It’s often remarked that the Matildas are the best ambassadors for the Australian game that Football Federation Australia (FFA) could ask for, but their junior counterparts are taking that to an entirely new level this August.
Australia’s U17 girl’s side, the Junior Matildas, this month jetted off on a multi-country tour of the Pacific; visiting Tonga, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands in partnership with the Federal Government and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as part of the “Pacific Step-Up” and the Australia Pacific Sports Linkages Program.
Accompanying the Junior Matildas is a travelling party featuring members of the FFA’s International Relations unit, W-League players Emma Checker and Hannah Brewer, match officials Lara Lee, Sarah Ho and Joanna Charaktis, FFA Girls Youth Development Manager Debbie Fisher, Football Queensland Women & Girls Development Officer Kerry Hammersley and an expanded media unit.
Beyond facilitating friendlies against the U19 sides of their host nations, the tour is allowing members of the extended party to conduct workshops and training sessions for local administrators, referees, players and others in the local footballing ecosystem in order to leave a lasting legacy on the women’s game in these nations.
Amongst other moments of outreach and cooperation in the recently completed Tongan leg of the trip, a unique joint-training session between the Junior Matildas and Tongan U19 Women’s team was held just a day before the two sides met in a friendly.
“I think it’s a really big opportunity for us to have a team going to the Pacific,” said Kieran Lilley, a member of the travelling party and the FFA’s International Relations Manager.
“After we left the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and moved to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the opportunity for regular games in the Pacific wasn’t there.
“Now, with the support of the Australian government, it’s an opportunity to take a team out to the region and play some matches.
“In the same way that our membership of the AFC provides us opportunities to work with the 46 other member associations across the AFC, that’s equally true of the OFC and that’s an opportunity that’s been presented to out teams at a playing level.
“Of course, we’ve been doing stuff at a programmatic level with the OFC since we left but, from a team point of view, it’s the first time since the Socceroos travelled to the Solomon Islands in 2005.”
As mentioned by the Lilley, the tour is the first visit by an Australian side to the Pacific since 2015.
It presents not just as vital preparations for the Junior Matildas ahead of the AFC U16 Championships, but also an opportunity to boost Australia’s relations with its Pacific neighbours through the power of football and sports diplomacy.
The use of sports diplomacy was most famously demonstrated as a part of the extended sporting boycott against apartheid-era South Africa but in more recent times has been more closely associated with the staging of major events – Olympics and World Cups are often used as tools of demonstrating development and/or increasing prestige and legitimacy by host nations.
However, this increasingly acknowledged and studied field of international interaction also carries with it great utility at a local level; able to exploit hitherto unexplored avenues in improving ties and relations.
“People-to-people links are terribly important in building diplomacy,” Dr Michael O’Keefe, Director of the Master of International Relations at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, said.
“And the Australian government, in particular, has been interested in growing its connections with Pacific Island nations. Sports diplomacy allows that in a way that you wouldn’t normally.
“Sports diplomacy means that you get into communities, you get into clubs and you’re able to meet people and influence them in a way you normally wouldn’t. You’re speaking to their passions.
“Pacific Islanders are passionate about sport so, if Australia is willing to engage, and in this case engage with their children, then that’s a very important avenue for building people to people links.”
Though significant work remains ahead, the remarkable growth of women’s football in recent times is presenting new opportunities across the world for young girls to find their own generation of female heroes to cheer, be inspired by and, potentially one day, emulate.
Despite the Pacific sporting scene continuing to be dominated by Rugby, football is growing in presence throughout the region and Lilley said that he hoped the ongoing tour would play a role in empowering a generation of young girls through football.
“The comment that comes out is that you can’t be what you can’t see,” said Lilley.
“I think that in the case of this tour we’re providing international role models as well as domestic role models that will already be quite active in the communities we’re visiting.
“We’ll be able to provide empowered women and girls who have been involved in football for a long time, or are sort of at the beginning of their own journeys, to talk about the experiences they’ve had, the challenges they’ve had and how they’ve worked through them.
“I think the other thing that’s really important to say is that Australia, in the journey of women’s football, you see the strength and success of the Matildas, the longevity of the W-League, and we’re bidding to host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“There’s a number of things that are happening in women’s football in Australia and, as a result of that, there are a number of people who are involved in the game that can share that message abroad and do so in a way that’s collaborative with female leaders in these countries that are doing the same thing.”
Dr O’Keefe, whose research interests include Pacific Foreign Policies and Pacific Regionalism, expanded on the role that international efforts such as the Junior Matildas’ tour could have on the empowerment of young girls and women.
“Gender is a really important issue in foreign policy and a very important issue in the Pacific,” Dr O’Keefe explained.
“Mainstreaming gender and gender issues has been a high priority of DFAT for quite some time and this new Pacific Step-Up ads more credibility to that.
“Having the Junior Matildas go over is a very positive sign for soccer in the Pacific and, in particular, soccer being played by young women as an avenue and a pathway for social and other interaction which they might not otherwise have.
“It’s really about access. How do you get into someone’s back yard? How do you get into someone’s community centre? How do you influence into someone church?
“Sport is a crosscutting theme, it cuts across all of those issues, it cuts across racial divides, religious divides, socio-economic divides. Rich and poor enjoy playing sport.
“So, by being able to go and play sport and focus on the sport, even though it’s part of the Pacific Step-Up, it’s also an authentic way of connecting with people. And in this case not just people, but young people who may be the leaders of tomorrow.
“What this [the Junior Matildas tour] has shown is a very strong willingness from the FFA that they’re willing to partner with the Federal Government, and DFAT in particular, in delivering an outcome that’s good for the FFA, good for Australia and good for these nations in the Pacific.
“It improves the exposure of the FFA in the region and ensures that football is treated as an important avenue for diplomatic and other cooperation.
“We’ve seen this with rugby, but not with many other areas. It doesn’t happen with cricket so much in the Pacific, so this is a really important initiative for FFA and it breaks new ground for them.
“It’s been some time since Australians have been playing soccer with Pacific Islanders and it represents a very important shift.”
With plans already afoot to replicate the outreach demonstrated during the Pacific tour in future visits by Australian sides to Southeast Asia, Lilley said that football was well-placed to grow its place as a part of Australia’s role in its surrounding regions.
“I will always say that there is the capacity to do more,” he began.
“I think at this point now we’ve worked with 35 different countries and 20 Australian embassies or high commissions abroad, so we’re definitely quite active. But I also understand when one thinks of Australia a whole number of sports will sort of come to mind and to that extent; I think it’s important that all sports are recognised and involved in this strategy.
“With respect to football, I think there’s definitely room for us to do more and for that partnership [with Government] to be leveraged more; our national teams have visited 40+ countries in the last four years and played 190 matches against 60+ countries.
“I think what my sort of expectation would be is that, as we continue to work on the delivery of initiatives like this, that there will be more opportunities for that collaboration in the future.
“What is encouraging is that now we have an ongoing dialogue. Opportunities will come around teams visiting countries and we have an active process through which that develops.”