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Raising a female footballer.

By ANN ODONG

It’s 4.30am on a Sunday morning in the Australian winter and in the Hervey Bay, Queensland 14 year old Izabella Palmero is woken up by her mother Michelle Hebblewhite to prepare for another game of football.

Two hours later and 320kms away in Redland Bay, Queensland, Sandra Jones is also navigating the match day routine with Jordan (10) and Charli (5), as is Samantha Murray with six year old Savannah in Agnes Banks, NSW and Shari Maguire with 11 year old Claire Falls in Tuggeranong, ACT.

In fact, this routine is played out by thousands of mothers and hundreds and thousands of daughters from the East to the West Coast of Australia; and those numbers are growing every year as girls across the country take up football in great numbers.

And it’s a wonderful thing.  For the family, for the mothers, and especially for the daughters.

Several studies have demonstrated the benefits for girls who participate in sport.  From better grades at school and lower school dropout rates, higher self-esteem and lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and osteoporosis.

However for these mothers and daughters, their football journey is about more than the research.  Much more.

Girls benefit from sport

Lighting of the flame

For these mothers all their daughters caught the football bug at a young age.  Izabella (at 5), Jordan (at 8), Charli (at 5), Claire (at 8) and for Savannah Murray and Teigen Allen, their first ball was kicked not long after their first steps were walked.

Michelle Hebblewhite found Izabella’s interest in football surprising.

“Bella at the age of five came home from school and asked to play football with her friends from school,” she remembered.

“I had never been involved in football before.  I had played hockey as a child so it was all new.”

It was also new to Velvet Allen, mother of Matildas’ and Western Sydney Wanderers defender Teigen Allen, while for Samantha Murray, Shari Maguire and Sandra Jones, who were brought up with the game, watching their daughters catch the bug was joy.

“My family has always been involved in soccer,” remembers Sandra Jones.  ” My Mum played many years ago when she was a teenager and growing up my brother played and my Dad coached.”

Regardless of their introduction to the game it wasn’t long before all the mothers were fully immersed in the world of the “football mum.”

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It’s a role where the job description ranges from laundry to canteen lady, physio, therapist, cheerleader, coach and occasionally mother.  The hours are significant and the salary negligible.

Jordan Jones meeting her hero Matildas captain Claire Polkinghorne

Nonetheless these mothers have embraced the life despite the difficulties.  One of which is the many hours on the road driving their daughters to practices and games and regularly clocking up hundreds of kilometres a week.

It’s a time in her life that Velvet Allen is quite happy to leave behind.

“From age 12 – 18, before she [Teigen] got her licence, we would bring her to training at the NSW Institute of Sport on Monday to Wednesday nights and 6am on Friday and Saturday mornings.”

“The trips were between 1 hour and 90 minutes one way, where NSWIS was training and my husband or I would drive her to training, wait till she finished training and drive her home normally arriving home between 9-10.30 pm at night.”

For Michelle, the tyranny of distance means she doesn’t always get to see Izabella play as just getting to a match could mean travel time of 3 to 3 to 4 ½.  This is where she leans on the support of other football mothers within the Wide Bay Revolution U14 girls team.  Carpooling is often the reality resulting in the girls having maybe only 4 or 5 supporters at their matches.

“Last year the girls travelled to Mackay and Townsville as a team which meant most family members didn’t go.  If I am unable to travel I wait anxiously to hear how the team has played.”

However travelling long distances and hours away from home are not the only challenges they face.  In comparison to other sports like athletics or netball, junior football is a relatively expensive exercise.  Club registration fees, uniforms, boots, socks, shin pads, the fees for referees and not to mention the fuel costs all add up to what can be a significant amount per year.

Not that any of the mothers would change much of their lives because the challenges make the good moments that much sweeter.

“My heart melts every time the Australian anthem is played and my daughter is on the field with her team.”

At 19 years old Teigen Allen has already represented Australia 26 times including at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup and as part of the Matildas 2010 Asian Cup winning team.

Those moments, when Teigen wears the green and gold against some of the best in the world, are what Velvet lives for.

“My heart melts every time the Australian anthem is played and my daughter is on the field with her team.”

“My eyes well up into tears out of pride for my country and being represented by such lovely talented well-grounded women.”

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Yet the percentage of young girls who make it to the top of the pyramid is very small and it is those players that become the role models for the next generation.  The likes of Teigen Allen, Kyah Simon, Clare Polkinghorne, Stephanie Catley, Caitlin Foord or Sam Kerr.

They become the reason Charli, Claire, Izabella, Jordan and Savannah take up the sport, despite the fact they don’t get to see enough of their heroes in media. The lack of media attention is a whole other article, but it is an issue The Women’s Game are trying to address, at least in football, as we work hard to raise funds to produce a weekly women’s football web series focused on the 2013/14 W-League season.

Despite the fact that many of their daughters will never join those lucky few, their participation in sport, because of that small few, these parents are already reaping the rewards of participation in football beyond the playing sphere.

Shari Maguire witnesses these rewards everyday with Claire.  For her, the validation comes in watching football assist Claire’s self-confidence grow week by week as acclimates to her vision impairment.  That confidence is further enhanced when she rubs shoulders with her heroes at Canberra United or the Matildas.

“She walked home by herself from school for the first time using her cane a few weeks ago,” said Shari smiling.  “I couldn’t help myself I had to sneak a peek out the window while she walking up the street and the beaming smile on her face brought it home to me.”

“The best feeling in the world knowing that you are raising confident, independent, happy kids that are proud of their achievements, no matter how big or small that might be.”

The same pride infuses Sandra when she speaks about what the involvement in football has done for Jordan and Charli over the past two years.

“She is bringing her on field personality, full of confidence and is like a dog with a bone, off the field.  I truly believe that by playing soccer she has found it easier to make friends with both boys and girls.”

Claire Falls training with Matildas Alanna Kennedy and Emily Van Egmond

Even with six year old Savannah, Samantha has seen traits in her daughter she didn’t know where there.  “She just has a tenacious attitude.  She is learning teamwork, camaraderie and together we are gaining a mutual respect for one another.”

Despite the distances they travel, the money they spend and the time they put in, in the end these football mums all want the same thing as best encapsulated by Sandra Jones.

“All I want for my children is for them to be healthy and happy in life.”

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