Long before the U.S. women’s soccer team filed a federal complaint over wage discrimination, the Australian women fought for better pay.
The Matildas, as they are known, will be among the 12 women’s soccer teams playing in Brazil next week when the Olympics get underway. Their strike following a successful run in last summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada was significant as female athletes across sports fight for recognition and respect – including their American counterparts.
“In terms of being trailblazers, I’m not really sure. I think we just sort of went about it how we thought was necessary,” Australian defender Steph Catley said. “We felt we deserved more.”
The Matildas have made a quick ascent as one of the world’s elite teams. They gained national attention last year when they became the first team from Australia – male or female – to win a World Cup knockout round match by upsetting Brazil 1-0 and advancing to the quarterfinals.
The United States went on to win the World Cup with a 5-2 victory over Japan in the final.
Afterward, the U.S. women scheduled a pair of exhibition matches against Australia as part of a victory tour. But the Australian federation withdrew from those matches after the Matildas walked out of training camp and the players’ union said contract talks with the national federation had stalled.
The Matildas, whose contract had expired, said they had not been paid for two months heading into the walkout.
The salary for a national team player was equivalent to $14,475, based on a six-month playing period. That meant many of the players needed to have other jobs to make ends meet. Some players worked two club seasons, one at home in Australia and the other in the United States with the National Women’s Soccer League, meaning they played year-round.
The players were asking for a salary increase to $28,000 a year, as well as other benefits including improved accommodations and bonuses for international matches. The demands were part of larger bargaining that included the men’s national team and A-League players, and the Football Federation Australia at one point claimed the Matildas were being used as a pawn in the negotiations.
But there was a groundswell of support for the women, who have seen their popularity rise in Australia along with the team’s stature on the national stage.
American stars Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd, former player Julie Foudy and Canadian forward Christine Sinclair were among those who expressed support for the Australians. There were change.org petitions to support the team.
“The Matildas are courageously fighting for what is right. (hashtag) priclessrolemodels,” Lloyd posted to Twitter.
The deal that was eventually struck in November included a pay structure that puts the salaries for top players at $30,700 per year and those at the next level at $22,400. The contract calls for a 10 percent raise each year and improved bonuses and other benefits.
“Our elite female players deserve a full-time professional career path in football and this agreement represents a solid foundation we can build on,” players’ association chief executive Adam Vivian said at the time.
Striker Kyah Simon said the move made the team stronger.
“The Matildas’ story is standing up for what we believe in and standing up for our brand and our culture. I think at the end of the day it brought the team closer together,” Simon said. “It’s something we can look on with pride, and something that’s hopefully a positive future for our sport and for the new generation of players.”
The victory came well before a group of U.S. women’s national team players filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination. The women claim they make far less on average than their male national team counterparts. The complaint in late March came as the players seek a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer.
Heading into the Olympics, the Matildas are ranked No. 5 in the world.
They leapfrogged Japan and Korea in the AFC qualification tournament to earn the trip to Rio along with China – scoring 17 goals in five matches.
Australia is in a tough group in Brazil that includes No. 2 Germany, No. 10 Canada and Zimbabwe. It is the only group with three teams ranked in the top 10. The top-ranked Americans play in a group that includes No. 3 France, New Zealand and Colombia.
Australia opens the tournament on Wednesday against Canada in Sao Paulo.
“After the World Cup everything sort of started to change. When we came home there was so much media attention and so many people that were interested in what we were doing and really proud of the success we had,” Catley said of the team’s rising profile. “I think people always knew there was a national team, but I don’t think they realized how high in the rankings we were and how much better we were getting as a team.”