Celebrating 100 years of women’s soccer in Australia

  • Integrity Blog
Julie Murray, one of the first Australian female players to ever sign a professional playing contract back in 1990.
Former Matilda Julie Murray, one of the first Australians to sign a professional contract.

On 24 September 1921 a crowd of 10,000 people gathered at the Brisbane Cricket Ground (now the Gabba) to watch the first official publicised women’s football match in Australia between the North Brisbane Reds and the South Brisbane Blues.

The introduction of the game at this level was short lived when that same year the English Football Association banned women from playing on official grounds, which ultimately had a flow on affect to Australia, with officials citing “medical and aesthetic reasons”.  

However, history suggests our Aussie girls continued to play “rebel” games across the country to keep the game alive, to which would ultimately give birth to the W-League and our mighty Matildas.

It’s thanks to these early pioneers that new pioneers for Australian sport were given the opportunity to pave the way.

At the age of 19, as the first of two Australian female players to ever sign a professional playing contract back in 1990, former Matilda Julie Murray has inspired many young women to believe in the possibilities.

She marvels at how far the sport has come from the occasional paragraph in a newspaper when she and the Aussie team made it to their first World Cup in 1995, to the extraordinary support the Matildas have across sponsorship, television coverage and social media today.

“Back in my day coverage and awareness of female football was limited,” Julie says. “In the lead-up to our first World Cup, we [the national team] played on training fields, with no stadiums, no media.

“The Matildas have come a long way and have been instrumental in kick-starting equality for women in [traditionally male-dominated] sport.”

Young Matilda Emma Ilijoski knows only too well the impact achievements such as Julie’s have made for female footballers. Almost the same age now as Julie was when she signed that first contract, Emma recognises without brave and committed forerunners she couldn’t dare to dream.

“For females in the game we understand how hard it was for the women that paved the way for us,” says Emma, “I’m eternally grateful for those rebels 100 years ago, and the likes of Julie who created opportunities for us. I hope we can keep doing them proud.”

Julie acknowledges the role sport plays in providing a foundation for social change.

“Culturally and socially sport helps to shape people,” she says, “so it’s essential we’re at the forefront of providing a sporting environment where every person is safe.”

Women’s football has come a long way in 100 years with Football Australia’s (FA) 2020 national football census figures suggesting women currently make up 22% of Australia’s 1.95 million soccer participation.

Thanks to two teams of women back on 24 September 1921 and with the ongoing success of the W-League and Matildas, more and more young Aussie girls are now hitting the fields in the world game of football, which has been 100 years in the making.

As part of the Future Matildas program, Emma had a workshop with Sport Integrity Australia just last week.

“Ensuring the integrity of our sport is important to keep us on an even playing field and so we can show respect for our sport,” Emma says.

She agrees that educating athletes from a young age is essential if we’re going to continue keeping our sports clean, fair and safe. “There’s the obvious stuff we need to learn about, but there’s also information about the amount of banned substances in supplements we had no idea about!”

According to Australian Women’s Soccer Association data, there were just over 7,000 women registered 1983 and over 21,000 in 1997. That figure is now climbing towards 500,000. As Australia prepares to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup, it’s safe to say the game is here to stay.

“The number of women in football is on the rise every year,” Emma says. “It’s our pioneers that started that. It’s our responsibility to continue inspiring more girls to play the game.”