News / Sport

Zebras all set for boom in women’s and girls’ soccer

New facilities mean women and girls finally have their own space at Sumner Park

Two girls in Zebras kit running towards the camera.
Future Matildas? A quarter of the registered players at Brunswick Zebras are girls and women. Photo: Gem Photography

Mark Phillips

WHEN the expected flood of new players arrives on the back of the Australian Matildas’ success at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Brunswick Zebras Football Club will be well prepared.

The club has just finished the construction of a new pavilion at Sumner Park in Brunswick East that includes four new female-friendly changing rooms, setting it up for an expected surge of interest in soccer among women and girls inspired by the Matildas’ fourth place.

The club has long been a pioneer for women’s soccer in the northern suburbs but the facilities at its home ground had failed to keep pace with the growth of popularity of the game among women and girls.

This has forced players of all genders to juggle use of the changing rooms or arrive for a match either fully kitted up or after dressing in their car.

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Next year, the Zebras will celebrate 30 years of women’s soccer at Sumner Park. Girls soccer arrived almost a decade later in about 2001.

Over that time, the Zebras have produced three Matildas, several junior Matildas, and won two women’s state championships. Today, the club has about 650 registered players, of which a quarter are women and girls, with another 30 women coaches, managers or in other volunteer roles.

Former Matildas Louisa Bisby and Melissa Barbieri, who went to four World Cups as a goalkeeper, both played their early soccer with the Zebras.

“In the northern suburbs, we’re a bit of a pioneer, because women’s football [in Melbourne] started in the eastern suburbs, not in the northern suburbs,” said club president Carlo Carli.

“It’s really peculiar because we always identify the northern suburbs and the western suburbs as being really strong areas of football, but they weren’t great areas for women. But I think that’s really changed.”

Sumner Park was a hive of activity during the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup, with full crowds watching each match of the Matildas’ improbable journey to the semi-finals on big screen TVs in the recently refurbished club rooms, which have been fitted out with a full commercial kitchen.

The new pavilion will allow the club to cope with an anticipated wave of girls wanting to play soccer after watching the likes of Mary Fowler, Hayley Raso and Katrina Gorry take on the world’s best.

It features four new female-friendly player change rooms, a referee change room, a first aid room, which are all compliant with Football Victoria standards, along with new public toilets.

The entire project – including the earlier refurbishment of the club rooms and kitchen which was completed last year – cost $1.1 million. The bulk of that funding came from Merri-bek City Council. The club raised $100,000 itself, and the State Government chipped in with $250,000 from its Local Sports Infrastructure Fund.

Officially opening the new female-friendly changing rooms were Community Sport Minister Ros Spence (front left) and Merri-bek Acting Mayor Helen Davidson. With them were (back, from left) the Member for Pascoe Vale, Anthony Cianflone (a former Brunswick goalkeeper), Merri-bek South Ward Councillor Mark Riley, and Brunswick Zebras president Carlo Carli.

Victorian Minister for Community Sport Ros Spence was on hand to officially open the new facilities on August 23.

“At a time when everybody loves football, everybody loves the Matildas  … the timing really couldn’t be better,” she said.

Zebras secretary Kevin Thomas said the club had experienced an upsurge of inquiries about playing next year over the past fortnight as the Matildas captured the imagination of the nation. Of the more than 50 inquiries, about 80% of those have been women.

“We are expecting that tsunami [of new players] coming,” said Carli.

“We’re already feeling it in terms of the Matildas’ success, and we’ll have to deal with it.

“And we have to do all we can to ensure that this community has the spaces and the opportunity to play the game.”

Sophie Byrnes, Metro North development co-ordinator at Football Victoria, said the governing body had set a target of 50:50 gender balance on and off the field by 2027.

“It’s still a work in progress and a big priority for us is to work with soccer clubs as obviously female friendly facilities are a big part of that,” she said.

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