues would pitch in to organize things. If we didn’t improve our game, who would? At 17, I became the publicity officer for the South Australian Women’s Soccer Association. Every Sunday night I’d collect the scores from each team, and then phone them into the newspaper for publication the next day.
When we’d travel for representative tournaments, we had to pay for our own airfare. Our clubs helped to fundraise, by hosting quiz nights and cake stalls.
When I studied law at university, I took part-time jobs to earn money that I could then spend on football. I picked oranges over summer break, reshelved books in the university library and sold ads for the student newspaper on a 10% commission. I made sterilized gel pots at a techno-plant nursery. And I rode a motorbike because it was the cheapest way to get around.
When I turned 19, I made the South Australian state team and the following year I even earned a spot on the national team.
On tour, we’d usually stay in low-budget motels, three or four to a room, with nothing in them but cheap linen and a kettle for making tea.
We’d have to wash our own gear at the motel laundromats, or in hand basins in our rooms, and then find places for it to dry. Socks and underwear were everywhere. Once, with the state team, we got creative and tied some clothes to a ceiling fan. We figured they’d dry faster spinning through the air at high speed, but they just flew off. When our coach walked in, he couldn’t work out what was going on.
The room was filled with laughter. The floor was covered in undies.
The budget hotel food wasn’t the best option for athletes gearing up for international competitions. Eventually I decided to make sure I could always get a healthy prematch meal. By then I’d moved out of my parents’ house and had my own electric rice cooker, so I decided to take it on national team tours. At first, because I’m half Chinese, it was a bit of a joke when I unpacked it from my luggage. But no one was laughing when they came to my room to eat rice out of those little motel teacups.
We just had to be resourceful. If there was a problem, we pitched in to solve it. We had a “do it yourself” mentality. And sometimes that meant taking on actual DIY projects….
On one tour with the national team, our tracksuits were very late to arrive. Luckily, the supplier dropped them off at the airport right before we boarded our plane. Since the tracksuits came straight from the factory, they were missing our national crest. Our team officials had anticipated all this, and handed out Australian team badges with instructions to sew them on ourselves. They’d brought needles, thread and a pair of scissors for the job.
Unfortunately, the scissors got confiscated by security. So when we arrived at our motel, I had to bite the cotton thread with my teeth to cut it. We all sewed the badges on as well as we could — which in most cases was not very well.
They were a mess!
Some were higher than they were supposed to be, some were lower — and very few of them were straight.
We weren’t seamstresses. We were footballers, and we just wanted to play.
In 1988, we got the chance to prove our worth on the global stage when we were invited to China to play in the first FIFA-sanctioned world tournament for women, a competition that was pitched as a pilot World Cup. We hoped that if we performed well enough, FIFA would create a proper World Cup for women, which we all knew was of critical importance. It would mean global visibility, better programs and more funding for our national teams.
When we entered the stadium in Guangdong for our first match, it was packed with tens of thousands of spectators — mostly school kids, sure, but real people nonetheless — and my heart was racing.
We were playing against Brazil, and when I came on as a substitute I was excited beyond words and terrified at the same time. Despite being the underdogs, we managed to pull off a 1–0 win. After that, we made it all the way to the quarterfinals before China knocked us out. We were disappointed to lose, but when we stepped off the field, we knew that we had been a part of something historic.
FIFA held the first Women’s World Cup three years later in China, but Australia missed qualifying for the tournament on goal difference. In 1995 I didn’t get to play because I had a torn ACL. I was nearly 30 by then, and it ended my international career. Still, it was truly rewarding to travel with the team as an administrator and witness how far we’d come.
It would be more than 10 years before my next big opportunity in football arrived. After graduating in law, I’d completed an MBA and had worked in law, media, telecommunications and consulting when I got the chance in 2007 to join the board of the governing body for football in Australia. Two years later I was the first woman elected as a vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation. In 2013, I was one of the first three women appointed to FIFA’s executive committee, working with the most influential people in the game during the most tumultuous period of FIFA’s history. Most importantly, I got to work on reforming the organization when the opportunity arose – especially around gender equality measures. I learned the value of our actions — and the impact of our collective purpose — when applied in the moments that matter. It’s a bit like football itself.
And like football, positions come and go, but your passion for the game has its own momentum.
Since football is played everywhere, this sport has the potential to do a lot of good in our society. No other sport has football’s convening power.
I see many good people in the world of football governance who are working hard to improve our sport and the community around it. But I’ve also seen others who have betrayed the game and the positions of trust that they held. I know from experience that political dysfunction, as well as outright corruption, can hinder the amount of good that can be accomplished.
Some of the recent scandals in football have done great damage to the legitimacy of the game’s governance. The damage is real. Our game, for so long the undisputed global king of team sports, now lives in a shadow of cynicism and mistrust.
And it’s taking a toll. I’ll never forget being part of the FIFA delegation that presented the trophy at the 2015 Women’s World Cup final in Vancouver. It was an experience to savour. But as we walked toward the podium, 50,000 people booed us.
It wasn’t personal. It was fan feedback to an organisation they felt had failed them. If people lose faith in the structures of the game, our sport will suffer, and we should expect more negative reactions if we don’t go about making things better.
The scandals and corruption we’ve seen do not represent the essence of football, or the values of the players who love this game. It’s time that we rebuild that trust among the football community.
And that’s why I’m so excited to be joining Common Goal. The organization is not only about developing football as a sport, but is also about football shaping society. And it is the players who are stepping up to make it happen.
Through this new initiative, professional footballers pledge to donate 1% of their salaries to more than 100 grassroots football programs.
So far more than 30 players from six different continents have pledged to Common Goal, raising more than 500,000 euros ($609,825) since the movement launched in August 2017. We are confident that in 2018 we can raise more than 2 million euros ($2,439,300).
In assisting these grassroots programs, our mission is to support the U.N.’s sustainable development goals. Together, we want to help end world hunger, promote clean energy and end discrimination — among many other goals — through the beautiful game.
Many of our donations will go to support worthy programs around the world like America Scores, which empowers young people through football, creative writing and community service. Or Football United, which gives refugees in Australia a foothold in their new world.
Here, the players are setting a new standard in the world of football. They are saying, We are not going to leave development to the governing bodies. Football encourages us to be better human beings. And now we are going to make the world better, through football.
This is players taking matters into their own hands.
And I find that concept quite refreshing. It reminds me of my playing days, traveling with a rice cooker, and pioneering the world game for young women in the ’80s. Back then, there were so many days when you just had to make things happen on your own — even if that meant hanging your underwear from a ceiling fan.
All in the name of a common goal.
To learn more about Common Goal and how to join the team, visit http://www.common-goal.org/. And to support Common Goal’s grassroots network streetworldfootball, visit http://www.streetfootballworld.org/donate-now