Sarah Walsh is a retired professional footballer and former member of the Australia women’s national soccer team, the Matildas. She is Head of Women’s Football, Women’s World Cup Legacy & Inclusion and co-chair of the inaugural National Indigenous Advisory Group of Football Australia, which will host the Women’s FIFA World Cup 2023. During the Men’s FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar she is providing expert analysis for the SBS broadcast network in Australia.
Congrats on the World Cup and what must be a very exciting time. Can you tell us a bit about what you and Football Australia hope to achieve with hosting this huge event?
It was a really big moment for the country: the Women’s World Cup is one of the biggest events in the world, not just women’s events. So I think everyone really understood the gravity of it. We’d already actually put forward a bold legacy plan within our bid and you know COVID kind of forced us to think a bit differently about that, which wasn’t a bad thing. We thought about how we would build out a legacy plan that would actually live beyond the World Cup and the event itself, a six-to-seven-year plan.
What inspired you to go into this career after you finished your professional football career? Was there anything else that was drawing you to it?
I had a pretty one-track mind and I really didn’t think a lot about education whilst I was at school, although, to be fair, I’d had three knee reconstructions by 18, which is a lot. There are only a couple of players here in Australia that have had that and gone on to have a 10-year career with the national team.
It really wasn’t until I was 26 and travelling the world that I started to think about how I wanted to study. So I completed a business degree, majoring in marketing. It was a great period for me to understand business principles which really helped me understand accounting, finance, marketing and the development of football. It was a good transition and I moved into a role at Football Australia.
But it took me a good five years to understand the value that I did bring, having been in a high-performance environment, working in a team environment. These team skills are life skills and also transferable skills that support you in driving outcomes in a business environment. It’s invaluable.
What do you think the biggest transferable skill is aside from, say, a sense of teamwork? What would you say it is to go from a team sport to a business environment?
The usual suspects: being determined, having resilience, working long hours.
But one of the key things, in a sporting context, is really understanding your role and how that fits in a broader context for a collective vision is something that’s really helped me transition into business. Understanding your role, really focusing on that, but also understanding your role in influencing others and also supporting others for a common vision.
It might sound like a simple one, but collaboration. It’s something that I have just noticed does not come naturally to a lot of people in the business world. Understanding when you need to bring people in to drive that common goal and do that whilst they have competing priorities. In football, you’re always scanning the field to think about what you need to do and how it will impact the team.
In a business context, it could be someone in a different department understanding that their decisions might impact you in a month’s time and really knowing when to lean in and lean out.
What’s been the biggest change that you’ve seen in women’s sport in recent years in terms of gender equality?
Women have been playing football for a very long time and even though we were banned from playing for a long time, it’s an accessible game for young women. Parents will choose football over a more hard-contact sport. So we’ve never had that challenge in getting young girls. Now it’s about retaining them, with all the competing interests and social pressures.
One of the key changes I’ve seen here in Australia is the interest level around our national team, the Matildas. Independent researchers have suggested that the Matildas are Australia’s most-loved sporting team, so the change around visibility is key.
The Matildas are a representation of strong women in very strong leadership roles. They hold a very high status here in Australia and seeing strong women like that has opened up spaces for women in all other roles. I’ve seen the shift in, particularly when we reached pay parity with the Socceroos (Australia’s men’s team), people talking differently about women in general in football. You cannot underestimate the value of our Matildas in reshaping old mind-sets, whether they’re at the national body or in our 2500 community clubs. People are thinking differently because of the space they hold.
And where do you think Australian football still has a long way to go?
I think in our women’s representation. I think cultural change takes a very long time and people are still talking about 100 years until we reach full pay, full gender equity here in Australia, and actually in most countries. And I don’t want to wait 100 years.
We have been sitting at 22% of our total participation for a long period of time and we want to get that to 50% by 2027. We’re currently thinking about all the levers we need to pull to be able to do that. And those levers are outlined in a legacy plan. It’s about more community facilities; it’s more access to the facilities that currently exist. We ran a National Audit recently that revealed that only 35% of our community clubs are considered female friendly.
Tell us about Football Australia’s Equaliser campaign to really lift those facilities.
It’s about mobilizing the community to give them the tools they need to have these conversations with the key stakeholders locally, whether it be local council, state government and, on our part, the federal government. Linking back to what I said about COVID; a lot of our community clubs had it quite difficult during that period and a lot of them are still rebuilding. And if we can rebuild them the right way, particularly with how they think about access, whether it be the change rooms for women and girls and thinking about how we truly build these for women, by women. Because the game was historically built for men, by men.
So we are trying to reshape that thinking and Equaliser is a campaign that allows these community clubs, the women and men, gender-diverse communities working in them, to have these conversations, give them the tools to talk about what parts of their community facilities need upgrading for the benefit of women and girls.
In terms of legacy from the Women’s World Cup next year, what will be the thing that will make you feel a sense of ‘mission accomplished’?
There’s two parts to it: investment in the game. There are still pockets of funding in particular areas that I think we can unlock to grow our female participation and actually enhance underdeveloped areas of our game.
And I really hope that once we actually get to the Final, whether or not the Matildas are there, I want to know that we did our best to actually bring the community on the journey and hopefully through that we’ve reshaped some mind-sets around the role women play in our sport, not just on the pitch.