Are these the ‘First Matildas?’ Football Australia rewrites history with 1975 caps

Australia World

In 1975, a women’s football team from Australia travelled to Hong Kong to take part in an international tournament that has since been recognised as the first-ever women’s Asian Cup.

They competed under the Australian coat of arms, wore hand-me-down uniforms given to them by the Socceroos, and faced the national teams from five other countries: New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

They finished third and won a bronze medal in front of over 10,000 spectators.

But despite looking like a national team, sounding like a national team, and competing like a national team, this group has never been formally recognised by Football Australia (FA) as the first official Matildas side.


A black and white photo of women's soccer teams lining up behind signs saying their countries before a tournament

Australia lining up with opposition teams at the 1975 Women’s Asian Cup in Hong Kong.(SBS.)

In 2022, a panel of historians was convened by FA to figure it out.

That panel concluded that, unlike the other nations they faced in Hong Kong, this 1975 team was not chosen through a national selection process organised by its governing body. Instead, all but two of the players came from the same club — St George Budapest — who, throughout the early 1970s, were one of the most successful women’s club teams in NSW.

Their formal participation in the Hong Kong tournament was also complicated. At the time, women’s soccer in Australia was run by the Australian Women’s Soccer Association (AWSA), but they did not have the authority to sanction any international activity in terms of overseas competitions.

Instead, that power fell to the Australian Soccer Federation (ASF), the governing body who separately ran the men’s game and had no knowledge of or input into the women’s ecosystem.

So when the Asian Ladies Football Confederation (ALFC) reached out to Australia in 1974 to participate in their Hong Kong tournament the following year, the invitation was first received by Pat O’Connor, who was the secretary of the AWSA at the time — as well as the captain of the St George Budapest team.

Through O’Connor, the AWSA then nominated this New South Wales side to the ASF, who formally approved their participation in the tournament.

As Elaine Watson OAM, vice-president of the AWSA in 1974, wrote in her book chronicling the history of the association: “Permission was given [by the AWSA] for a New South Wales team to accept an invitation to the Asian Cup which was to be held in Hong Kong in August 1975.

“When NSW arrived in Hong Kong for the Asian Cup, they found that the organisers had publicised the team as the ‘Australian’ team. Without any background knowledge to place this designation in its proper perspective, the media in Australia adopted the terminology.

“As a result, players also came to claim Australian honours well before a national team was formally chosen. It was quite a few years before the confusion caused amongst the press and the players by this misrepresentation was finally cleared up.

“The AWSA later issued authorised lists of players who had competed from 1978 onwards and brought player profiles into line with this record.”

The team included almost all the players from St George Budapest, with two other players from Ingleburn, a club in Sydney’s south-west. The Hong Kong side was captained by Pat O’Connor and coached by her husband, Joe, who was also the coach of St George.

It wasn’t until the following year, 1975, that the AWSA resolved to use their National Championship competition, which was a tournament contested between state representative sides, to act as a national selection platform for future national teams.

But many of those who went to Hong Kong believe otherwise.

For the past five years, members of the 1975 team have been publicly campaigning for formal recognition as the first official Matildas.

Amidst the hype of last year’s Women’s World Cup, and the spotlight that placed on the history of women’s football in Australia, many of “the 1975ers” felt left out of the conversation altogether. Some teamed up with sports brand Puma to raise their profile and advocate for official caps.

A group of older women wearing dark blue shirts pose for a photo holding a soccer ball in front of a goal

Australian women’s soccer players from 1975 pose for a photo for sports brand Puma.(The Daily Telegraph)

This campaign was despite the decision from FA that the 1975 team were a club side that was not chosen via a formal selection process.

“While a historically significant team, the team did not meet the criteria to be categorised as an Australian Senior Women’s National Team,” FA said in a statement in 2022.

“This recommendation [from FA’s Panel of Historians] was considered and accepted by FA. In doing so, FA does recognise the 1975 team as the first women’s team to represent Australia in an internationally sanctioned tournament.”

Indeed, so informal was the selection process that Julie Dolan — who is currently acknowledged as Australia’s first captain, and who was part of St George and the Hong Kong side when she was just 14 — was chosen for the tour based on the whim of the coach who, in a matter of seconds, unselected one older player in order to “bring the kid instead”.

But under the leadership of new board chair Anter Isaac, FA have now revised their original decision and is set to announce the 1975 team as the first official Matildas.

A yellow and green soccer jersey with the Australian coat of arms, a green flag, and a match day program for a tournament

Australia XI jersey, flag, and tournament program for the 1975 Women’s Asian Cup in Hong Kong.(Supplied: Trixie Tagg)

“Prompted by other Associations around the world reviewing their national team recognition policies, Football Australia was inspired to review the recognition of prior national teams within our own history,” a letter from FA to the 1975 team, seen by ABC Sport, says.

“In line with this commitment, a working group was formed to develop policy principles for the historic recognition of national team representatives.

“Based on these consultations and reviews, the working group developed a comprehensive set of criteria for recognising national teams. These criteria were divided into threshold and discretionary categories, covering aspects such as official records, international games, player eligibility, and public perception.

“Following this detailed assessment, the working group recommended that all representatives of the 1975 Australian women’s team who participated in the 1975 Asian Ladies Football Confederation in Hong Kong be recognised with ‘A’ international caps numbered “0”. This recognition aligns with how we honour the 1922 Australian men’s team as the ‘first Socceroos’. You will be recognised as the ‘first Matildas’.

“We believe this recognition appropriately honours your pioneering efforts and contributions to Australian football […] We appreciate your patience and support throughout this process. Your legacy as trailblazers in Australian women’s football is a source of immense pride for us all, and we are honoured to celebrate your achievements.”

ABC Sport understands that FA’s own panel of historians, made up of experts including long-time Australian women’s soccer historian Dr Marion Stell and FA statistician Andrew Howe, author of Encyclopedia Of The Matildas, were not consulted at all during the most recent review process.

Instead, FA outsourced the review to four people overseas: Alex Phillips, administrator of the FIFA World Remission Fund; Dr Kevin Tallec Marston, research fellow and academic project manager at the International Centre for Sports Studies; Omar Ongaro, former chair of the FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber; and Richard Scott, former director of communications at Canada Soccer.

FA did not comment on why these four were chosen over their own panel of Australian historians, nor on what qualified them to be part of this review.

The history panel was also not provided with the new criteria that was used to re-assess the 1975 team’s eligibility. Instead, they were simply advised of FA’s ruling and not given a formal opportunity to respond. It is understood some members of the panel do not endorse the decision.

In a statement, an FA spokesperson provided ABC Sport with the updated criteria that now covers six new categories including official records, international games, uniforms and insignia, player eligibility, continuity, and officiating:

  • Was the match, competition, or tournament organised, approved, sanctioned, or supported by any two of FIFA, its Confederations, or its member associations?

  • Did the team compete against other officially recognised national teams?

  • Did the team use any nationally recognised emblems, symbols, decorations, or motifs?

  • Were the players eligible to represent the country at the international level according to the rules at the time?

  • Is there a clear line of continuity between this team and other recognised national teams?

  • Was the competition officiated by recognised officials?

FA confirmed that the 1975 team “met all necessary criteria” and that the decision “has been fully endorsed by the Football Australia board.” However, the fourth point has been the central sticking point on the subject for years, with questions around eligibility still not thoroughly answered even in this new review.

The governing body’s decision to recognise the 1975 team as the first Matildas will have enormous ripple effects across the entire game, fundamentally re-writing its history and causing even deeper fractures within the Matildas Alumni, which now contains over 200 members who were chosen through a formal national selection process.

Dolan, whose image was beamed onto the sails of the Sydney Opera House during the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup bid and celebrations, will no longer be recognised as Australia’s first captain, while her number 1 cap will now technically become cap 0.

A woman in a white jacket holds up a piece of paper during a tournament draw

Julie Dolan was part of many 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup initiatives as Australia’s first women’s national team captain, including the official draw.(Getty Images: FIFA/Matt Roberts)

Karen Menzies, originally acknowledged as Australia’s first Indigenous Matilda after her selection in 1983, will now lose that title to Aunty Tarita Yvonne Peters (who used the name Stacey Tracy at the time).

And Jim Selby, who coached the team in what was their first formally recognised games — the 1978 World Invitational Tournament in Taiwan, followed by their first FIFA-sanctioned A international against New Zealand in 1979 — will no longer hold the honour as first Matildas coach. Instead, it will be Joe O’Connor.

Dolan told ABC Sport that the decision was “a shambles” and that she would not accept FA’s new ruling.

“In response to Football Australia’s statement regarding recognition of the 1975 St George Budapest club team as the First Matildas, I will say this: I was a member of this team and was present the night we were informed by the club coach that we would be going to a tournament in Hong Kong,” she said.

“I’d only just joined the team and remember one of the longer-serving players was told I would be going instead of her. That, apparently, was the selection process for this supposed ‘national’ team.

“I want to stress that there were no trials, and women from interstate clubs, or any club for that matter, were not invited to try out for this tournament, so to hear that FA are now recognising this club team as the first Matildas makes a mockery of the selection process for a national team and is nothing short of farcical.

“I stand with all the women who were not invited to try out for that tournament, and with all those who have since been required to take part in the proper selection process to represent their country. To that end, I will not be accepting the so-called ‘First Matildas’ cap being offered to the 1975 club team.”

By contrast, Pat O’Connor, who will now be known as Australia’s first captain instead of Dolan, welcomed the decision.

Two women soccer players wearing white jerseys with red shorts and green trim standing beside a grass field smiling

Trixie Tagg, left, and Pat O’Connor, right, played for St George Budapest in 1975 and will now be recognised as the first Matildas.(St George FC)

“I am deeply honoured and thrilled by Football Australia’s decision to recognise our 1975 team with ‘A’ international caps,” she said in a statement.

“This acknowledgement and recognition as the ‘First Matildas’ not only celebrate our efforts and dedication but also cements our place in Australian football history as the pioneers of the women’s game.

“It is a moment of immense pride for all of us, and I am grateful for the recognition of our contributions to the sport we love.”

The question of whether the 1975 team was the first official Matildas side has highlighted deeper, more subjective issues around who gets to decide history, how they decide it, and perhaps most importantly: why.

Why has this decision been made just two years after FA’s own experts on the history of Australian football seemed to land on a justified position? Who re-opened this Pandora’s Box of a conversation, what influenced them to do so, and what was their goal?

History is always in process, and the things we collectively remember are constantly being revised as more information comes to light or when new ways of looking at old things are introduced. Yet this revision of the Matildas’ origins begs far deeper questions that still remain unanswered.

What does it mean to be a national team? Should it be nationally representative, or simply represent the nation on the world stage? Who gets to choose what that looks like?

Does one need to be an Australian citizen — which some of the 1975 players were potentially not — in order to qualify? Or is being Australian for the purpose of representation overseas in sport something bigger than that?

Is it right that governing bodies retroactively fit new criteria around the past? Or is it better practice to remember and respect history according to the rules that were or were not in place during it?

What is the criteria that we ought to use to measure something like this? And what does it mean for history that such criteria are so easily changeable, especially by those with questionable appreciation or knowledge of the nuances of the space?

How is it that a small group of people, most of whom know nothing about Australian women’s football, have been allowed to create a seismic shift in the way the rest of us remember and celebrate its history going forward?

FA’s decision appeared to be aimed at finally settling the debate over when the Matildas began. But the result, it seems, will do exactly the opposite.