‘It’s bull****’: Matildas alumni slam Football Australia’s 1975 recognition

Australia World

More than 50 former Matildas are expected to sign a letter to Football Australia criticising the recent decision to formally recognise a team from 1975 as the “first Matildas,” saying the governing body has devalued the meaning of their caps and damaged their trust in the organisation.

Following the announcement on Monday, several alumni have spoken to ABC Sport to express their disappointment and anger with FA over the decision, as well as the process that led to it, which they say disrespects the more than 200 women players who were formally selected to represent Australia since 1978.

“The cap means nothing if they’re going to go down this path,” Jae Pettitt, cap number 14, said.

“Every man and his dog can come and claim one now if they’ve been part of something that had to do with an Australian representative team. There’s many; I’m part of one, as well, and I know so many people in that category who were never capped.

A black and white photo of a women's soccer team wearing an Australian uniform

This team represented Australia in women’s soccer in 1975, but they haven’t been formally capped as Matildas. Until now.(Getty Images)

“They’ve wiped us off the face of the earth, basically. For many of us, football has been our whole life, our whole identity, for 50 odd years. I’m 61 now, and it’s made me the person I am. Without it, I probably wouldn’t still be alive … I feel like my identity has been stolen, to be honest.

“We went through so much as players to be part of these teams. Growing up, you never used to talk about being in the Matildas because you’d be mocked or bullied or harassed or abused. But knowing I was part of the football family, knowing I was a Matilda, was something really special because all that suffering was recognised and was worth it.

“But now? What does any of this mean now?”

The crux of the issue is the way in which the team who competed in the 1975 Women’s Asian Cup in Hong Kong was chosen, and whether that process made them a genuine national team according to the protocols of the day.

More specifically, all but two of the players from the 1975 team were sourced from the same club side, St George Budapest in Sydney, whose captain, Pat O’Connor, was also the secretary of the Australian Women’s Soccer Association (AWSA) at the time.

The AWSA was established during the first National Championships in August of 1974 in order to run women’s football across the country, while the men’s game was run by a separate governing body, Australian Soccer Federation (ASF).

Shortly after the 1974 National Championships, which was won by New South Wales, the AWSA, through O’Connor, was contacted by the Asian Ladies Football Confederation (ALFC), inviting an Australian team to participate in what would become the first Women’s Asian Cup the following year.

According to Elaine Watson OAM, the vice-president of the AWSA, the governing body had already resolved to not select a national team or an “All Stars” team from the National Championships until the following August, about the same time that the Asian Cup was due to kick off.

In the absence of such a team, the AWSA approved an alternative side from NSW to accept the Asian Cup invitation. This team had to be sanctioned by the men’s ASF, which was the only governing body recognised by Asian football even though they had nothing to do with the women’s game at the time.

The final team was made up almost entirely of St George Budapest players, with two others invited from the nearby Ingleburn Soccer Club in Sydney’s south-west. O’Connor was chosen as the team’s captain, while her husband Joe was chosen as its coach. In late 1974, O’Connor was then elected as the second vice-president of the ALFC, which ran the tournament the following year.

“It’s bull****,” Janine McPhee, cap number 45, said. 

“This was a club team. They kept it all in-house. Why does a club team who selected themselves get the right to represent Australia and be classed as the first Matildas?

“There were players who competed in that National Championships in 1974 who never got a look-in. They didn’t even know this was happening. Players who then went on to be chosen in the first real Matildas team in Taiwan in 1978.

“For me, it’s about entitlement. They’re entitled and they’re arrogant to even think that they should be recognised as an Australian team, let alone the first Matildas team. 

“There is so much anger around this, and so many alumni who want answers from FA to some of the questions that we don’t understand as to how they came to this decision.”

A soccer player wearing green and yellow kicks a ball during a match

Janine McPhee received her first cap against Taiwan in 1987, but says she could have been capped sooner according to FA’s new guidelines.(Supplied: Janine McPhee)

Indeed, the process itself has been questioned after FA announced four overseas “experts” had been selected to review an original decision arrived at by FA’s own panel of historians back in 2022.

That original panel, which included long-time women’s soccer academic Marion Stell and statistician and co-author of the Encyclopedia of the Matildas, Andrew Howe, concluded that the 1975 team did not qualify as a true national team due to a lack of a national selection process. But none of the original panellists were consulted during the recent review.

Further, ABC Sport understands FA did not consult with any Matildas alumni during the review, nor did it speak with its own National Indigenous Advisory Group (NIAG) which is co-chaired by Karen Menzies, who was, until Monday, the first Aboriginal woman to represent the Matildas.

The only alumni who knew about the decision ahead of its official announcement was now-former first captain Julie Dolan, who received a phone call just over a week beforehand informing her of the outcome. 

Dolan was part of the 1975 team that competed in Hong Kong but has publicly stated her opposition to their formal recognition. 

However, as she told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week, she has stayed quiet on the issue because the last time she spoke up, members of her family were verbally abused by supporters of the 1975 side. Other alumni, who spoke to ABC Sport on the condition of anonymity, said they have also experienced harassment after disagreeing with the 1975 team’s campaign for formal recognition.

FA declined to comment on what triggered the review of the original decision in the first place, who selected the four overseas experts, or what made them more qualified than FA’s own historians or advisory groups to be part of the review. It instead referred back to its original release.

Marion Stell by Liz Speed

Marion Stell, one of Australia’s longest serving historians on women’s football, was not part of the recent review process to recognise the 1975 team.(Supplied: Liz Speed)

More concerns were raised when two of the four overseas experts — FIFA World Remission Fund administrator Alex Phillips and former director of communications at Canada Soccer, Richard Scott — had their names removed from FA’s media statement on its website following the announcement.

“FA are totally responsible for this,” Pettitt said. “They do nothing but put their head in the sand; they don’t fight for the people that made the Matildas what they are today, and for what we had to persevere through and do to get selected the right way, not the wrong way. We actually had to fight for it.

“They should think about the past, because the past does matter, and the people in the past are more affected by this because it’s personal. And we’re not just talking about the first 15 here — I don’t care if I was cap number 455 — it’s the principle of the selection process.

“It wasn’t fair. It was a conflict of interest. It was serving their own interests; the whole team. I come from Perth, which had stars everywhere in that era, but not one of them — even though they won the National Championships in 1975 — were asked to participate a few months later.

“They came up with this crazy excuse that the WA association wouldn’t allow them to go. No, they were never asked.

“In 1978, these players were still playing, and seven of those WA players were nominated in the national team through the actual process. Yet not one of them went to that Asian Cup in 75. I mean, really?”

ABC Sport understands that one of the overseas experts engaged by FA, Kevin Tallec Marston, author of the official History of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup book published in 2022, was allegedly contacted by representatives of the 1975 team before its publication asking him to change the language used to refer to the side from a “club” team to a “national” team. Marston did not respond to ABC’s request for an interview.

This suggestion to change the language of the book was allegedly made despite the fact that historical records from the late 1970s explicitly describe the team as a club side.

In a 1979 report on the AWSA’s activities, O’Connor herself wrote that the 1975 team in Hong Kong was “an Australian XI [that] did well as their competition were all National teams,” and that they “were highly praised for being the only country represented by a club side (the St. George team from Sydney being called an Australian XI).”

Later on in the report, she writes that “1978 also saw the first full international women’s team play when they travelled to Taiwan to represent Australia in the World Women’s Soccer Tournament”.

Text from a report in a 1979 handbook about Australian soccer

Pat O’Connor, secretary of the Australian Women’s Soccer Association, writing a report in the 1979 Australian Soccer Federation Handbook.(Supplied.)

FA’s recent decision, which was made after the four-person panel developed a new set of criteria for measuring national team eligibility, has now led to many more questions about whether other players or other teams throughout Australian football history can qualify.

For example, in 1905, a men’s team from NSW played against a national team from New Zealand, while a team representing Western Australia travelled to Malaysia in 1977 and India in 1980 to play against Asian national teams. None of those teams were previously recognised as official Australian sides, but according to the new criteria, those players could now have a case for claiming a cap.

Further, because two of the players from the 1975 Hong Kong team did not play any minutes during the tournament, yet still received a cap, questions are now being asked over whether players who have only ever sat on the bench for their country — both on the women’s and the men’s sides — can now qualify, as well as whether bench appearances can be added to the official caps of recognised Matildas and Socceroos.

“There’s a place to recognise these girls for what they did, but they definitely weren’t an Australian team,” Shelley Yeoman, cap number 95, said.

“It’s not that easy to make an Australian team; it’s hard yakka and girls have worked for years and years to be able to get selected for the Matildas. So it just makes a mockery of it all, really.

“Because of this decision, you’re going to see a lot more come out of it, and people claiming they should get caps now. You need to have played minutes on that field. For me, I have 23 caps for Australia, and there were times where I did sit on the sideline, but I don’t get a cap for any of that. So why are these two girls getting one?

“We have so many players who would be in that same situation where we to bring them into the alumni, and they’re part of the football family, but they don’t have a cap because they didn’t make an appearance according to the rules.

“So I played 23 games for Australia, but maybe I played 50 now? I don’t know if they can account for people that don’t go on the field? This opens up a big can of worms, and we’re going to see a lot of people come forward and say, ‘What about me?'”

There are also doubts over whether the competition itself, the 1975 Women’s Asian Cup, was recognised by the relevant governing bodies of the day. 

Just as the independent AWSA could not sanction international participation without the approval of the men’s body, ASF, the ALFC was never affiliated with its men’s counterpart, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), nor was it recognised by FIFA. As such, the tournaments organised by the ALFC were never officially sanctioned, which therefore raises questions over whether it could, or should, be used to formally recognise the teams and players who took part.

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)

With no other avenues for feedback, dozens of Matildas alumni are now organising a collective letter to send to FA expressing their concerns with the decision and the process that was undertaken to arrive at it. It’s expected that more than 50 players across multiple eras of the Matildas will sign it before it’s delivered to the governing body over the weekend.

“It was so important for me to represent my country; not just me, but my family as well,” McPhee said. “My mum worked so hard to send me on all those trips because we had to pay for them ourselves back then. We had to pay for our tracksuits, everything.

“So you went through a fair bit to get there, and now I feel with them just being given a cap now, recognised as the first Australian team, it devalues everything that you went through as a player, as a person, and what you forfeited to represent your country.

“It’s really upsetting and disappointing, and it’s a bit farcical, the decision they’ve made. It does certainly devalue what you worked really hard for to represent your country and how you got there.

“The game is in such a good place right now, such a wonderful place, and now we’re dealing with this really unfair decision. From an integrity perspective, it’s just so wrong.”