In the first of an occasional series highlighting the women’s game in Australia leading up to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup that the nation will co-host with New Zealand, Ben Gilby spoke to the Matildas Active Support Fans Group.
The Matildas Active Support (M.A.S.) came together before the 2019 World Cup when a Facebook group was set up for fans travelling to support Australia in France. It brought together fans from various W-League (Australia’s domestic league) clubs. From here, the M.A.S. then began to create the first inklings of Matildas Active Support with fans from all over Australia coming up with ideas for songs, banners and t-shirts. The Matildas played a couple of friendlies in Sydney and Brisbane in the lead up to the World Cup, allowing Matildas Active Support (MAS) to ‘test the waters’ a bit but it was really in France that the group was born as passionate fans were able to come together and make noise for our team.
As the group stated at the very start, “Matildas Active Support was formed to support the Matildas in an active, positive and inclusive manner, ensuring our women get the vocal support they deserve and providing spaces for fans to connect pre/post-match to enjoy the whole game day experience.”
I asked the M.A.S. to describe a typical Matildas home game experience for the group: “As with most Aussie sporting events it generally starts at the local pub. We organise a pre-match pub close to the ground which gives us all a chance to relax a bit before the match begins. It’s a good chance for all fans to get together and really hype up for the game. This is usually followed by a march to the stadium where we generally have an allocated active supporters bay behind the goals. We spend the match singing and trying to get the rest of the crowd making noise for the team! We even have had some ex-Matildas come and join us for a song or two! Post match we hang around to support the team as they do their usual meet and greet – the players are so amazing at taking time to meet fans – then it’s back to the pub for more drinks and match debriefs!”
The 2019 World Cup may have been played around 10,000 miles away from Australia, but it was evident the sheer volume (in both number and loudness) of support from the Matildas in France. For the M.A.S. it was a never to be forgotten experience: “How do you put into words the feeling you get being on the other side of the world watching your national women play in a World Cup surrounded by our Aussie football family? It was absolutely surreal. The atmosphere on game day was electric. The Matildas fans would all meet at one of the local pubs for pre-game drinks and banter. We would be chanting and getting hyped for the game ahead, followed by our march to the stadium which was just fantastic – a massive contingent of loud Aussies heading into battle in the stands. It was a truly special experience being in France and it is where really we began. A lot of the M.A.S. community met in France and now we are all such good friends and working towards building the support for the Matildas and the women’s game.”
Here in the UK it is not fully appreciated just what a big deal nationally The Matildas are compared to the majority of the European women’s national sides. I asked the M.A.S. to explain just how loved the team are in Australia: “The makeup of the crowd at a Matildas game gives a good demonstration of how special the Matildas are. You won’t just see children and families, but also retirees, teenagers, young adults and supporters from all sections of Australian society.
The Matildas are Australia’s team. For a few years running the Matildas have been named Australia’s most beloved sporting team in the Benchmark EC Ladder – an independent survey which assesses the emotional connection fans have with their teams – ahead of the national men’s rugby league, rugby union and cricket sides.” That stat alone shows just how important the Matildas are – Rugby League, Cricket and Australian Rules Football hog the newspaper sports pages and TV bulletins, but there is something about this particular women’s football team that see them trump even those sports.
The M.A.S. went onto highlight how the popularity of the Matildas first became so apparent: “It became really clear how special this team is to Aussies in 2017 when the Matildas played Brazil in Sydney, selling out a 15,000 seat stadium (on a weekend where both Rugby League and Australian Rules Football were playing finals) for a FRIENDLY where previously they were playing to much smaller crowds. Australia’s Queen of Women’s Soccer, Ann Odong, nailed it when she said “As Advance Australia Fair rang out with over 15,000 supporters in attendance, it felt like the Westfield Matildas had finally arrived – like women’s football in Australia had finally arrived”. Incidentally, 17,000 people turned up a few days later in Newcastle (on a Tuesday night!) to support the women yet again…”
The huge growth in crowds to watch The Matildas has been spurred further by the recent announcement that the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup will be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand. I asked the Matildas Active Support how they responded to the announcement: “There was a lot of cheering, screaming and tears of joy for us. We’re all spread out across the country so at an ungodly hour of the night/morning we all jumped onto a zoom call together and watched the announcement. We were all so nervous and excited and, it must be said, quietly confident that we would get over the line but when it became official we all just got so overwhelmed and there was a sense of “Did that really just happen? Are we hosting the Women’s World Cup?” After that it was a lot of tears and virtual hugging and then straight down to business to start planning.”
Not surprisingly the M.A.S. already have plans afoot to welcome the world of women’s football fans to their nation in three years time: “Prior to the official announcement we had already started working on plans should we win the bid. The week following the announcement we released a fans welcome to Australia/New Zealand on our social media. We have a timeline for what we want to put in place and over the next few years, but I won’t give any spoilers except to say we want to make sure visiting fans have the best Cup ever so get in touch with us!”
Next week: The M.A.S. give their opinion of the state of the W-League and how they see the all important next three years going for The Matildas.
Whilst the M.A.S. were formed to support the national women’s side, I asked them what their links are to the W-League clubs: “Some of the members of M.A.S. are also involved in active supporter groups for the W-League clubs in their home cities and as a result have formed some relationships/links with some of the players/coaching staff and sometimes these links have been maintained even after that player has left the club. The types of connection vary from group to group depending on how long the group has existed but at a minimum the players and coaching staff are aware of the groups existence and often engage with them over social media as well as after matches. All members of MAS are committed to supporting the W-League as a whole and are deeply invested in it and at various times, when the fixtures allow it, will attend matches not involving their team as a way of showing support for the players. Some of the more established supporter groups have had players attend supporter organised functions (e.g. season launches) as well.”
The number of Matildas stars playing in Europe – especially England – has this year moved from being a trickle to almost a deluge, leaving the domestic W-League without the majority of the national side. I asked the group their opinion on this: “As much as we love seeing our Tillies playing here at home, the benefits for our girls playing overseas are limitless. Playing against the world’s best teams and players is only going to help improve their skills and game play, which in turn is going to help the Matildas grow and fulfill their potential. It’s really promising to see our girls going to big clubs and getting game time as well.”
Indeed, the group see only positives ahead for the W-League despite virtually all of the Matildas now playing overseas: “It’s a really exciting season ahead for the W-League – we’re super positive about the opportunity this provides for Football Federation Australia (FFA) to rethink how we organise our domestic league. We love our W-League but there is plenty of room to grow/improve. W-League fans have been frustrated by the current state of the league – we don’t have a full home and away season yet, teams play at many different grounds and broadcasting can be hit and miss both of which make it hard to bring fans together and grow active support. The combination of the Matildas regulars playing overseas and not in “the Dub” and the looming 2023 home World Cup presents an amazing opportunity to rethink our league – the FFA has been working on plans for this so we are excited to see where it goes in future.”
The M.A.S. also believe it could be hugely beneficial to the next generation of Matildas players: “With all the Matildas heading overseas there is also a big opportunity for clubs to bring through young National Premier League (NPL) players and really give the next generation of talent a chance. (The NPL is a state based competition – we don’t have promotion/relegation as yet in Australia). COVID-19 has also had some impact – the season will start much later than it normally would and, in the state of Victoria no NPL was played, so it will be interesting to see what the Melbourne teams in particular do with players lacking match fitness and game time to develop. With the FAWSL poaching all the top players Melbourne City might be not be so dominant anymore!”
With the social side of the M.A.S. being such a major part of what they do, I wondered what the group have been up to since the Coronavirus outbreak? “Lots and lots of video chats. It would be hard to catch up regardless of the pandemic as we are all spread out across the country so video chats are the norm for us really. We had a really fun interaction when one of the national TV broadcasters showed ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ – M.A.S. promoted a “watch along” event with the fan community using Twitter to discuss the movie using #MASBendsIt. The film’s director, Gurinder Chadha, even ended up joining the fun and is keen to do something similar with us in future!
We’ve also been watching replays of Matildas matches which have been good to interact with people on Twitter in particular during games.”
We closed our discussion by looking ahead to the future – both for the Matildas team and the Matildas Active Support: “For the Matildas it’s a very exciting period. It’s great to see the women getting over to Europe where there is such a high quality of play. It is only going to benefit the girls to be playing week in week out in multiple competitions with the world’s best players. With the recent appointment of our new manager, Tony Gustavsson, there is a real sense of excitement around the squad, with his tactical prowess especially very intriguing. The next few years are looking very promising for our Tillies!”
“In terms of the road ahead for M.A.S., a lot of our attention in the near future is obviously centered around the 2023 Women’s World Cup. We are looking at ways to provide an amazing fan experience to everyone that travels down under and how we can work closely with our friends across the ditch in New Zealand. M.A.S. is also developing projects and plans to improve gender equality in football and cement ourselves as a leading fan voice for the Matildas. It is a big period of change and growth for Matildas Active Support, and one we are extremely excited for.”
The Matildas Active Support can be found on Facebook – @MatildasActive and Twitter – @Matildasactive.