The investment and interest from traditionally male organizations have been both welcome and needed in the women’s game. However, at all levels of the sport, independent women’s clubs are forming, growing, and offering something different.
Following in the footsteps of those who founded teams in 1921 and the 1970s, these clubs face unique challenges but also valuable benefits.
These clubs, with women’s teams and no male-affiliated teams, were grown by talent, commitment, and the desire for self-determination.
In part one, we speak to one of Australia’s brightest new arrivals and one of the biggest women’s only teams in the world.
“It’s a refreshing change”
South Canberra FC is one of the newest of these organizations. Founders Kat Yuile and Emma Steel started the club as a place where women’s football was the priority.
“A couple of years ago, the majority of our club played at a different club in Canberra,” says Yuile
“We really did find that the focus of the committee and the executive was on the men’s teams but specifically the top-level teams.
“We didn’t feel like we were getting the focus that we needed, Emma’s idea was why don’t we start our own women’s club? That way we can set it up the way that we want it and set the tone early. “
That initial idea has seen the club grow to five teams strong across age groups ranging from 16 to 60 years old.
“We set up a brains trust to talk through values and identity and what we wanted to get out of it and it sort of blossomed from there,” recalls Yuile of the club’s genesis.
Soon word of mouth spread and players that had felt under-resourced were excited by the prospect.
“A lot of players from Canberra started getting wind of it,” says co-founder Emma Steel.
“We had Nat (McCann) who was playing for another club. We’d never met her before this year and she just loved what we were doing and what we were talking about.
“We were so excited to hear from her, it just confirmed that we were doing the right thing.”
It is a sentiment echoed by South Canberra FC player Nat McCann. “It always felt like we were trying to fight for more equally divided attention and resources,” she says of her time with mixed-gender clubs.
“Even if it comes down to strips, a lot of the teams I had played for had men’s second-hand strips and sizing, that sounds really basic and yes we’ll make do, but I think that’s a basic example of it feeling like the women’s scene was a side act
“While in South Canberra FC’s instance it’s the sole focus, it’s a refreshing change.”
“They are the most important in the club and they always will be,”
These sentiments are being echoed across the globe, and in the world of women’s football, independent clubs don’t come much bigger than Glasgow City.
The Scottish club was founded by Laura Montgomery and Carol Anne Stewart in 1998 and has amassed 15 league titles.
They regularly outperform giants Celtic and Rangers locally and in The Champions League. Despite their profile and success, an issue that is a thorn for many women’s clubs at all levels persists.
“Without a doubt, the biggest challenges we’ve had are because we don’t have our own facilities,” says Montgomery from Glasgow. “We always do need to rent space.”
Montgomery estimates that Glasgow City spends around 50,000 pounds on stadium rental for training and matches. Their status and outlay still do not always guarantee priority access.
“As a club, we could easily double in size overnight, we have 180 academy players we could have a lot more if we had the space to do so.
“Even looking at our upcoming Champions League game next week, because we don’t own our own stadium, we are unable to get the stadium in the evening because a community club has that and are training.
“They do not want to give up their training slot for us to have a live TV Champions League game. You always have that battle, that’s an ongoing one.
“Finance is a challenge for all clubs, even for the very large men’s teams that bring in masses of income… unless you’re talking about the richest clubs in the world like Manchester city and these types of clubs like PSG that are owned by small countries.
“Everything relative, it’s easier for them to put money into the women’s setup.”
At all levels of the game, cash is of concern. There is little margin for error and clubs have to be run extremely professionally even at the community level.
South Canberra FC has gone through great effort to give every woman the best opportunity to play. They were the recipients of a government grant for female inclusion in sport and that has directly benefitted the players.
“Core to what we want to do is make football accessible to as many women in the community as we can,” says Steel.
“We keep our rego fees the lowest or second-lowest in Canberra… For women who want to play community sport but found it financially prohibitive, we were able to provide registration costs and the playing strip.”
The local community has been encouraging the club and has been financially supportive, eager to be part of the project.
“We do rely on a lot of small businesses, at this moment we’ve structured ourselves really well but it’s always going to be a tough slog.”
Without the investment of funds generated by the senior men’s team’s big nights, sponsors are the lifeblood of the game.
The women’s game offers an opportunity for businesses that want to be associated with the values of the club or reach a different market.
“I’ve noticed in the last decade is certainly more a shift where a lot of companies want to partner with us and they’ve approached us to do so and I think that’s because they like what we stand for and we are unique.
In the context of Scottish football, sponsors might want to avoid The Old Firm baggage of Celtic and Rangers, and women’s sport offers an alternative according to Montgomery.
“We aren’t attached to the men’s clubs and the toxicity with that. I think some businesses are looking to reach a more discerning audience and want to stand out from the crowd.”
“It is an appeal that extends to player recruitment at the youth level. A Glasgow club existing outside of the historic and intense rivalry of the men’s clubs is attractive to many. “I think with young girls joining us. Parents will get in touch with us because we are not a part of that history.’
Even though they are on the other side of the world and in Europe’s football elite, the lure of Glasgow City is similar to what inspired South Canberra FC.
“They (women) are the most important in the club and they always will be,” says Montgomery.
“It’s important to connect with other people who have the same interests as you.”
Club culture and values are important to any organization. Women’s clubs have the opportunity to start from scratch and set their own standards.
As a community club, South Canberra FC has formed a bond within the team., players have found a home.
Player Christie-anna Barnes-Ozorio has played around the country and loves what they have built in Canberra.
“I think the advantage with having a new club is it was kind of life this fresh start. I think the age range with our club is massive, I know pretty much people from every single team, there’s a lot of cohesiveness as a whole.
“I’m probably going to stay (living) in Canberra because I love this club so much.”
Women’s football, in general, is known for its inclusivity at all kinds of clubs but she feels that it is magnified at South Canberra FC.
“Being a gay girl playing women’s football, it’s so safe.
“I think that’s a huge part of it, that’s massive for me personally.”
Nat McCann says her teammates helped her return to the game after her child was born. “I think for me the transition back into football, was so helpful on a personal level.
“Knowing I was going back to a group of women who were around the same age group, ability, and passion. It always felt very supportive.
“When I was pregnant I knew that when I went back I knew there was a group of women I could soundboard with.
“It’s important to connect with other people who have the same interests as you, that really helps you navigate that journey.”
Eleni Tsaknis’ first introduction to her teammates was at a team boxing session. The club decided to improve fitness levels. It was an activity in the unique spirit of South Canberra FC.
“I think we knew in pre-season, we needed to do something for our fitness,” recalls Steel.
“We had a heap of new players, we wanted to do something fun that got people moving around.
The physio class was a harder sell, prevention is not something that people think about until they’re injured. Whereas boxing was something different.”
Tsaknis was welcomed right away and says that the culture of the team keeps players involved even when sidelined.
“There’s a player who’s been pregnant but she’s still been involved in the club and coming to games. The community is still there when players aren’t playing.”
The club treats long-term injuries similarly. Prevention and conditioning are heavily emphasized with the help of a local physiotherapist.
“I don’t think I’d be playing this season if it wasn’t for the very specific exercises that he gave me,” says Barnes-Ozorio
“But it was also doing it all as a class so at one point we had 50 girls each week to do these classes, it wasn’t just about injury but prevention which is massive.
“Women’s football is the roughest thing. We just go in, we have zero regards for our own bodies, and prevention is really key.”
“We don’t have to worry about the impact a decision could have on men’s football.”
Independent clubs face challenges that they must overcome largely on their own.
But they also can find and act on opportunities.
They can do so without consultation or the need to consider anybody else’s interests.
South Canberra FC’s decision to wear the rainbow flag on their jersey was quick and easy. When they implemented a boxing program for pre-season they could do so without consultation.
At the professional level, there have been examples of women’s programs being cut when the men’s side faces downturns. Charlton Athletic’s successful side was cut when the men were relegated in 2007. Women’s only clubs do not face this threat.
“From a very simple point of view, when we make a decision, that’s the decision,” says Montgomery of Glasgow.
“We don’t need to go and seek the higher opinion of another board.”
“My peers at other teams they can’t make a final decision on that call without going to the men’s club.
“Without a doubt, we are the boss of ourselves. We don’t have to worry about the impact a decision could have on men’s football.”
That is not to say they operate at the exclusion of men and South Canberra FC emphasize this. Community clubs in particular need volunteers, coaches, and involved parents to operate at their potential.
Clearly, for the growth of the women’s game, men’s clubs at all levels need to invest and commit. A local club’s devotion to its women’s sides is just as essential as Manchester City’s.
While the investment by mixed-gender clubs raises the tide for all. A women’s club can have more control over its own path.
Glasgow City grew from a dream to a Champions League quarter-finalist in less than 10 years and their C.E.O has sound advice for others.
“Operate your club as professionally as you can. I’m not going to deny that it’ll take up all your time and life because that’s just what happens.
“Focus on what’s important, why you’re doing it, and what your values are.
“Get that across to corporates and sponsors because you are doing it differently. Your values are different.”
These clubs are forged by a love of the game and a desire to see it improve for women.
The same drive that founded these clubs translates onto the field, just because they are comforting, welcoming environments does not mean opposition teams will have an easy afternoon.
“We hate losing, we love winning,” says South Canberra FC’s McCann.
“I think there’s a perspective out there that women’s sport is soft and fuzzy. Once we’re on the field it’s not… We want to make sure everyone’s achieving what we want to achieve from their season.”