Never Say Die is a story of exclusion, prejudice, hard work, community, and triumph. Crawford and McGowan have produced an important and readable social history, focusing on the factors that have limited or enabled women's participation in football (the one also known as soccer) over the last hundred or so years.
Queensland seems to have been a centre for the development of women's football in the 1920s, interestingly around the same time as the English Football Association passed a resolution stating that 'the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged', effectively banning women from playing on affiliated football grounds in that country. The Queensland Ladies Football Association was formed as early as 1921, and it immediately became subject to pressures that Never Say Die shows have continued to exist in women's football for the many years since then. These include obsessions over 'femininity' and/or dress (or undress, in the case of the nude Matildas' calender), difficulties getting access to decent grounds, and strained relations with administrators and elected officials in the already established ruling bodies.
There are some facts given in Never Say Die that are simply mind-boggling. For example, until very recently in the W-League, players were contractually required to pay for their own top level health insurance, while being paid a pittance for their football. Of necessity, this pittance was supplemented by work of an often casual, and low-paying nature, juggled to fit in with onerous training schedules. Full time commitment to training and playing has not been matched with professional level salaries, although progress has, slowly, been made in this area. As the authors say, "(i)t's impossible to count how many players have been lost to the game because the juggle got too bone-wearying". Without the support of family and the wider women's football community that the authors describe, the loss would have been even greater.
The shocking rate of ACL injuries suffered by women footballers is often put down to women's anatomy, in an interesting echo of past concerns about "femininity", but examples given in Never Say Die indicate that investment in proper preventive and rehabilitative services can significantly reduce the level of injury and reinjury. Even if there is a particular biological risk to women, too often they train and play on poor grounds, and have had little access to professional level health services. Inability to rest and recover properly, due to the necessity of other work, is also relevant here. The authors note that "without investment in the game as a whole, important issues such as knee injury prevention slip through the cracks or are unevenly implemented".
Changing rooms remain an issue; in 2016, women in W-League teams were given marquee tents to change in at an event where a men's and women's match was held on the same day, as "the entire set of changing room facilities had been turned over to the two A-League teams". (This incident gives a whole new, unfortunate meaning to the term marquee player.) Similarly, the struggle to obtain clothes that actually fit women has been an on-going issue which runs through the pages of Never Say Die.
The story of Australian women's football in the book has been supplemented by overseas examples, as indicated by the resolution of England (and other countries, including Brazil) to effectively ban women's football mentioned above. Even the supremely talented (and revenue generating) United States Women's National Team are still paid less than their very less successful male equivalents, while their just-retired coach, Jill Ellis, who achieved back-to-back World Cup wins, earns less than the coach of the under twenty male team. Crawford and McGowan point out something that may have slipped the attention of the casual viewer of the recent Women's World Cup; "(f)ive of the eight teams in (the) quarter finals were coached by women".
What sticks in the mind most from Never Say Die is not all the exclusion, and side-lining, but the amazing achievements of women players and those who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to build the women's game. In 2010, the Australian women's team won the Asian Football Confederation Cup, becoming our 'most successful football team' ever. We expect that the Matildas will sooner or later make at least the semi-finals of the World Cup, if their efforts are properly resourced, and coaching decisions made with foresight, and rationally. The possibility of Australia hosting a Women's World Cup is also discussed in Never Say Die, something that makes at least one reader/reviewer very excited indeed.
Through the book we go on tour with top players and the new generation of fans, hear the words of pioneers, despair at the short-sightedness of many administrators from FIFA down, and get a new perspective on this straightforward yet enigmatic game. The photographs included are well-chosen and surprisingly moving, particularly the studio ones form the 1920s where sturdy women in full kit seem both proud and shy. There is much to be enjoyed in this engaging social history, and the authors are to be commended for producing a work so thorough and entertaining.
- Penelope Cottier is a poet who loves football. Sometimes she has combined the two.
- Never Say Die: The Hundred-Year Overnight Success of Australian Women's Football, by Fiona Crawford and Lee McGowan. NewSouth. $32.99.