November 2013


Soccer is for girls

By James Button
The Clifton Hill team warms up in Kensington. © William Mendoza 

The Clifton Hill team warms up in Kensington. © William Mendoza 

What a father learnt on the sidelines

“Have you noticed,” said my neighbour Nick as we watched our 11-year-old daughters during a match, “that when girls play soccer they’re always saying sorry? They knock someone, they say sorry. Their boot touches another player’s, they say sorry. The sound of girls’ soccer is ‘Sorry … sorry … sorry’.”

I hadn’t noticed. I had noticed, though, that when one of our players knocked over an opponent by mistake, she’d stopped to help her up. Because of this, another opponent had run in and nearly scored a goal.

But only much later did I grasp the significance of the day. I had followed sport for 40 years, watched thousands of hours of Aussie Rules, cricket, soccer, basketball and tennis. I had seen baseball in the United States, ice hockey in Italy, Gaelic football in Ireland. Yet my daughter’s match was just about the first time I’d watched a whole game played by females. Sport, I must have believed, was men’s business.On any weekend, across the country, you’ll see young people playing games in front of a straggle of onlookers, a few sparse gums and a ’70s brick clubhouse, on a reserve named after a long-dead councillor with an Anglo-Celtic surname. The scene is so Australian it hardly registers. But all the players belong to a team, the team has a coach, and together they create something. It may be good or bad, the team may win or lose, players reach their potential or not, but over a season lives are shaped and stories unfold. This is one.

In late 2008 I rang Andreas Kiefel, whom I knew by sight as the maintenance man at our primary school, to ask whether my ten-year-old daughter, Lola, could join the soccer team he coached. We were not long back from living in London, where she had played soccer in the school playground. She had been chasing her best friend, who had a crush on a boy who played soccer, but she also grew to like chasing the ball. Back home, she had been to Auskick, but though she liked Aussie Rules, she found the boys never kicked the ball her way. Soccer seemed to suit her: “When I’m running with the ball, I imagine I’m a dog with a bone and all the other players are dogs chasing after me.”

It’s not easy for a child to join an established team, but the first time I picked up Lola from training, on a hot November night, the girls were squirting one another with water bottles and shrieking with laughter. Perhaps it was the German accent but Andreas seemed serious and formal, a touch forbidding. The manager, Joe Cassar, gave us a big smile, though: “Great to have you here.” We were in.

The team had started when some parents around the inner Melbourne suburbs of Clifton Hill and Northcote organised a Sunday morning soccer kick for their daughters. Joe, one of the parents, had previously managed a boys’ team, so he invited along Andreas, that team’s coach, and Andreas’ daughter, Tilly. Andreas surprised people by arriving with witches’ hats. A kick became drills, then a team. Clifton Hill began in the bottom D division of under-12s in 2008, and lost nearly every game.

 “We were terrible,” said Joe. “Some girls had natural talent. Others were really bad. When the ball came, they ran the other way. But losing every week didn’t make a skerrick of difference to the girls. They had a great time.”

Andreas spent that first year simply trying to get some of the girls to lose their fear of the ball. They would cringe, arms shielding faces, when it flew near. One announced to another that she would never head a ball, and that anyone who did so was an idiot. But irrespective of their skill levels, the girls did not have to compete for places: the squad was closed at 16 players and everyone got game time. That was Andreas’ philosophy.

Then, at the end of the season, the team won a one-day tournament, the Watsonia Cup. “It was like they won the Grand Final,” said Joe. “They thought, ‘My god, we can do this.’”

The 2009 season, my first as a spectator, started with three wins and surprised delight among the girls whenever they scored. In the fourth game, though, we had a frustrating 2–0 defeat, which included an own goal. I was grumpy on the drive home, but when I asked my daughter how she felt about the loss, she shrugged: “Fine. Why?”

Her response disappointed me, I admit, though I said nothing. Our girls tried hard, but they seemed indifferent to defeat. When one made a mistake she would cup a hand over her mouth and laugh in embarrassment, as teammates ran from everywhere to give her a pat.

And many refused to shoot for goal. The ball hogs and goal hogs that are ever present in boys’ teams didn’t exist. “Shoot, shoot!” Andreas would beg as another girl, with only a trembling goalie between her and glory, passed elegantly sideways to a teammate … who would not shoot.

Never relax, never give your opponent a sense he is on top – these are iron laws in male sport. But after our team scored in one match, my daughter’s opponent turned to her with a grin: “Wow, you guys are fast!” Another said to her in a quiet moment: “I am so hungry! Are you hungry? I can smell burgers.” Another exclaimed: “I like your hair!”

A few girls played rough, held on to jumpers or would not shake hands after a match. But most played in a light spirit. Even the taunts were unusual. In one game a huge goalie, sporting what the girls called “two-minute noodle hair”, snarled at one of our forwards: “Just remember, I am the Beast, and the Beast eats little girls like you. So stay away.” When our player told her little brother the story at half-time, he and his mate stood behind the goals, yelling, “Hello Beast!” until the Beast called over her mother, who told the boys to rack off.

While parents chatted on the sidelines, half an eye on the game, Andreas spoke mostly to Joe or kept to himself, studying the play or his whiteboard with its diagram of a soccer pitch and each girl’s name scrawled on a magnetic tile. But if a girl did well – especially if she took a risk and tried a difficult pass – he would put a thumb in the air and call: “Lydia! The best!” Unlike some coaches, he didn’t shout or criticise – it never does any good, he said – but he had one rule: girls who arrived late started on the bench. “I’m German, I like people to be on time.”

I watched from a distance as he addressed the girls, gesturing, holding their attention with his fiercely blue eyes. Once, I wandered over to listen but he waved me off: “Please, no parents. Just the girls.” Then he would send them onto the pitch, but not before they had got into a huddle to scream: “Are we gonna fight? Yes! Are we gonna win? YES! Who are we? Three, two, one – CLIFTON HILL!”

One night he invited the girls to his home for pizza and a film about soccer. I arrived to find him gesturing at the screen with the remote, video paused, while he showed them a point of play. I wasn’t sure that they were taking it in or that there was a match between his feelings about soccer and theirs. How long would these nights, and this team, last? How many times could he screen Bend It Like Beckham?

Yet I could see that his quiet intensity and sparing use of words, a capacity to be at once stern and gentle, had a powerful impact. The girls wanted to play well for “Andy”. My daughter said: “When you come off, you’re just hoping he’ll pat you on the head and say, ‘Good game.’”

So our winter Sunday ritual began. If we were late, I rummaged through the house for shin pads and a water bottle before we drove to Croydon or Kensington, Sandringham or Sunbury, and all points in between. We joined the weekend traffic that clogs the roads, the players, parents, coaches and officials who make up the vast volunteer army of suburban sport. We met the black-shirted referees who turned up – and sometimes didn’t – for $75 a game. One lifted up Jemima Crawford-Smith’s hair, found an earring, blew his whistle and gave her a yellow card. Another gathered the teams before the game and said: “Listen, girls. I’ve had the biggest night. My head hurts like hell. So don’t give me any grief out there, OK?”

Having followed Aussie Rules all my life, I learnt a little of the highs and lows of soccer: the ecstasy of a goal, when Joe would walk along the boundary high-fiving parents, and the agony of a late goal for a 1–0 loss. To take my turn as a linesman I learnt the basics of the offside rule, soccer’s version of E = mc2, but was always relieved when another father volunteered to do it. Safer to just stand with other parents as we joked about the cold or whether there was any place around here to get a decent coffee.

Among us were two mental health workers, a psychoanalyst, a plumber, a couple of Salvation Army captains, an airport security officer, a surgeon, and a singer in a band called DogEar, but on the sidelines we were the same: soccer mums and dads. Over the years we became a loose, friendly group, which I heard was common in girls’ sport. Clifton Hill’s president, Michael Tyrikos, told me the club had never had a girls’ team until Andreas brought his in 2008, but now it had three and was planning a fourth. One reason he liked them was that “the parents are more relaxed” than boys’ parents. “They don’t come thinking their kid is going to be the next Harry Kewell.”

The girls were also a varied bunch. There were Emma Lightfoot and Lydia Lovelock, whose names seemed to leap from the pages of a Jane Austen novel, and Eleni Konidaris, our goalie, who, in her own words, swore in English and Greek “like someone with Tourette’s” and burned inside when a goal was scored against her, which was not often. After she broke her wrist, she stood behind the goal each week and gave advice and encouragement to her replacement, Rachel Douglas. When two boys who were passing by sneered – “Wow, this goalie really sucks” – Eleni turned on them: “Hey, she’s never been goalie in her life. Give her a break!” Maybe with other English or Greek words thrown in.

Every Wednesday and Friday night, year on year, Andreas trained the team on a pocket-sized pitch under the Heidelberg Road overpass. He taught them how to pass and head a ball and lift it in the air. How to stand goalside if you’re a defender, and not get offside if you’re a forward. Some nights he would take them into the graffiti-covered clubhouse, past a spit tended by Greek men roasting lamb for souvlaki, to talk tactics and psychology. Above all, he said, they should take risks and never blame one another or themselves for mistakes. Then he would drive three or four girls home in his van. His daughter, Tilly, said with good-humoured exasperation: “I swear it, we are his life.”

Over time, he fashioned a skilled and hardy group, as the girls who were less keen fell away and a core team remained. We rose through the age groups, and while we were not the best, we won many more games than we lost. We never finished below fourth in competitions of between eight and ten teams, we beat some sides by ten goals or more, and last year we won an under-16 pennant, then the metropolitan playoffs, without losing a game. In other years we played sides that took us apart with cool efficiency, though these were usually big clubs with first and second teams and tryouts for their squads. Every year we had just enough players to make a team of 11 plus a few reserves. We played against girls of all skill levels and all sizes: tall or tiny, weedy or overweight. The game takes all body types, and this is one reason why girls’ soccer has arrived in Australia.

Many girls’ soccer parents lament that it’s still a boys’ game, that girls don’t get equal access to the best opportunities. Although some clubs strongly support female soccer, others, some of them run by old blokes from various Mediterranean countries, still don’t see girls as part of the plan. A senior Victorian administrator told my wife that a northern Melbourne club had asked him how to arrest its steep decline in players and support. The man arrived at the clubhouse to find the committee members playing cards. They made him wait until the game was finished. He urged them to involve families, start some female teams, get their wives in to brighten up the place. A man groaned: “But we come here to get away from our wives!”

Yet the times may be against them. Though netball remains the leading girls’ team sport, soccer (outdoor and indoor) is now second, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Women and girls make up a fifth of the 550,000 players registered for teams affiliated with Football Federation Australia. But what other sports should most fear is soccer’s growth rate among girls: it’s unmatched by other female sports except basketball and is no less than that of male soccer. Of the 110,000 female players, nearly three quarters are under the age of 18.

If soccer works for girls, it may be because it has a delicate side: the light touch that wrongfoots an opponent, the weaving, the dancing feet. But it also requires stamina and guts. I loved watching my daughter go into a hard tackle or run shoulder-to-shoulder with an opponent. One day I summoned up the nerve to ask her how it felt when a flying ball hit her breasts. “It hurts!” she exclaimed. The team joke was that boys in a defensive wall will instinctively put their hands in front of their crotches but girls protect their chests.

Cath Daniels, Joe’s partner, said she often felt close to tears when she watched his daughter, Claudia, and the team play. Cath, 49, grew up at a time when netball and athletics were girls’ main sporting options. She watched her brothers surf at Aireys Inlet and would have liked to join them but it was not done. “I love sport but never had much of an opportunity. Watching the girls play, seeing them so liberated with their bodies, so hungry for the ball, being able to tear down the pitch, or do a header, or come off covered in mud and loving the freedom of that – I just see their strength!”

In the living room of our co-manager, Joan Datson, is a photo of her daughter Lauren arm-in-arm with teammates, medals around their necks, bespattered with mud. I am old enough to see how new this is, a non-trivial freedom that feminism has won. Writing for FT Magazine in July, journalist Gillian Tett pointed to how many female leaders – including Hillary Clinton, United States national security advisor Susan Rice, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde – played competitive sport as girls and young women. An Ernst and Young survey finding that 19 out of 20 female senior executives were sporty as teenagers did not surprise Tett. “Girls who play sport at school learn at a young age that it is acceptable to compete aggressively … that success does not depend on looking good and that it can be acceptable to take pleasure in winning.” The journalist also thought that at a time of overwhelming cyber distractions, and a teen culture ringed with passive female beauty images, girls needed sport more than ever.

Every year for five years, the team went to Ballarat for Total Girl, a tournament started by six local parents who were tired of what they saw as the soccer authorities’ lack of interest in girls. In 2005, 380 players came; six years later, 1300. Its website features a photo of a grinning Julia Gillard, foot on a soccer ball. The goals and balls are pink, every player gets a show bag with bracelets, glow pens and other girly stuff, and there’s not a boy in sight. Coffee and souvlaki are sold out of vans, teams set up tents that rise to a steel point like pavilions in a medieval pageant, and parents sit under them drinking thermos tea and reading the Herald Sun. It’s an old-style sporting carnival, except that it is not men or boys we have come to watch fight and joust but girls.

On the Saturday night in Ballarat our team had a barbecue. It was awkward the first time we gathered, when we didn’t know one another, but it got warmer and rowdier each year. One time Koula, Eleni’s mum, told me about how she had left her home and family on a Greek island to marry Jim, a Greek-Australian, and the joys and sorrows of having a foot in each country. Conspiratorial laughter reached the adults eating sausages in the gazebo. Tilly was telling the girls, huddled together on playground equipment, how her parents had got together, and how Andreas had made a high-stakes gamble and turned up in Australia to win her mother’s heart. In the car later, our daughter, as romantic as any 13-year-old girl can be, was buzzing: “I love this team!”

Over the years I picked up the bones of Andreas’ story. A serious young man, the son of a devout Lutheran minister, he left West Berlin and his job as a Volkswagen mechanic because he was having nightmares about nuclear war and was sure Germany would be a target. In 1981, aged 21, he hitchhiked to Italy, met four former factory workers in Milan and went to work on a farm they were starting in Tuscany. He stayed five years, bought his own goat farm and began to imagine a lifetime there. But when he returned to Berlin for a brief visit, he met an Australian woman, Penny Johnson. They lived together on his farm in Tuscany for eight months. As soon as she returned home, he sent her a postcard to say that he missed her, had sold his goats and was coming to Australia. He didn’t speak English and he knew only one thing about the country: it had kangaroos.

Though he was happy in Australia, things about it baffled him: the way people would be casually late for appointments, and how they were allowed to repair cars in workshops or coach soccer teams without any formal training. When he began coaching a side that included his son, Felix, he took three courses. On a primary school sports day, he asked another parent: “Jeff, what is a fun run? How can a run be fun?”

It was soccer that gave him a deeper way into the country. The boys’ team at Clifton Hill was losing every game when he took over as coach. They walked onto the pitch with their heads down and walked off feeling worse. Before the first match he pulled them into a group: “All right, boys. Can we win?” Silence. A few boys mumbled yes. “I can’t hear you,” he said. “Yes,” said a few boys, a little louder. “I still can’t hear you. I want to hear you scream!” he shouted, until they were screaming back at him: “Yes, yes, YES!” Clifton Hill won that day, and that year the team finished near the top of the league. “For Andreas, the power of self-belief and of persevering against the odds is everything,” says his wife, Penny. “His favourite saying is ‘Geht nicht, gibt’s nicht’, which means something like ‘There’s no such thing as impossible’.”

In 2011 we played a game that none of us will easily forget. South Melbourne is “Australia’s most successful football club in history”, its website boasts. Its under-16 girls were top of the table and playing us at home. In the first half, our girls made many attacks but could not score. South Melbourne moved forward with well-drilled precision and found the net twice.

At half-time Andreas told the team how well they were playing, how proud he was of them, even if they lost. “But girls, the game is open!” he said. Believe in yourselves, and the wall will break.

Ten minutes into the second half, Tilly beat two defenders and slammed the ball past the goalie. Rebecca Jaffe, a new player who once told Andreas that at her previous club she never even got to touch the ball, slipped past her opponent, made a mighty run and curled the ball into the net. Then another goal: the game had changed shape, and every girl felt it. Near the end, Lauren, under hot pressure, passed backwards to Lex Fraser-Davis coming out of defence. Lex stopped the ball and loaded up; the ball soared over the field and gave the goalie no hope.

On the sidelines, pandemonium reigned. The referee cautioned Joe, our supposedly neutral linesman, for dancing and throwing his flag into the air. South Melbourne made a furious charge and scored again, but too late. Our girls slumped on the grass, astonished, elated: Clifton Hill 4–3 South Melbourne. Perhaps the best compliment came from the opposition, when they put a bunch of A players in their side for the rematch. We lost that one 1–0.

But there were low moments, too. In mid-winter a sense of drudgery would set in; girls would often skip training. Andreas tried to vary the routine, taking them for a run or a swim or getting in two senior female players to offer tips. But at times it seemed to matter more to him than it did to them.

One night two years ago the girls pushed him too hard. I arrived at the end of training to see them talking urgently in a group and Andreas jogging towards the clubhouse. A moment earlier he had called the girls together. He’d told them he’d given a lot for this team and they were wasting his time and their talent. He had decided to quit.

The girls were shocked. The cluster I saw on the pitch was a crisis meeting. They would draw up a contract of good behaviour; every girl would write him a personal message. They would bake him a batch of brownies.

Of course, he came back. But at the start of this season the girls negotiated with Andreas to train only on Wednesday, with a voluntary night on Friday. We were a mostly middle-class side and other activities – orienteering, music trips, language exchanges – took time from soccer. We came second in our division, but in a few games our lack of fitness and training showed. The little girls who used to play a game called “All Hail the Moon” on training nights were now nearly women. A few had boyfriends or girlfriends; two drove to games on L-plates. Before one important game, there was a big party, some girls played on two hours’ sleep, and we drew when we should have won. Before another match, two girls threw up on the side of the pitch after a big night. The girls’ lives were changing, whereas the parents – at least the most fervent of us – wanted things to stay exactly the same. “I’ve got to pull back a bit,” Joe said to me on the phone. “Otherwise I care too much.”

Yet the team could have folded, as many do when boys and girls are about 16. That it did not, that numbers in the squad actually grew to 17 this year, is testimony to the players’ bonds with one another and with Andreas.

“I like to show the girls I’m interested in their lives,” he says. “My goal is to be close but not too close; not their friend, but friendly.” When a school formal stopped Romy Schoenheimer playing in one game, Andreas texted to wish her a happy night. But when he feels the girls’ talk is getting too personal for his ears, he walks away.

He has noticed that girls will not train as hard as boys. You can run boys until their legs hurt and they will not say a word, and seem almost to relish the punishment. Girls, though, will refuse to do it.

So, to keep them playing, he has bent a little. He allows them to arrive 30 minutes before a game, not 45 as he used to insist. He lets them run the annual pizza night, and they watch rom-coms, not soccer movies, while he drifts into the living room for a beer. He says that at training “we often joke, pull our legs – is that what you say? I don’t mind them laughing at me if I slip over, say something in a German accent or use the wrong phrase in English. But it’s true that sometimes I get disappointed with them: ‘Come on, girls. This is getting a bit silly.’ I have to say that to them quite often.”

Sport, he has learnt, is not “win at all costs” for these girls. One of the better players on his boys’ team complained to him that constantly letting a weaker boy play was hurting their chances of winning. But in an especially tense girls’ game this year, Andreas left a girl on the bench for the whole match. Although we won, some of the girls later told him that what he had done was wrong; the player had been unable to celebrate with the others afterwards. The team ethos was that everybody got game time, even if it increased the risk of a loss. He thought about it for a long time before deciding they were right.

“The things I have learnt from the girls are just beautiful,” he says. “It’s nice to be warm and caring. It’s good to accept defeat and not be totally crushed by it. When you lose, it’s OK. Shame we lost, but it’s OK. The most important thing for a coach is to have happy players. If they don’t want to play, you can’t do anything.

“And their friendship is so expressive. Did you see them at the barbecue, stroking each other’s hair? It’s a shame boys can’t do that.”

I have also learnt from Andreas. He mixes an old-fashioned formality and reserve with an understanding that the world has changed. I asked him once whether he felt that Tilly, a very fine player, could go further with her soccer. “That would have to come from her,” he replied.

As a boy, I was deadly serious about sport. At 11, I was so desperate to make the cricket team that I went down with an attack of stomach pain at the first training night and vomited on the tram home. At 17, after playing well when I was a chance to make the school football side, I hovered over the pad of the boy taking statistics and said: “Mitch, I got nine kicks that quarter, not seven.” But I gave up sport early, and always regretted it. That was partly why I was keen for my son and daughter to play.

Watching them, I always wanted them to shine and their teams to win. I would will the ball to go in their direction. That’s all fine, in the right degree. But when Lola played some good games at the end of her first year, I urged her to try out for the summer Victorian Champions League, a competition focused on producing elite players. Still young enough to be amenable to her father’s will, she agreed, but found the atmosphere of a competitive squad far less appealing than that at Clifton Hill. She hurt her knee, but her unhappiness, I realised with shame, was also caused by an overly pushy parent. It was she who should have chosen to play in this league. And, after I backed off and gave her the space to do so, it is she who has chosen to stay at Clifton Hill.“We’ve been together so long, we know each other so well,” she said when I asked why she loved her team. Because I didn’t have a sister and was educated at a boys’ school, I had never noticed the way girls behave in a group. When boys talk, a pack mentality often takes over: the joker or storyteller is the dominant male, until his joke or story is deemed boring and he is cut down in favour of another. Girls happily pass around the speaking conch; their laughter supports the storyteller and eggs her on. “The friendship and constant hugging, all over each other like puppies, the jokes that weren’t funny that made us laugh even harder,” writes Anna Krien about her years at an all-girls school, in her book Night Games.

It is the end-of-season barbecue and the girls are sitting in Joan’s backyard, talking about the team. “My team in Norway never gossiped at training like you do,” says Oda Froisland, who joined this year when her father’s job brought the family to Melbourne. “In Norway it was full focus all the time, and if you made a mistake you did squats on the pavement. After the first training session here I told my dad, ‘They’re really lazy, they don’t chase the ball.’ And all the talk about the next party and what are we doing Friday night? Then I saw you in a game and I thought, ‘Wow, these guys are really good, how is that possible?’”

“We are not super elite but we’re not a social team either,” says Emma. “We have a glue, a spirit, that showed up better today [when they lost] than when we win 21–0. We were losing but we didn’t stop or give up, and we walked off the pitch with our heads held high.”

“We make up for each other’s flaws,” says Alessia Castello. “I am not the fastest player but I know Romy will be my legs. We can each of us step up and be the part that is not as strong. Andy taught me to play for the team. You always want to do your best for him.”

Perhaps the girls sensed that a man who wanted to take risks and do big things had come to a country where the paths were more difficult than they might have been at home; that, by chance, he had chosen a girls’ soccer team on which to train his intelligence, passion, obsession and desire to lead. And that this team was as good a place as any other in which to invest his spirit.

In February next year, as always, Andreas will call a meeting to see if we can get a team together. If so, we will play in State League, an open competition, against women. Some girls will no longer be there, because of Year 12, or other commitments, or life. We will be looking for new players to replace them.

One day, though, the team will fold. We will have to find something else to do on Sunday mornings. We won’t go to Ballarat again for Total Girl and walk across the grass, feeling the touch of cold in the March air that says winter is nearly here, another summer gone, another football season about to begin. We won’t have another end-of-year barbecue and feel the warm sun announce the end of the season, like the seagulls that used to descend on the MCG grass in the last quarter of the AFL Grand Final. At the end of a match in August, in a field near the airport, I watched my daughter in the lurid orange top worn for away games, walking past her opponents, smiling, shaking hands and saying, “Good game … good game …”, and I realised with an ache that one day I will not see her play soccer again.

I’ll miss the hunt for shin pads, the Sunday drives, the walk on Wednesday nights to a ground jammed between an overpass, a train line and a creek. A man in his 50s and 13 or 14 teenage girls are playing a match in pools of shadow and light. The pace is fast and the passes sharp, though the game dissolves into laughter when one girl fluffs an easy shot. The miss produces a German shout – “Ach!” – but when another girl threads the ball through the field and opens up a goal, the man stops, cups a hand to his mouth and blows an imaginary vuvuzela.

James Button

James Button is a former Fairfax journalist and the author of Speechless: A Year in My Father’s Business and Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong.

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