Australia women prepare for home World Cup against backdrop of historical abuse allegations

By Madeleine WedesweilerBBC Sport in Australia
Lisa de Vanna on international duty in 2019, the year she retired from international football - last year she said she had been subjected to predatory behaviour and propositions from team-mates when she was a teenager
Lisa de Vanna on international duty in 2019, the year she retired from international football - last year she said she had been subjected to predatory behaviour and propositions from team-mates when she was a teenager

It seems random that a national team should complete a series of inconsequential friendly matches and the captain be rewarded with a 20-minute TV interview in a prime-time slot.

But such is the hero status of Australia's women's football team - the Matildas - and of their phenomenally talented skipper Sam Kerr, the country's Channel 10 jumped at the opportunity while the Chelsea striker was home to play the United States.

Presenter Sandra Sully's chat didn't reveal much we didn't already know about Kerr and her long list of awards and achievements, but the interview had an uncomfortable caveat.

"Serious questions and allegations have been levelled at the team's culture recently. And Sam made it clear she didn't want to jeopardise the ongoing investigation by Sport Integrity Australia by talking about it in detail," Sully said in a piece to camera.

As the Matildas prepare to host the World Cup in less than 18 months' time, this is supposed to be a moment of intense excitement and anticipation for a squad that is arguably the country's most talented ever.

More pressingly, the team play their first match of the Asian Cup group stage on Friday, going into the tournament among the favourites having made the past three finals and winning in 2010.

But allegations of historical abuse have become something of a dark cloud over the team and their image, and it remains to be seen if the Matildas can fulfil the promise of a golden generation against the backdrop of public and private conversations about team culture.

Short presentational grey line

In October last year, ex-Matildas striker Lisa de Vanna told an Australian newspaper she had been subjected to predatory behaviour and propositions from team-mates when she was a teenager.

She told Sydney's Daily Telegraphexternal-link that one incident involved her Young Matildas team-mates "dry humping" her.

"Have I been sexually harassed? Yes. Have I been bullied? Yes? Ostracised? Yes. Have I seen things that have made me uncomfortable? Yes," said the forward, who was capped more than 150 times.

"In any sporting organisation and in any environment, grooming, preying and unprofessional behaviour makes me sick."

Her accounts were backed up by former team-mate Elissia Carnavas and her ex-manager Rose Garofano, the newspaper reported.

Another former player, Rhali Dobson, said she had also experienced "grooming when I first came onto the scene".

"It's a world that's very much still going, in the world at the top levels, and until you start addressing this, nothing is going to change," she told the newspaper.

Football Australia responded on the same day, setting up an independent system to investigate and manage any complaints and allegations of misconduct made by players and officials, in partnership with Sport Integrity Australia.

"We must acknowledge that at the centre of this, we have two players who have shown great courage to speak about and to share their personal experiences," said the organisation's chief executive, James Johnson.

"Lisa and Rhali, we see you and we hear you."

Johnson said De Vanna had not discussed the allegations with Football Australia.

Short presentational grey line

Ranked as the Matildas' second-highest goalscorer of all time behind Kerr, De Vanna is now 37, and many changes have been made within the structure of the organisation since she joined the Young Matildas in 2001.

In 2019, the same year De Vanna retired from international football, an independent report was conducted into the national team, led by businesswoman Dianne Smith-Gander, looking at the ways players were prevented from, or found it difficult to, report issues.

One of the findings was too much power had been given to head coaches to make decisions, and that structure disempowered players.

Football Australia has implemented significant changes in the wake of that report.

"On last count they've implemented about 70-80% of the recommendations, which includes hiring more personnel in welfare roles to ensure players have multiple channels through which they can seek help and guidance if they do have an issue," Australian football journalist Samantha Lewis told BBC Sport.

"It also involves a more holistic and more detailed understanding of culture itself and how all players and all staff are responsible for creating and maintaining healthy cultures."

Lewis said Football Australia had attempted to reverse the power dynamic and put players at the centre of how governing bodies respond to issues and complaints.

"Behind the scenes that report has had a really important ripple effect across what Football Australia has done since its findings were released," she said.

Lewis described the De Vanna accusations as "a sticky situation", with two separate claims - the first De Vanna's own experience, and the second a wider concern with the culture of women's football

"There was never anything presented that verified that second claim," said Lewis.

"And that second claim was the one that caused the most chaos, because it implicated every queer woman footballer in the country basically, and said they were all part of this underground network of predators who were preying upon poor innocent little straight girls."

Lewis said this "absolutely" affected the team.

"It also affected players beyond the team because the Matildas and women's football has been a space for queer women to be themselves, to meet like-minded people, to form relationships. For a lot of them it has been a safe space and all of a sudden this story had cast aspersions and cast doubt."

The current contracted Matildas released a joint statementexternal-link saying they were "hurt" by what had happened and would look to help "ensure that all current and future players feel comfortable, safe and able to report instances of inappropriate behaviour, in a timely manner".

"As a team, we have spoken at length about the allegations and are all hurt by what has occurred. We hold this team close to our hearts and for many, this team has been a safe haven," the collective statement said.

Fifteen players added individual comments.

Australian football commentator Georgia Yeoman-Dale, a former Matilda, told the BBC she thinks it is probably not something that will affect the team in the long term.

"I don't think it's necessarily a shadow hanging over the team," she said.

"They've grown up playing together for such a long time. They're family to each other and they are each other's support network as well and they've faced difficult times in the past and it's helped galvanise the group, so I don't think that the allegations are having any impact on the actual performance on the field."

Short presentational grey line

Speaking to BBC Sport from the Matildas' Asian Cup camp, assistant coach Mel Andreatta - part of head coach Tony Gustavsson's backroom team - said she couldn't comment on any specifics of any allegations "out of respect of the process that's under way".

"What I can say is I think it's part of Tony's awesome leadership that he fully supports, as do all staff members and players of the Matildas, a process that's been publicised about ensuring such things don't occur again, that there are certain standards in all national teams and in all A-League women's teams in our sport," she said.

"So I think this is a process that's important, we respect and that needs to happen."

Gustavsson took charge in September 2020 - after a long stint on the US coaching staff which included two World Cup victories - and guided Australia to a best-ever fourth place at the Olympics last year.

Matildas Hayley Raso and Kyah Simon hassle the USA's women's football team.
The Matildas were beaten by the US in the Tokyo Olympics bronze-medal match

"Tony's impact has been a positive one," Andreatta said.

"He's come in and in such a short time worked with the staff, brought everyone together, learnt from what we've done previously and brought all of that together to help shape and move us to a new future.

"The results of that work showed itself in our performance at the Olympics. We made history."

Andreatta repeats a phrase commonly used by Gustavsson - the idea of "being one day better, not just one day older".

Gustavsson trotted out the mantra on his first day in the job and has come back to it again and again while coaching and speaking to the press.

"Tony has really dug deep into who the Matildas are," said Andreatta.

"Continuing to review what we do is a real impact of Tony's honest, humble process of review where we always want to get better.

"His time has been really positive, not only in terms of results but in terms of the processes by which we work as a staff."

At a time when most of Australia's east coast was enduring a wet dreary winter lockdown, the Matildas' Olympic run gave them a series of performances that were genuinely thrilling and hopeful.

"What we've done from the Olympics, as well as during the international windows, is really looked deeply, extensively at our talent pool," said Andreatta.

"We think we've got a balance of players that have been the backbone of our national team for a decade and also some players that have been performing in the domestic competition here in Australia, to give them the opportunity as we look to the World Cup next year.

"It's very full on to say next year. It's exciting."

Another person who speaks glowingly of the head coach is Hayley Raso - a tenacious winger for the Matildas and Manchester City, who made her debut almost 10 years ago, has scored six goals in 58 appearances and recovered from breaking three vertebrae in 2018 to play at the 2019 World Cup.

"He's come in and he's shown us his style of play and how he wants us to work as a group," she said.

"I think we've done well under him. We are bringing in younger players and developing them. We're working hard. We're understanding his tactics, the way he likes to work, the way he likes to train, the way he likes to play."

Hayley Raso shoots for Manchester City
Hayley Raso joined Manchester City in August 2021

One might expect the Matildas would feel the weight of expectation as they try to translate their Olympic performance into success at a home World Cup.

Excitement is growing for the tournament to be hosted by Australia and New Zealand, with continued record-breaking TV viewership and attendances, even during a pandemic.

"I wouldn't say we're feeling pressure," said Raso.

"I think all of us Matildas are really looking forward to it. We love playing on home soil and we always turn up for games like that with our own fans, so I think it'll be an important boost having fans behind us."

Short presentational grey line

Football Australia and the domestic press have described this squad as a "golden generation".

A large number of the group will be in their mid-to-late 20s - the supposed peak of a footballer's career - when the tournament comes round.

In Kerr they have one of the best players in the world, and nine other Matildas play in England's Women's Super League, where they have the advantage of rubbing shoulders with North American and European players who will feature for Australia's biggest rivals in 2023.

Many other players are spread around France, Sweden and the US, though some remain in the domestic A-League, where the season is just 12 games long and many matches have been suspended or called off in the past two years through lockdowns or Covid outbreaks.

Steph Catley comes up against compatriot Sam Kerr
Kerr came up against compatriot Steph Catley in the FA Cup final

"For Australian-based players, the preparation for international football is not quite where it needs to be," said Yeoman-Dale, who plays in and commentates on the A-League.

"If you look at the players in their late teens, early 20s, that's the prime time that they need to be playing as many games as possible and this year some players would be lucky to say they've played 10."

One thing the Matildas must do is improve defensively - to complement their attacking threat. Across four friendlies against Brazil and the US late last year, Gustavsson's side scored six and conceded seven.

Former Matildas goalkeeping coach John Gorza, who left the team's coaching staff just after Tokyo, says a "lack of clean sheets is an Achilles heel".

He points to the fact the Matildas have been playing friendlies and tournaments against the world's top teams in the Gustavsson era, and the quality of opposition is hard for anyone to defend against.

"The problem is we haven't had a lot of depth in defensive areas to give the coach the ability to play them forward and have the same quality at the back," he said.

"You'll see a lot of young players brought in in the next 18 months - that'll be Tony's goal."

Whoever features when the 2023 World Cup gets under way, it seems likely the Matildas will continue to be seen as the darlings of Australian sport - even if questions have been cast over that image.

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