'We were playing for the love of the game': Matildas great Cheryl Salisbury

Cheryl Salisbury of Australia is carried by her team mates after playing her final game. Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

In three years we've seen NRL, AFL and rugby fight out to be the pacesetters for women's sport in a crowded Australian sporting marketplace. Names like Charlotte Caslick, Sammy Bremner, Sharni Layton and Tayla Harris have become household names alongside their male counterparts in Israel Folau, Buddy Franklin and Cooper Cronk. While these athletes are the trailblazers of today, we cannot ignore the women who sacrificed plenty on their journeys 10, 20, 30 years ago.

In a series dedicated to female pioneers, we look at athletes across all codes who faced adversity or discrimination, but persevered to give young women of today a chance to play in a growing professional environment.


Kicking up her first football at seven-years-old, Salisbury had no idea her passion would take her to two Olympics Games, four World Cups and some of the biggest sporting stages in the world. She had no idea other girls played soccer as she ran out for the Lambton Jaffas boys team, and she'd never heard of the Australian women's football team the 'Female Socceroos'.

"As a primary school kid I wanted to play in the boy's soccer team, but girls weren't allowed to play," Salisbury told ESPN. "It didn't stop me playing, but I can remember thinking 'how come the boys are allowed to do it and I can't? Why do the boys get to play soccer or why do the boys get to have the rep team at school? Why can't girls play soccer, why do I only get netball to play?' All those questions as a kid, I had.

"I didn't know that girls played soccer, I think I was about 14 before I realised other girls played. I'd always played in boy's teams and I just thought I was unusual and different. Even growing up watching football on TV and just seeing things on the news, there was just never anything about women playing soccer or playing any sport really."

At almost six foot, Salisbury credited her height and strength for why she was able to keep up with the boy's and men's teams so late into her teens, but to accept that would mean to ignore her endless search to be better and do better.

Speaking on The Women's Game podcast in December 2018, the 151 capped Matilda detailed how her training ethic at a young age set her up to become the 'Matilda of the Century'.

"I would walk out on that training field or that playing field and I'd want to be able to do things better than the boys," Salisbury said. "I didn't want to be told 'oh you're a girl you can't play as good as the boys', I wanted to be able to do things better than any of those boys.

"I can remember training with the Jaffas in Under-19s still playing in the men's league at home as a 16-year-old, I would practice with my left foot every time before training whenever we had free time, constantly with my left foot. I would go into games and I would take corners with my left foot, even though I'm predominantly right foot. It wouldn't matter where that ball was on the field, on game day I would take left footed corner kicks, left footed free kicks, I would be the one taking penalty kicks in front of the guys who were three years older than me, because every day at training I wanted to be better than the guy opposite me."

It was this dedication that saw Salisbury selected for her first national training camp in her late teens and led to a Matildas debut in 1994 and then her World Cup bow the following year in Sweden. But life was in no way easier after reaching the national side, in fact it only became harder.

Unlike the players of today, the Matildas of Salisbury's time were forced to pay for their national camps and were filled with excitement when they received plain cotton t-shirts with the team emblem. They received no match payments and were forced to work while training and travelling, which saw some players reduced to cleaning toilets, or for Salisbury, working on the production line of a chicken factory.

"You have to have a job, yeah that's all well and good, but you've got to try a find an employer that's willing to give you two, three, even four months off a year. Sometimes we'd get a call-up two weeks ahead of time and get told 'oh we're going to China for two weeks to play in some friendly games'. You find an employer that's willing to give you two or three weeks off work with only a weeks' notice.

"They're the sort of struggles we had while playing, it wasn't just about working and training, it was about trying to actually find a job where you could get the time off to commit to your sport and put everything in that you need.

"When I first came in I had to pay for my first national team camp, everyone had to pay a certain amount of money to be able to go down and we brought all our own clothes, we were training in our own gear.

"A few years after that we got t-shirts, just cotton t-shirts, that were different colours that had the emblem on them and we thought that was fantastic. It's so different to the girls today when they walk into camp and they've got training kits and great quality gear and everything that's imaginable that's needed to help them perform to the highest level."

It wasn't until the Matildas started travelling with the Socceroos in the late '90s that the players began to see any money. It wouldn't be match payments, but simply an incidentals payment to tide them over and something they could only earn on the road.

"We first started to get a daily allowance when we travelled with the Socceroos to Japan. I think at the time we got, it might have been $40 a day per diem, so it would cover if you went to get a drink or a coffee or get lunch if you went out, and that progressively grew from there. But the only reason we got that was because we were travelling with the Socceroos and they couldn't not give it to us.

"So these guys were getting paid to play, we're not, but then they're also getting a per diem to help with the incidentals through the day. For many years that was all we got, a per diem, it did increase over time but you only got that if you travelled with the team. So you might be coming up to a World Cup or a three-week tournament somewhere, if you got injured the day before you left you wouldn't get paid a cent."

As the Socceroos profile continued to rise, despite failing to qualify for the FIFA World Cup from 1974 to 2006, the Matildas struggled to gain media attention, sponsorship dollars or community support despite appearing in successive Women's World Cups. So in 1999, in the lead up to the Sydney Olympic Games - the Matildas' first Olympic appearance - the national side took part in one of the sports more controversial moments - a nude calendar.

For the 11 women in the side this was only way their team would get the attention and raise the money needed to bring them success on home soil.

"The whole purpose was to try and gain some publicity, some recognition going into the 2000 Olympics," Salisbury told ESPN. "Obviously being a home Olympics and everything that goes along with that, being sort of a new sport -- especially a women's sport that had no recognition, it was about trying to get some recognition for the Matildas, and it did achieve that. The calendar went global, there was so much hype about it, but at the same time it lasted the Olympics and then it was done and dusted.

"I think back at the time it was the only way to get it out there and that's really sad. I think back and I think that's really sad that the only way to be noticed was to do a nude calendar. It's a really sad scenario that that's what women's sport was degraded to. There's still a lot of that in all sport."

Fast forward to today and while promoting the upcoming Women's World Cup alongside former Matildas captain Heather Garriock and Socceroos star John Aloisi, Salisbury, who is a pundit for local broadcaster Optus Sport, watches on as an even mix of young girls and boys run around one of Sydney's local pitches showing off their ball skills.While many of the young primary school aged children have little idea just how impressive Salisbury's international career was - or Garriock's - that isn't important to the former Matildas captain. Simply having so many young people excited to watch their stars play on the biggest stage is what matters.

"Unless you're visually shown it, you can see it, it's talked about, you can't aspire to be it. I think girls have suffered in the past years and I was one of them. Back when I was a kid it was 'oh girls don't play soccer' because it wasn't seen, it wasn't known. I got a little bit of teasing and those things growing up because I was different, but you know it's not different any more for girls to play soccer because Australia's going to see the Matildas on the world stage. For any school kid that's going to be watching these games and going to be seeing it, it's just an incredible experience they're going to have."

So, were all the sacrifices worth it? Struggling to find work? Paying for her first national training camp? Posing in a nude calendar to secure sponsorship dollars? A few years ago the most capped Maildas player would have had no doubt - the sacrifices were "purely for the love of the game". Now, at 45-years-old, the answer's not quite that simple.

"I think answering that question has probably changed over time. Obviously at the time all female footballers, and a lot of female athletes, we played because we purely loved the sport. We weren't playing for money, there was no money involved we were purely just playing for the love of the game.

"Now, when I'm asked that question it's hard. I'm a full time university student I am basically starting my life at 45-years-old, unlike some of the people I go to university with who're 19-, 20-, 21-years-old, they're starting their life. But here I am at 45, I've got no super, I don't have a career, I'm going to university for the first time, I've got a child to support and I'm sort of on my own.

"There's a big difference between any Socceroo that's ever played and retired and my retirement from the game. I live from week-to-week, so that's where it becomes hard and I think 'maybe I should have retired a little bit earlier to give myself more opportunity to get a job and get a career and get all of those things started', instead of starting my working post-football career at 45 with sort of nothing behind me."

It's this level of sacrifice that the stars of today owe a debt of gratitude for, to the pioneers of the past.