Melissa Barbieri: Why you should know this name

Kathryn Wicks

Melissa Barbieri ... captain of the Australian women’s soccer team.

Melissa Barbieri ... captain of the Australian women’s soccer team.

The captain of the Australian women’s soccer team, 32 year-old Melissa Barbieri, is tucked up on her couch, recovering from an ankle reconstruction she had put off since the 2007 Women’s World Cup. Instead of filling in the hours counting the millions of dollars her male equals have collected by her age, she is counting the cost of turning down a contract to play in Sweden to fix what had become the bane of her life.

 ‘’I could have been walking down the street – if I didn’t have my ankle strapped it could go,’’ the goalkeeper of the Matildas says.

With her new ankle in place, she will head to Canberra next week (February 27) to be inducted as a People of Australia Ambassador, a role given to 40 Australians to advise the federal government on multicultural issues. Sport, of course, is a prime vehicle for unity and Barbieri, who is from an Italian background, intends to drive it with the same passion she has shown the 83 times she has represented her country. "I’d appreciate being called 'her Excellency' from now on", she joked in a website report.  

"My parents were both migrants," she tells Daily Life. "It’s about bringing people together and using sport as a way of making sure people are bridging gaps and not singling out people, but embracing all nations and all races and making for a better country."

While that will help fill in what is an empty calendar for the Matildas this year – they controversially missed out of qualifying for the London Olympics because FIFA banned North Korea from World Cup competition yet not Olympic competition for a series of positive drug tests  – she will also work for Football Federation Australia, where she is an education officer, and for Good Samaritan Primary School in Melbourne, where she is a first aid officer.

And, with her 2007 to-do list ticked off, at the back of her mind will be something she has put off since 2008: motherhood.

It is not without good reason Barbieri has delayed having a baby. After being appointed Matildas captain in 2008 following the retirement of Cheryl Salisbury in 2009, she won the Asian Cup, becoming the first Australian captain to lift significant silverware in the football world in 2010. She’s also been the first woman, along with four teammates, on the cover of soccer magazine Four Four Two, and led her side to their second quarter-final appearance at a World Cup, in 2011.

"[Being a mother] doesn’t stop you from playing," she says "You can easily come back. It’s like having an injury in terms of the need to regain fitness.  

"You’re pregnant for nine months and within 12 months you could be back. You’ve missed a season or missed an opportunity to go overseas. I’ve put it on hold. I wanted to have one after 2008 but we couldn’t do it at that time because we didn’t have nannies in place or provisions for pregnancy in contracts. But now we are starting to look at that with our collective bargaining agreement. I’d hate for a player to fall pregnant in this day and age and have to give up playing soccer or give up their child.  It’s something that we need to rectify."

With a strong respect for those who have gone before her – as recently as the 1980s players had to pay to go on overseas tours, and in the 90s they didn’t get paid but they didn’t pay either – Barbieri is proud of her advocacy for players’ conditions.

 "Now we are in a semi-professional environment where you have a contract and those contracts can be shown to a bank and you can say, ‘Listen, I’ve got income coming in, I can get a loan'," she says. "For the  last 10 years I haven’t increased in pay because I’ve made sure four extra players or six extra players get a contract. That makes me feel good about myself and what I’ve done for this game."

It hasn’t all been roses for Barbieri. At the start of last season, she was axed by Melbourne Victory in favour of a then 16-year-old goalkeeper, Brianna Davey. Barbieri quickly found a new club, far from home and a husband, at Newcastle.

"I loved it," she says of the Jets experience. "Fresh faces, fresh minds. They want to learn. It made me more invigorated. The fan base there is just amazing. Our first home game had close to 1000 people. It was fantastic, I made really good friends through those fans."

One of those was Sarah Gentle, the mother of six-year-old Brinley, a budding Matilda, who befriended Barbieri. Says Mrs Gentle: "Bubs [Barbieri] is the most lovely, humble person. One day she came in and gave my daughter a big box of Nike stuff. They let her be the ball girl at training. My daughter  dreams of nothing except becoming a Matildas player."

Mrs Gentle says Barbieri had left one shirt in the box without a name on it, and expected to have it returned to her with "Gentle" on the back once Brinley – who kicked 44 goals last season –  made it to the top.

Brinley’s path to the Matildas is a lot clearer than Barbieri’s was.

It was not until the Matildas’ first foray into the World Cup quarters-finals in 2007 that the W-League was created. It’s a professional domestic women’s competition run each summer. Today the league imports foreign stars, sells out grand finals and was back-page news when unfancied Canberra won their first title after an unbeaten season.

While the pay is modest – the season runs just 10 weeks - players are expected at training no matter what. "Coaches are wanting their players to be more professional, without having the professional means," Barbieri says. "A team won’t pay their players a professional wage but they will expect them to be at training five nights a week and that contributes to the fact that they are getting better.

"Girls are making sacrifices but it is for the good of the game, and those girls that have made those sacrifices are now getting contracts overseas and getting paid."

The best Australian players are now hunted by clubs across Europe. Barbieri played a season in Denmark and encourages her young teammates to travel.

"The pace is quicker but you can adapt to that. That’s what makes you a better player."

And by making those youngsters better players Barbieri may be able to achieve her next dream: coaching the Matildas to a World Cup win. Asked if she intended playing until the 2015 World Cup in Canada, she replies: ‘’I don’t think I’ll make it. I’ll see how I go. But I definitely want to start coaching.’’ She is not quite ready to give the game away yet though – she wants to go out a winner. ‘’I think in my last game if we don’t win, I’d have to play another one.’’

Much is expected in  coming years of the so-called golden generation of Matildas – built around youngsters  Caitlin Foord (17), Emily van Egmond (18), Sam Kerr (18), Tiegen Allen (18), Kyah Simon (20), Elise Kellond-Knight (21), Ellyse Perry (21), and Tameka Butt (20), whom Barbieri rates as the girl most likely to succeed.

The fastest answer of this interview comes when she is asked if this generation of Matildas can win a World Cup. ‘’Definitely. Definitely. One of my goals is to coach the winning team at a World Cup. That’s my dream. And I think we have the calibre of players to do so.’’
Kathryn Wicks is the Deputy sports editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.