From Karen Menzies to Kyah Simon, Indigenous Australians have made a significant impact on the Westfield Matildas.
There’s a deep irony within the pages of Australian football history.
While the game was introduced in the 19th century by the same colonial forces that denied early recognition to Australia’s First Nations communities, football also became one of the few sporting spaces where Aboriginal people were accepted – even celebrated – as part of Australian cultural life.
Indeed, First Nations people have been involved in football for far longer than official histories recognise.
“Aboriginal Australia had developed a sporting culture long before Europeans arrived on the Australian continent,” writes Professor John Maynard in his book, The Aboriginal Soccer Tribe.
“William Blandowski, an early pioneer scientist who explored the Murray River region near Mildura in Victoria’s northwest corner, saw an Aboriginal ball game being played by the Nyeri Nyeri, in 1857. It was at Mondellimin, near present day Merbein and it was a kicking game.
This year’s NAIDOC Week theme – “Always Was, Always Will Be” – speaks to this other (and ‘othered’) history of the Australian game: a game in which First Nations people have always and will always play a significant role.
Aboriginal women have been at the centre of that history, too.
As far back as the mid-20th century, according to Maynard, First Nations women have participated in football alongside their peers: a space where they could escape, even just for an hour a week.
Karen Menzies, for example, used football to help her process the intergenerational grief of being part of the ‘Stolen Generation’ after she was taken from her birth mother at eight months of age.
As she grew older, Menzies began to learn about and reckon with her own complex history and identity as a First Nations woman whose family had been shattered. But while her cultural identity was ever-shifting, something that remained constant for her was football.
Like many girls in the early 1970s, Menzies started out playing the game with her foster brother and other boys at school. Despite the warnings of all the adults around her, from teachers to foster parents to welfare workers, she was fiercely committed to football and continued to play it anyway. Upon her relocation to Newcastle in 1976, she was introduced to her first ever girls’ competition.
“When they rattled off soccer as one of the sports girls could play, I just lit up,” Menzies said. “Within a couple of hours, I was at an under-13s soccer field."
I didn’t even know whose clothes I had or whose soccer boots I had, because I know I arrived in the institution with pretty much nothing but being out on the field was all that mattered.”
“There's no question that soccer, football became a saviour for me.”
Her trajectory from there was meteoric. She was picked in the NSW State Open team the following year, where she would remain for 13 more years. on her 21st birthday, she was informed she’d been picked for the Australian national team – the first Aboriginal woman to do so.
While Menzies was the first Indigenous Australian woman to pull on the national team jersey in 1983, she would not be the last.
A natural on the indoor and outdoor pitch, Kayleen Janssen became the first Indigenous woman to represent Australia at a FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1995. Born in 1968, Janssen was highly regarded for her skills and went on to represent Australia in 15 ‘A’ internationals.
Then there was left footed striker Belinda Dawney. A proud Bundjalung woman from Tweed Heads, Dawney was another extremely gifted and committed sportswoman.
After winning a scholarship to the Queensland Academy of Sport, three nights a week for two and a half year, Dawney would make the 250-kilometre round trip from Tweed Heads to Brisbane to train.
Dawney was a part of several Westfield Matildas camps but bad luck (coming down with glandular fever prior to the Sydney Olympics) and bad timing meant she never quite recorded the A international cap her talent and goalscoring ability deserved.
However, it never dampened her love for the game and a deep need to share it with others. In 2018, Dawney visited Tonga to promote the game as part of DFAT’s Pacific Sports Partnerships.
For the longest time, Bridgette Starr was one the Westfield Matildas’ most capped players. An immense talent, Starr participated in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Olympic Games and on a FIFA World Stars squad in 2007.
Strong in the air, calm under pressure with confident ball skills, Starr’s 53 Westfield Matildas caps saw her a regular in the team for nearly a decade.
Then came Lydia Williams and Kyah Simon.
Another player gifted at multiple sports, Kyah Simon has written her name into the Australian history books many times over. As a teenager, the striker scored the winning penalty to see Australia claim the 2010 AFC Women's Asian Cup - Australia's first in Asia.
A year later she would add another record as she became the first Indigenous Australian to score at a FIFA World Cup with her brace against Norway in 2011. Four years later, again it was Simon to score againt Brazil to record Australia's first knockout match win at a senior World Cup.
With 92 appearances, Simon is on track for another piece of history - the first Indigenous footballer to record 100 caps for Australia.
Lydia Williams is one of the top goalkeepers in the world, playing for one of the top clubs in the world and has the most number of caps of any Westfield Matildas goalkeepers.
On and off the pitch, Williams has been influential. Whether it is those telescopic arms reaching to claw away a ball destined for the top corner, or penning stories to inspire, the 32 year old
Williams and Simon are not only proudly continuing on the tradition of Indigenous Australians’ representation in the Westfield Matildas on the pitch, they are progressing it to another level with its impact felt off the pitch.
With nearly 200 internationals combined, the effect of the Westfield Matildas duo during their time with the team is being felt now.
Future Matildas goalkeeper Jada Whyman and Future Matildas forward Shay Evans are just two of the players who herald their impact.
Meanwhile 11 times capped Westfield Matilda Gema Simon has made her impact felt at the Westfield W-League. With over 100 appearances for the Newcastle Jets, Simon has been a mainstay in the competition and one the players that the league is built on.
“Across the past 40 years Aboriginal women have made an indelible imprint on the world game and its development in Australia,” said Professor Maynard.
With the increasing numbers of Indigenous girls taking up football, there is no reason they can’t leave an even larger imprint in the future.