Fiona Crawford on The Matilda Effect: 'I don’t ever want somebody to miss out on playing because they didn’t know it existed'

With the release of The Matilda Effect and the arrival of the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup, author Fiona Crawford spoke to Edge of The Crowd about what it took to write the book, and her hopes for the game in Australia.

If you intend to talk about the present or the future, learning about the past is paramount, and The work of Dr Fiona Crawford, including her latest book The Matilda Effect, is essential reading.

In 2020 alongside Dr Lee McGowan, she released Never Say Die, detailing the entire history of women’s football in Australia. The book remains one of the most popular texts about the game.

When news arrived that Fiona Crawford was ready to release a follow-up titled The Matilda Effect, excitement and also curiosity was high. Never Say Die was as encyclopedic as it was entertaining. It remains one of the benchmarks in football writing, and The Matilda Effect is just as essential.

“With the first book, trying to cover 100 years was incredibly ambitious so we only felt like were giving those key highlights,” Dr Crawford told Edge of the Crowd.  

“I think we said throughout [Never Say Die] that each of these stories warrants a book of its own. That’s what it felt like with the Women’s World Cup, I just really wanted to go on a deep dive. I knew it would intersect with some of those key stories, but I didn’t know how deeply.”

As detailed in our initial review, The Matilda Effect uses the history of the Women’s World Cup to show the growth, progress, and hurdles in women’s football since 1988. It does not just tell us the core facts and events, but gets behind the stories, to hear from the people responsible, and those affected by the changes.

“I knew that I was more interested in the behind-the-scenes stories. As much as I do love the scores and the results from the games, I actually am a lot more fascinated by the struggles, and what women have overcome to get onto the pitch", says Crawford.

The Matilda Effect explores and details the work of the administrators, coaches and advocates of the game. Most have been involved in women’s football since the beginning.

The players from the formative years of the game have always been a rich source of information and although many have shared stories amongst themselves for decades, they were eager to re-tell their adventures in the national team.

Crawford was not hearing all of these tales for the first time, but in the context of The Matilda Effect, it gave her more insight as to how the pieces fit together.

Events like away trips to North Korea under armed guard, and flights in the back of a cargo plane into the unknown of Russia, are more than just interesting pieces of history, they are all part of the evolution of the game.

In the long view, the famous fundraising calendar of the 2000 Olympics and the player's pay strike of 2015, are all part of the same sequence of events, or different points along the same path.

“Some of the people I talked to… they have been telling some of those stories for years, so the same sorts of stories do come up. Everyone touches on North Korea, or everyone talks about that Russia trip because they were so seminal", Crawford said.

The history of women’s football has only gathered more mainstream interest in recent years. The reception of Never Say Die helped Crawford’s subjects open up in interviews.

“With the second book, I think everyone understood a little bit better, that ‘I see where this is going'. They’ve come to understand that their stories are quite valuable and that people really are interested in them, so it was a bit easier," she said.

“People like Moya [Dodd], Heather [Reid] and Maria [Berry], those that are really used to speaking about it were able to, but some of the people who don’t speak to the media were much more reticent to talk about those experiences.

“I hope that I’ve done it justice, but I also hope that over time they realise just how big that contribution was.”

Capturing their voices

The Matilda Effect details the efforts and experiences of numerous significant women in Australian football history. It reveals their work and its impact both locally and internationally.

Some of those interviewed worked within the systems of power, working towards change and some found success as outside advocates who agitated for progress. Despite their differences in approach and personalities, they all had things in common.

“Probably their perseverance,” says Crawford. “It would have been really easy to be confronted with some of that stuff head-on, to have to go up against some of the male administrators, to lose out badly because you’re the only woman in the room and to have to walk away in frustration.

“They kept going back. One or two of those knockbacks would have been enough to make most of us walk away, but they kept going back and back. They were also incredibly creative in the way they did it.

“They looked for other opportunities and didn’t take no for an answer. They were so focused on making it a success that they didn’t worry about all the naysayers or why it couldn’t succeed.

“I think that’s it probably. They loved football, they just found a way to make it work. They made choices in their work and study lives to enable themselves to peruse it and kept persevering.

“It was really important to me to have their voices in there. They are such fantastic storytellers, and their sense of humour comes through. When you talk to them, the way they tell the stories is so rich that I had to put as much of their words in as I possibly could.

“It was a really conscious effort and I hope that you get a real sense of their personalities.”

Once you start reading The Matilda Effect, it is hard to put down. It is an in-depth but easy read, although the process of writing and researching it was anything but simple.

“It was one of the most extraordinarily difficult things because we had Covid [lockdowns]. Even trying to interview people who were in Sydney and Melbourne was hard to catch people who were in lockdown because they had their own stuff going on," she said.

“We had the floods, which I was extremely affected by. I didn’t ask for an extension from my publisher because I am a person that needs deadlines. I would have loved to have done a bit more with it if I had more time, but the floods really knocked the wind out of me for a bit. Getting it across the line, it was pretty tough to do that.

“Hopefully it does enough to bring attention to women’s football, and everyone’s contributions. I just see it as the next step in women’s sports books and I hope the players themselves, and the administrators can write the next ones.”

"I don't ever want somebody to miss out on playing because they didn't know it existed."

Dr Crawford is considered by many to be an authority on the sport and has worked in football media for many years. Even after the publication of two books about the game, she still sees herself as an outsider looking in and documenting history.

Football arrived in Crawford’s life gradually. Her older brother played, but with a six-year age gap, there was little opportunity for her to join in as many other younger siblings have done.

“I didn’t see any girls playing so it didn’t actually occur to me that there were girls playing. They were probably around, just not at that time when my brother was playing," she recalls.

“I then got really heavily involved in netball, played five or six days a week, then probably lost the opportunity to go across to football or just didn’t see it.”

“I don’t ever want somebody to miss out on playing because they didn’t know it existed. That’s definitely a really formative experience for me.”

It is something that drives Crawford’s work. Getting women’s football into the public sphere and talking about it so that everybody has an opportunity to know how exciting the past was, and the future can be.

“Probably the 2007 [World Cup] was the first time we could actually see any of the games and watched the Never Say Die documentary. Both of those were just a revelation for me," she says.

“I feel really passionately about broadcasting all the matches, and you’ve actually go to give them good quality media coverage because without that you’ll never develop the fan base, the sponsorship, you’ll never develop the next generation.”

"It's just the next step in women's football."

That next generation should enjoy a bright future. The Matilda Effect describes a lot of hardships, but also a constant upward trajectory. Women’s football fans know that sometimes one step forward in one area can be accompanied by two steps back.

The success of the Women’s Euros in England has led to an increase in crowds and interest, but that growth is not universal. Reading FC just announced that their women’s team will be moving to a part-time program.

In an Australian context, the work is never-ending, and books like The Matilda Effect are vital to the game. The potential remains bright, but Crawford says that expectations must constantly be re-examined.  

“I don’t think it [the growth of the game] is going to stop, but I also think we need to do a bit of resetting. For so long it felt like we weren’t going to achieve things like pay parity, so once we achieved that I think we needed to reset the expectations," she says.

“I think we’ve got some unrealistic expectations by some media or fans about how well the Matildas are going to do in the tournament or what the tournament can do for them. It’s just the next step in women’s football. I just don’t want to see it all fall away after the tournament, where people dust their hands and say 'job done'.

“I think it’s going to kick it to another level, but they’re going to have to double down as soon as the tournament is over and really make sure that they deliver on all those legacy items and that women do stay in the game.

“It’s really tough being the home team," says Crawford recalling that Germany was knocked out in the quarter-finals of their home World Cup.

"You want to see the team win, but there’s a lot more in terms of building foundations around women’s football, that’s what’s really important.

“If this tournament is still running and really successful in 100 years, we have plenty more opportunities to win it, but we have only one opportunity to lay some really solid foundations and to leverage all of that attention, all of that government funding… this is our chance.”