‘It felt like we mattered’ - WNSL a vital chapter in women’s football history

TAL Karp is an Olympian, a lawyer and former Matildas midfielder with a unique vantage point on the development of women’s football in Australia.

On hand as a player for the birth of both the W-League and its predecessor, the Women’s National Soccer League (she even scored in the WNSL’s first game), Karp has experienced the game in many forms as it morphed over the time of her playing career.

On the centenary anniversary of the first women’s football game in Australia, the fierce advocate for the continued evolution of the sport says the time has come to acknowledge the pioneers of the women’s game, whilst continuing to push for progress.

Her experiences provide a unique perspective for Karp, who needed to fund her own way to represent her state from the early age of 11. Sausage sizzles and Freddo Frogs helped foot the bill to get the aspiring young talent to state tournaments each year.

The advent of the Ansett Summer Series in 1996, which became the WNSL, coincided with Karp’s progression through her teens and a number of key decisions which would shape her football career.

READ: Moya Dodd on 100 years of women's football

Karp spent the first season of the WNSL playing for Canberra Eclipse, scoring in the league’s very first fixture at the age of 14 on December 6, 1996. Karp would play the following year for South Australia, but after two seasons spent living in Perth and flying interstate for each WNSL fixture without the opportunity to train with her team, Karp decided to uproot in pursuit of her dream.

“When the Summer Series started, it was a big deal that we didn’t have to pay our own way anymore,” Karp said.

“It also meant more game time. Instead of a week-long tournament, where tactics were as much about surviving the week as they were about performing in each game, the Summer Series meant more opportunities to compete at the highest level.”

“With Perth not fielding a team, being drafted to play for Canberra gave me my chance to test myself with and against players from the East”.

“Before we paid to play. Now for the first time, we had our way covered. That felt like we mattered, I guess.”

Balancing football and part-time work with an Arts/Law degree at the Australian National University was Karp’s reality for the next five years, moving to Canberra to train and play with the Eclipse.

"It felt like women’s football was starting to be taken seriously,” Karp said.

“Finally there was an opportunity for more game time, and for the very first time in my playing career, flights and travel expenses were paid for.

“Sure, it wasn’t flashy. We still stayed in caravan parks and dorm rooms from time-to-time, but it was real progress.

“We couldn’t ever just focus on football though. For me, my story was always about ‘how am I going to balance my studies with my training commitments? How am I going to find time for part-time work because I’m not living at home anymore and I need to survive?’

“Looking back, I am really grateful I was able to do my degree and play at the same time.”

Karp won the 2002/03 WNSL title in one of her five seasons at the Eclipse, moving home to join Western Waves in 2004 before the league disbanded in 2005.

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Karp (top, second from left) celebrates winning the 2002/03 WNSL title with Canberra Eclipse
Karp (top, second from left) celebrates winning the 2002/03 WNSL title with Canberra Eclipse

Three years later, while working as an associate to a High Court judge, Karp made her footballing comeback with Melbourne Victory in the newly-formed W-League in 2008.

“The W-League was a game-changer,” she said. “Joining Melbourne Victory meant our team was part of something bigger – we became part of a club with a well-recognised and respected name and a proud history.

“But the game still had a long way to go… Being part of a big club didn’t guarantee we had a field to train on.

“I spent two years playing in the W-league, before retiring to focus on my career in the law.

“I remember those two years as being years of significant contrasts – of playing in big stadiums in curtain raiser games before the men’s team played; followed by ice-bath recovery sessions in garbage bins… of having the Victory name emblazoned on our playing strip, but lacking access to a regular training field to support our professional name.”

“Football had been such an enormous part of who I had always been, and (retiring) wasn’t easy for me,” Karp continued

“I felt like I had to shut the door on football for a while. Initially it hurt too much to watch the game.  I hadn’t got football out of my system.

“It took a while for me to come back to the game. When I did I was struck by how much had changed in a relatively short time. The standard had really stepped up, and it was great to see so many talented young players growing and developing through the W-League.”

100 years of women’s football in Australia have come to pass, with the 2021/22 W-League season the first step forward into the next century of progressing the game in this country.

With Wellington Phoenix set to enter the W-League this season, a further two teams committed to joining the league before the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup on home soil and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement struck between the PFA and APL, the game is set to move forward in strides through the coming years.

But it’s what can be achieved beyond the current state of play which Karp sets firmly in her sights as she looks toward a future she hopes can shine brighter still.

“When I first fell in love with the game of football, I didn’t know women played. I learned about the game watching my brother play and seeing the men’s World Cup on TV.

The game has come such a long way – in standard, in professionalism and the opportunities available.

Now kids can grow up watching exceptionally talented women and girls play on TV and in our biggest stadiums. And young girls can grow up knowing that they can turn their talent on the football field into a professional career.

“We have a lot to celebrate on our 100-year anniversary. It’s so important we honour and acknowledge the pioneers of the game who paved the way for us; and the progress we have made since then.

"But it would be a waste if we didn’t also take the opportunity to call out the work that still needs to be done.”