On a sunny September afternoon, my daughter Otti and I drive to Piranha Park in Coburg to see the Victorian Women’s Football League grand final. We park in leafy Coburg back streets and follow the sounds of whistle blasts and raucous women’s voices to the ground.
We have come late, to suit Otti’s fifteen-month-old attention span, and no one appears to be staffing the entrance. We slip through a gate and up a flight of stairs. The stadium is humming with energy and the smell of sausages. We hurry through a substantial crowd of Darebin Falcons and Diamond Creek supporters. Behind the sausage sizzle is a life-size cut-out of Darebin Falcons co-captain Daisy Pearce.
It’s partly due to Pearce that I came to this match. In high school we played footy on the same team for a few brief weeks, when I was fifteen and she was a little younger. I turned up to the first practise session rather cocky: I played on the very successful volleyball team and trained in martial arts on the weekends. I was tall and fit and physically brave, and though I’d never really played footy, my brother and I would often have a kick after school. I rather expected to be an instant star.
But then there was Daisy. She was about two years younger than the rest of us, some twenty kilos lighter, and about half my height. But already she had a hunger and a passion for the sport that left the rest of us in her wake: she was fast and sure and devastatingly skilled, and it was obvious that for her this wasn’t a passing fad.
Over the following years, I heard bits and pieces of her career. How she became not only a stand-out player at state level, but also an ambassador for the women’s game. How she captained the Melbourne team against the Western Bulldogs on the hallowed grounds of Etihad stadium, and won the inaugural Best Female Player award for her efforts.
“I think you’ve got leather poisoning,” said journalist Sam Lane in the post-match interview after admiring her number of touches.
“Women’s footy was the winner on the day,” Pearce returned.
One could forgive her the cliché. She was about to see her match stats – vital information for a footballer to develop her game – for the first time in her life. Women’s footy was exploding into public view and she was at the front of it.
“You are inspiring women and girls everywhere. Thank you so much – go on and enjoy it,” Lane told her. But, ever the ambassador, Pearce thanked her conscientiously for the coverage before jogging back to her celebrating teammates.
Otti and I find a seat. Spotting Pearce is not as easy as expected: I had thought a player of her calibre would stand out immediately, but the truth is there are a lot of very good players out on the turf. For a while, every lean, arrogant figure and masterful pass is her – until a turn of the head or a glimpse of a jersey proves otherwise.
I give it up and watch the play instead. A high ball into the Diamond Creek front line; a pack forms; but at the last moment a player comes from behind, very fast and leaping low. There is a wham of flesh and bone and leather and the voices in the crowd uplifted in applause.
“A courageous mark,” I remember our coach used to say when one of us would stagger triumphant from under a pile of other girls.
Her teammate thumps her affectionately on the head as she runs back to take the shot. She misses for a behind. Diamond Creek seems under pressure.
“I’m at the footy in Coburg,” a man behind me says into his phone. Not “the women’s footy”. Just “the footy”. I silently cheer.
The three-quarter siren blows and people stream out onto the field. The men carry their beers and stand in tight, silent knots around the players, but the women and girls take footies and frisbies and spread out across the pitch.
The final quarter, and Darebin are kicking towards our end. The break seems to have filled them with vehemence. A full forward who the crowd calls “Katie” – the tall, elegant Katie Brennan, who wears a white ribbon in her blonde hair – takes an expert mark on the fifty-metre line.
“She’s gonna kick it from fifty,” says a male voice behind me with proprietary satisfaction. But there is a sudden stir from the crowd: in the goal square one woman is down and another is kicking her, rather languidly, in the flanks and head. The stoush is broken up and Katie is ushered forward. She warms up with dramatic insouciance: touching her toes and flexing her long legs.
“Kick it into the stands,” a voice from the crowd mutters with quiet pride. Sure enough, the ball soars through the posts and deep into the crowd, who roar their approval. Dancing with glee in the goal square, Katie makes a rude gesture of triumph.
I’m still looking – without success – for my first glimpse of Pearce.
“Pass it to Daisy; get it to Daisy!” the woman next to me keeps urging anxiously, but still I can’t spot her. Then a small, resolute figure takes a defensive mark on the far flank: the kind of impossible, infuriating mark that only happens to some players – and seems to happen to them all the time. The ball hovers above her, seems drawn to her, while she waits with perfect, cool confidence for it to fall into her arms. The DC fans sitting next to me give a muted growl of resentful admiration.
I don’t need to see the number six on the back of her jumper to be sure it is Pearce. Even all those years ago, she always had that ability: that uncanny, almost lonely talent of the true athlete to know where the ball would be before it could get there; playing a game that none of us could join in.
The scoreline is grim for Diamond Creek, but they are by no means slacking. When the final siren blows the crowd is nonchalant – the outcome has been all but inevitable from the start of the fourth quarter – but the Falcons’ bench bolt onto the field with sudden speed.
While a makeshift podium is being erected and a small PA is wheeled onto the field, Otti makes a friend. A blonde woman in ripped black jeans comes over and tickles Otti’s leg. The first time, Otti pushes her hand away. The second time, she gurgles happily. By the third she is transfixed. The blonde woman tells me she plays footy herself, or used to.
“Yes, it’s always Darebin who wins the premiership these days, but when I played for St Alban’s we took it off ’em once.”
Eventually her friends come to find her. “I thought so!” says one. “She’s always doing this,” says another to me. They appear to view her passion for infants as a benign but rather peculiar affliction. After a while they lead her away.
The presentations begin and it is time to go – Otti’s patience is well worn by now – but there is time for one last look from the gate. Out on the field, away from the crowd, a small girl is running in the golden, late-afternoon light. Her head is down as she races across the green grass. Her full-size Falcons jersey skims her knees.
As we walk away, we can hear the roar as forty sweaty, triumphant women pile onto the tiny podium and hoist the cup.
Anastasia Kanjere is writer and academic living on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne. She writes about race, feminism and motherhood.