Sometimes, the only way to get noticed is to be controversial, to be out of the ordinary. Stir it up, cause a fuss, rip up the rule book and watch the masses react.
In the autumn of 1999, Katrina Boyd and her teammates assembled at the Australian Institute of Sport for a photo shoot they all knew would make headlines. There was a storm brewing in the Australian capital and the country’s women’s football team was in the eye of it. “We wanted to rock the boat,” Boyd tells CNN Sport.
With a home Olympics on the horizon, Australia’s women’s football team, better known as the Matildas, needed money to help prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on home soil.
Though they were international athletes, for the majority of players it was a struggle to work, train and survive. There were no sponsors, few fans, and little money to be made from the beautiful game.
Just months earlier they had competed at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, a tournament still regarded as instrumental in the advancement of the women’s game, to little fanfare. The Matildas needed to, somehow, enter the nation’s consciousness.
The solution? After a seed was sown at a boozy party in 1999, 12 players agreed to pose nude for a black and white calendar which would go on sale in December of that year.
Nudity did not bother Boyd, who would go on to become Miss August in the calendar that would sell, in her words, “s**tloads.”
As she waited for her turn to be photographed, she seated herself on the stage and made idle chit-chat with the photographer to pass away the time. That she was naked was of little concern to the-then 27-year-old.
“It was all done very tastefully, at no time did we feel preyed upon, no-one felt that we were just objects,” Boyd, speaking from her Brisbane home, remembers.
“It was no different to the changing rooms. Some girls would shower in their bras and undies and those sorts of girls would never put themselves on the calendar. Pretty much the girls who were in the calendar were the same girls who didn’t mind getting their gear off, having a shower, getting dressed and moving on.”
These weren’t coy images. There were full frontal poses, no props hiding breasts. Needless to say, the press conference for the launch of the calendar was packed with journalists.
“Whatever next?” one Sydney columnist wrote, according to Sports Illustrated. “A lap dance of honor at the Olympics? A free trip to a massage parlor with every season ticket?”
According to reports, the original print run of 5,000 copies was increased to 45,000 on the strength of pre-publication publicity.
There were those who argued that women should not have to use their bodies to sell their sport, let alone to raise funds to represent their country. But the players themselves believed they were portraying images of strong, powerful women.
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At the time, Boyd told journalists “if people want to call it porn, that’s their problem,” and 20 years on the Australian, who describes herself as an “out there kind of person,” still has no regrets, even though it was her picture which proved to be one of the most controversial.
“I did a full frontal. People were up in arms,” says Boyd, now a dog trainer.
“The photographer just said: ‘(Are) there things you’re happy to do?’ I was like ‘whatever’ and they said, ‘how about you just stand?’ and I went ‘yeah, go for it.’ I just don’t care about nudity.
“It rocked the boat a little bit over here, but we did get a bit of coverage and the word Matilda started to mean something, though probably not for the reasons we wanted.
“It was a bit of fun, it got us our 15 minutes of fame which, for us putting in a lot of groundwork, training hard, doing everything, was nice.
“I wasn’t surprised by the negative reaction. That would still happen today. We were more surprised by how much people were into it, but half of them were blokes, of course.
“I never cared in the slightest that males were paying more attention to us because we did a nude calendar. That was just a given. I’m pretty laid-back about the whole thing.”
Boyd and her contemporaries grew up in an Australia where there was no financial reward for its female footballers. When she first joined the national set-up, she had to pay AUS $500 [$346] to train with the squad at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.
Early into Boyd’s international career, the Australian Women’s Soccer Association (AWSA) began to take care of travel costs for the squad, but there were still occasions when she and her teammates would have to decline playing international football purely for financial reasons.
“You didn’t get any money while you were away,” explains Boyd, who worked in corporate banking during the majority of her time with the Matildas, often taking unpaid leave to represent the green and gold.
“My partner had to pay for every trip. She’s nine years older than me and captained Australia. There were amazing players back in her time who couldn’t do anything because they couldn’t afford to do it.”
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Against such a backdrop, profits from what proved to be an in-demand calendar would have helped the Matildas focus more on football in an Olympic year, but according to Boyd they received little financial reward for their efforts.
“What happened after the calendar was more of a negative because we didn’t get the funds from this calendar which we were supposed to,” she says.
But the calendar certainly put the Matildas on the map. “You could get in any cab in Sydney and the cabbie would have heard of the Matildas, because of this calendar,” Moya Dodd, a former Matildas player, told ABC News last year.
A reported 10,000 fans watched the Matildas play China at the Sydney Football Stadium in June for an Olympic warm-up match – but two defeats and a draw at Sydney 2000 meant the hosts did not progress beyond the group stages. Thereafter, interest in the team began to drop.
“Did we get what we ultimately wanted out of it? Probably no,” admits Boyd.
“Something like that is never going to be long-term. We couldn’t back up that calendar with our football at the time. We were never in a position to throw out a massive calendar like that and also back it up on the field. I guess that would’ve been the ultimate, if we could’ve still got results and had that calendar.”
The Matildas’ calendar was a fleeting solution to a decades-old problem. Recognition for female footballers.
After all, the opening paragraph in the Sun-Herald following Australia’s first official international fixture on October 7, 1979, read: “The first thing you notice about a women’s soccer match is the players. They ARE feminine.”
As was the case around the world, women’s football in Australia suffered from chauvinistic brush-offs for almost a century.
Though around 10,000 fans reportedly watched North Brisbane defeat South Brisbane 2-0 at the Brisbane Cricket Ground in 1921 when the men were away at war, it wasn’t until the 1970s, with the foundation of a national championship and the AWSA, that the building blocks for today’s successes were laid.
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These days the Matildas, a youthful, talented and diverse side, are among the most popular teams in the country and France 2019 is widely regarded as the country’s best chance to date of winning a Women’s World Cup. But it has been a long road.
It wasn’t until 1994 that Australia played an international outside Asia, and not until 2007 did the Matildas record a first Women’s World Cup win.
Indeed, it was the publication of the 2003 Crawford Report, the federal government’s independent soccer inquiry, when the AWSA and the Australian Soccer Federation (ASF) – organizations which were often at loggerheads – came together under the banner of the Football Federation Australia (FFA) that matters gradually began to improve for the Matildas.
Four years ago they became the first Australian team to win a knockout match at a World Cup when they defeated Brazil 1-0 in the last 16 in Canada and the country took notice.
“All of a sudden the media started to get involved and finally recognized there was value in women’s sport and it just grew from there,” Greg Downes – the author of a thesis entitled “An oral history of women’s football in Australia” – tells CNN Sport.
On returning from North America, the team continued to make headlines by going on strike over equal pay – they were earning on average AUS $20,000 [$13,876] a year compared with the Socceroos’ average of AUS $200,000 [$138,760] per man.
The move paid dividends as a baseline salary of AUS $40,000 [$27,752] a year was agreed with the FFA, giving players an opportunity to earn a living from the game.
With the freedom to devote themselves to their sport, the players’ performances improved while societal attitudes also changed, giving rise to record crowds and increased sponsorship.
“Success breeds a lot of that and a lot of the players have become household names,” adds Downes.
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The most recognizable player in the current Matildas squad is captain Sam Kerr, voted the fourth best player in the world at last year’s Ballon d’Or awards.
The striker, who made her international debut at just 15, plays for Perth Glory in the W-League – the top-division in Australian women’s soccer which was formed in 2008 – and Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL. She is ruthless in front of goal and prolific, last year collecting her second consecutive golden boot in both leagues.
In 2018, she was named Young Australian of the Year and earlier this year it was announced the striker would be the face of Nike in Australia, fronting the company’s billboard and TV campaigns in the country in a deal which reportedly makes Kerr – who has signed a AUS $400,000 [$278,000] contract with the FFA – the first female Australian soccer player to earn more than AUS $1million a year [$690,000].
The 25-year-old talks of a significant increase in interest in her and her teammates since the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
“There’s been a lot more media … and that’s been well-earned,” she tells CNN Sport.
“We’re really lucky that Australia is behind us and we’ve been playing to packed stadiums. The interest in the team from the last World Cup to now is day and night.”
The Matildas’ status in their homeland is a “quantum change,” says Downes, from the days of posing for a nude calendar.
“It’s an unbelievable change. It’s been a long, hard push. A lot of time, many years working two jobs with families just to play for Australia, now they’re at a stage where most of the top Matildas are earning up to AUS $100,000 [$69,000] a year, if they’re playing overseas as well as the W-league.”
Women’s football is one of Australia’s largest growing sports. A recent AusPlay survey said more than 396,000 girls and women played football, which it said was the most popular organized sport in the country.
Increased participation and media coverage unsurprisingly comes on the back of unprecedented success.
In 2017 a first victory over three-time world champions the US made the world sit up and take notice as the Matildas captured the Tournament of Nations. Earlier this year the Matildas won the inaugural Women’s Cup of Nations.
Matters have improved off the field too, with a collective bargaining deal agreed in 2017 between the PFA and FFA ensuring all W-League players would earn a minimum of at least AUS $10,000 [$6,938] for the 2017/18 season and AUS $12,200 [$8,325] for the 2018/19 season.
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Progress has not been a continuous upward curve, however. There has been upheaval this year. Alen Stajci was sacked as head coach in January and replaced by Ante Milicic and results in the buildup to France 2019 have been poor, with the team suffering a 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands on Saturday.
But the notion of Australia winning the Women’s World Cup is no longer fanciful, while hosting the tournament is also a possibility with the federal government investing AUS $5 million [$3.47m] in the country’s bid to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
“Things still have to shift. The mentality, particularly here in Australia, is all about the boys, but our girls are doing much better than the boys,” says Boyd, who will be traveling to France next month to support the team.
“The girls are making money that we, in our lifetime, would never have made and they’ve got opportunities like never before. It’s absolutely fantastic.
“The Matildas will win the World Cup. Will it be this time around? I don’t know, they might get pretty damned close, but they will be the best team in the world at some point and that was always going to happen. We just had to go through what we went through.”